White on White, the Soul Cycle storefront is the Apple Store of Fitness. It glows from within like the “Athletes” emerging from their classes. I call them “Athletes”, although I could have as easily called them “Rock Stars” or “Warriors” or “Leaders” because the walls as I enter the studio are painted with a statement declaring which one of these I am. On the other side of the messages is the company’s mantra, which glibly begins “At Soul Cycle We Believe…” and articulates its mission: “Change Your Body, Take Your Journey, Find Your Soul”.
With light design, a mural of the road behind us, surround sound, and even wind effects, the class is conceived as an inspirational journey. At one point, Soul Cycle instructor Hannah (not her real name) jumps off of her bike and walks towards me, anointing me with her balmy hands upon my own. She shouts something to me (what, I could not tell you as Drake drowned out all other utterances), and spectrally stands before me, an apparition in spandex, as I pedal to right here, right now.
Perhaps this is the physics behind stationary cycling spirituality—spinning us rigorously, like a centrifuge, until we realize that we are alive HERE and NOW. Or perhaps it is a combination of physics and chemistry, as the energy output and endorphin rush produce an expansive sense of THE MOMENT.
Whatever the science is behind Soul Cycle, it works for people. My niece is a walking devotee to the point of cultish follower, who experienced a dramatic personal transformation over the past year. She is addicted. However, there is a glow to her these days, a smile of inner-contentedness, an expansiveness of character…Soul Cycle works for her.
As I race through the class to nowhere, lighting bolt epiphanies illuminate my mind. Hannah raises her arms and we raise ours and I see, reflected behind her in the mirror, Moses raising his arms as he sends the Israelites to war. My vision vaporizes as Hannah implores us to “Go forward with fearlessness.” As we collectively climax, she adds, “Let the energy of the community affect you—the person riding to the right of you, the person riding to the left of you—we are all riding together.” And then she woo-hoos, which set off a howling of woo-hoos around me. We woo-hoo all the way to the finish line, which, we are told, is where 2014 promises to manifest all of our efforts in this room, for at Soul Cycle:
“The way you ride your bike
Is the way you live your life.”
With this much sweat in the air, surely, all of our dreams will come true.
I emerge from the class endorphin-filled, albeit disoriented. The room makes Bikram yoga feel like a crisp autumn day in Manhattan. “Maybe there was too much carbon dioxide in the air?” I ponder dizzily.
Checking in with myself, I am surprised that I am not feeling exhilarated. What went wrong? I wonder, as I stand barefoot before the showers. Why wasn’t I pumped?
Upon leaving the studio, I stop at the front desk to ask Hannah a few questions. Our conversation goes something like this:
“Can I take a photo of your wall to use in a blog?”
“No, we don’t let anyone take pictures.”
“Can you tell me about your mission and origin?
“You can look at our website”
“Is there anyone I can talk to?”
“Here is Shauna’s email from corporate.”
“Well, can you tell me about yourself? Your last name sounds Jewish. Are you?”
“I come from half and half. My father comes from Jewish ancestry, but doesn’t have any religion. My mother followed an Indian guru.”
“And what was your mother before?”
“And so, what are you?”
“I don’t believe in organized religion. I think organized religions are the problem. I am more spiritual.”
Soul Cycle is starting to get interesting. We continue:
“Really? Wow! How does Soul Cycle inform your spirituality?”
And what comes next, standing beside the glossy front desk’s whiteness, a white so white that it reflected the two of us standing there, is an experience I could have not foreseen. Hannah backpedals.
“Actually, I probably shouldn’t be talking to you. Corporate is very specific about how they handle marketing. [Hannah then asks the woman at the desk if she should be talking to me.]. No, I don’t think I should be talking to you.”
“Yeah, a few years ago, Equinox bought Soul Cycle.”
From corporate takeover, epiphany.
Standing before me, beneath the lights of a 21st century carbon fluorescent grid illuminating the lobby like a pop Dutch Master’s painting is a living, breathing example of an anonymous Pew Study respondent.
There has been a lot of backlash in the wake of the release of the Pew findings (see: http://www.pewforum.org/2013/10/01/jewish-american-beliefs-attitudes-culture-survey/). Choirs of respondents are clogging the Jewish blogosphere with their pitches and shrieks and even what’s left of the press has chimed in about the nature of religion vs. spirituality. Standing before Hannah, I saw a living embodiment of the “Spiritual but not Religious” self-contradiction. It seems to me that a lot of people who say they are SBNR have something they, with attentive care and careful consideration, practice that looks an awful lot like a religion. Whether it is Soul Cycle, Sale Shopping, or Super Bowl Sunday, there seem to be countless SBNR rituals reconstructing our understanding of religion.
Perhaps Hannah and her Soul Cycle cohorts have very little idea of how closely their livelihoods resemble the religious institutions that they reject. It seems to me that Hannah and her colleagues have found themselves smack in the middle of an emerging religion we call Corporate America. Belonging to a national movement with a mission and vision statement that hires them as their front-women to spread the word, while reviewing their performance, compensating their success, and profiting from their spirituality, my Soul Cyclist may as well have gone to rabbinical school.
As I walked out of the studio, I felt as if I had emerged from a bad date -- with an organized, outcome oriented, metrics obsessed, packaged-spirituality-for-profit religious institution.
The next day, I climbed on my mountain-bike and took it for a ride to the beach. The sun blinded me with its generous golden Californian light, and the gulls and pelicans nosedived into the Pacific. As the sun began to set, a sky of brilliant blues contrasted with fluorescent pinks and that fiery orb of orange glowed in the west. Gusts of ocean air stung my cheeks; tears flowed from my eyes, their salty wetness like sweat on my face.
Learn more about Soul Cycle at: https://www.soul-cycle.com