Columns DIY Faith Opinion Tara Isabella Burton: Religion Remixed

SoulCycle, capitalism and the selling of self-care

Women participate in an outdoor SoulCycle class. SoulCycle and other “cult” fitness programs are considered by some to serve as a form of church for regular participants. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

(RNS) — “Some people just have it in their eyes,” our leader says. “A passion for life. You can see it in how they move. You can see it in how they act. They go for their dreams.”

We are part of a pack. We are also, according to the white neon sign posted on the staircase, part of a tribe, a crew, a posse, a cult, a gang, a community and, most importantly, a soul.

We, the aforementioned, are in the middle of a SoulCycle session, the $36-a-class group cycling phenomenon that now boasts 88 studios across the United States. The classes — in which the instructor cycles in place on a raised, altar-like podium, surrounded by lit candles — have become a cultural phenomenon and the SoulCycle name an easy shorthand for the bourgeois excesses of wellness culture.

SoulCycle’s 45-minute ride on a stationary bike is not so different from any other spin class at any gym in America. The key to SoulCycle’s distinctive appeal lies in how it frames calorie-burning as a spiritual experience.

A participant of a United Service Organizations-hosted cycling class, SoulCycle, prepares herself before it starts at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, on Nov. 15, 2016. U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Lane T. Plummer/Creative Commons

Riders — especially those in the front rows — are expected to follow a complex sequence of “cycle choreography” that resembles nothing so much as a cross between pushups and prostrations. Signs designed to “preserve the soul sanctuary” remind riders that “talking during class is a major distraction for the spiritual folks around you.” Another reads, “There is a direct correlation between your energy and your neighbors.”

Instructors share in the spiritual discipline. Their primary contribution to most classes — other than a bespoke playlist — seems to be personal mantras that focus on the importance of self-control and self-care: When you cycle, you aren’t just getting skinny. You’re digging deep within yourself. You’re discovering what you’re capable of. You’re pushing yourself past the limits.

As one of my first SoulCycle instructors told my class, you’re learning to focus on yourself.

Most of us, she said, spend our time overly focused on others: giving too much of ourselves to the world. But SoulCycle, she explained, is “my time”: a time to cut off the people holding you back from self-actualization. A time to be wholly, unapologetically selfish. A SoulCycle session resembles nothing so much as an Objectivism seminar on wheels.

The contemporary idea of self-care derives mainly from the work of activist Audre Lorde, the black lesbian activist and poet of the last century who saw attention to self as a way for marginalized people — people of color, women and queer people — to support themselves and their communities. It had the power to counteract the neglect and hostility of political and economic systems designed for the privileged. “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence,” she wrote in “A Burst of Light,” written in the 1980s, “it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

A SoulCycle float during a parade in San Francisco in June 2016. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

But today’s “self-care” seems to require assent, not resistance, to those very systems. The self-care of SoulCycle is an implicitly theological statement about what we value under late capitalism — and where we see (or refuse to see) opportunities for transcendence.

Pedaling away, we are encouraged to feed off one another’s energy in order to intensify our spiritual as well as physical practice. But that energy, we keep being told, comes entirely from our own bodies and strength, not any outside source.

SoulCycle isn’t the only wellness phenomenon to make use of spiritual language and rhetoric. Much of modern exercise (and even meditation) instruction is an eclectic mashup of vaguely mystic sentiments. Contemporary yoga, as it has been popularized in the United States, is divorced from its roots in Hinduism and Buddhism, often blending fitness with a more anodyne sense of “meditation.” Likewise, as Harvard Divinity School researchers Casper ter Kuile and Angie Thurston have argued, intense bootcamp workouts like CrossFit also function in ways similar to a religion to their members: holding one another accountable for regular visits as they foster a sense of wider community.

SoulCycle, on the other hand, is as fully structured as a religion.

Participants of a United Service Organizations-hosted cycling class, SoulCycle, share a conversation as they warm up at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, on Nov. 15, 2016. U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Lane T. Plummer/Creative Commons

At the heart of the SoulCycle faith is a value system, however implicit, of capitalist consumerism. Its “my time” ethos encapsulates a progression from “you work hard” to “treat yourself,” but the intervening steps are “make money and “spend it on SoulCycle.”

The program imbues this exchange with metaphysical significance. The focus on self, in which we transform our bodies through suffering, is aimed at returning to work, newly energized to start the process all over again.

In SoulCycle, in other words, bodily mortification leads to transformation, just as it does in most Western religions: think of the hair shirts of medieval Catholics or Methodist circuit riders who gained fame for their harsh practices of fasting and praying on their knees in painful positions for hours at a time. But at SoulCycle, the spiritual goal is not to enter into communion with a higher power but is an end in itself.

And for all its attention to spirituality, SoulCycle’s social capital is conventional, expensive beauty. Its instructors tend to be hired from pools of would-be actors and dancers rather than fitness professionals. The self that SoulCycle asks us to focus on is a fundamentally material one: a physical but also an economic entity. We are consumers, yet our newly configured bodies are also the product we buy and sell.

Purveyors of wellness have long said that the body is a temple. But at SoulCycle, at least, the body is worshipper, temple and deity alike.

About the author

Tara Isabella Burton

Burton, who received a doctorate in theology from Oxford University, is at work on a book about the rise of the religiously unaffiliated in America, to be published in November 2020 by Public Affairs. Her novel, “Social Creature,” was published in June 2018.

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  • There is just “something” about the juxtaposition in second photo of a cop on what appears to be a bicycle in front of all those using exercycles on the float.

    As for what workouts will do to people’s minds, well, evidence suggests that intense exercise can reinforce just about any mindset one chooses to pursue. What did Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jane Fonda, Suzanne Sommers, Jack Lalanne, Chuck Norris and Richard Simmons have in common? It was physicality, but with wildly varying philosophies on offer.

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