SoulCycle, for instance, paints its room with mantras that immediately subsume new riders into a collective “we” that “aspires to inspire” by way of activities like “find[ing] freedom in our sprints.” Even more than solo exercise, these classes mimic the structure of religious ritual by creating specific pockets of community. They assign times to arrive, instructors to revere as gurus, and routines to perform on command.
The explicit promise that exercise has a spiritual component seems to elevate it to a higher purpose: Instead of focusing solely on the health and attractiveness of the body, it suggests that fitness is a gateway to a much larger and more lasting state of happiness and fulfillment, much like religious practice.
“There’s this saying, and it’s not my personal saying, but it starts: Who do you think you are?” Angela Davis, a Los Angeles–based SoulCycle instructor beloved by Oprah, tells me. “Your thoughts become your words; your words become your actions; your actions become your habits; your habits become your character; your character becomes your destiny; your destiny becomes your legacy. But it all starts with who do you think you are.”
(The quote she cites has a rich and slightly convoluted history: The internet has it coming out of the mouths of everyone from Mahatma Ghandi to Margaret Thatcher. This exploration of its history suggests that it may not have a single author, but has been a popular sentiment in the culture since at least the 1800s.)
“What draws someone into SoulCycle is that desire to be better,” she says. Davis feels that the work her students do on their bikes is spiritual, in that “people correlate spirituality with faith. And really, [SoulCycle is] about faith in yourself. The definition of faith is: the substance of things hoped for, and the evidence of the unseen. So if you haven’t seen this higher expression of yourself ... but you have faith and you believe that it’s there, that’s the key.”
Davis’s definition of faith comes from the Bible: Hebrews, chapter 11, verse one. But she isn’t interested in preaching a specifically Christian theology in her classes: Instead, she says she wants to create a moment that facilitates people literally embodying the highest self they envision—the one who isn’t afraid to take on challenges and break new ground. The idea is that if they can find this self on the bike, they can also find it when they’re out in the world.
This conflation of the work of our bodies with the work of our lives can feel insidiously prosperity gospel–ish. The idea that better, harder, faster, and more are all concepts that are inextricably linked can certainly be motivating, but it can also be dangerous and damaging to equate them entirely. This doesn’t just happen in SoulCycle: It’s also present in CrossFit’s relentless, maximalist ethos, as well as more subtly in things like barre programs and kickboxing classes. Across platforms, a single promise resonates: Your body will get smaller, your world will get bigger, and your life will get better, but only through rigorous, sweaty work.