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Is the ‘spiritual’ experience of SoulCycle sacred or inane?

The fitness brand’s cultlike elements trigger one writer’s evangelical PTSD.

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Much ink has been spilled about SoulCycle, the boutique indoor cycling chain with quasi-spiritual elements that enjoys a devout following at 60 studios in ten states. Founded on Manhattan's Upper West Side in 2006, the company is best known for its 45-minute spin classes, which have a meditative but partylike atmosphere. Think candles and EDM.

"SoulCycle Is a Cult and This Is Its Dumbass Manifesto," reads a Gawker headline from July 30, 2015, the day the company filed for an initial public offering. The writer wasted no time in plucking plenty of snark-worthy phrases from the paperwork: "We are a 'culture of yes,' " "We Aspire to Inspire" (capital A, capital I), and "The experience is tribal. It is primal. And it is fun."

A decade into SoulCycle's existence, the fitness brand—cofounded by a former real estate broker, Elizabeth Cutler, and an ex-talent agent, Julie Rice (both of whom resigned last month to "pursue other projects"), and now majority-owned by health club Equinox—is bigger than ever, and there are more confessional essays than ever along the lines of "Why I Finally Quit SoulCycle." Journalists and bloggers aren't alone in their derision. Comedy series such as Broad City and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt have parodied the so-called "cardio party," which celebrities love to love, and others—Flywheel devotees, the hoi polloi—love to hate. Whether it's joining the chorus of reactions to how comically expensive the workout is (a $30 entry fee doesn't even cover the rental of shoes that clip into the bike) or scoffing at the self-serious mantras inscribed on the wall (athlete. legend. warrior. renegade. rockstar.), mocking SoulCycle is a tribal experience. It is primal. And it is fun.

So it surprised me when the company opened its first Chicago location in Old Town a year ago, shortly before filing its IPO, that few local media outlets seemed to notice or care; it certainly didn't get nearly the same attention as other New York imports like Eataly and Shake Shack (because we'd rather be putting calories on than burning them off?). Seeing a journalistic opportunity, I decided to check out a SoulCycle class with the intention of writing about the experience. It surprised me further when, for all my skepticism and general distaste for religiosity and expensive fitness trends, I got hooked.

Despite being billed as a party, my first SoulCycle class was ridiculously difficult. The dim room, aglow with candles, felt less like a fitness studio and more like the set of Madonna's "Like a Prayer" video. The darkness concealed the fact I was wearing old, threadbare workout attire in a sea of toned, Lululemon-clad class members.

SoulCycle is all about spinning in sync—with subtle choreography and occasional light weights—to a clubby playlist of Top 40 and EDM (as well as EDM remixes of Top 40 ballads, e.g., Adele's "Hello" sped up to 128 bpm, with gratuitous bass drops). On a pedestal up front, an uberfit instructor "leads the pack" on our sole mission of pedaling to the beat. To SoulCycle, the beat is the supreme entity. Every so often, the instructor unclips from her bike to dance around the room in front of a wall-spanning mirror like no one's watching—even though everyone's watching—while shouting directives such as "Tap it back, bitches!" (referring to a specific move) and inspiration like "Fear is a useless emotion!"

We crank the dial on our stationary bikes to add resistance. We climb up an imaginary hill slowly, laboriously as the music builds. We turn the dial again to add even more resistance, trying to keep pace with the beat. Will this song ever stop building? Where is the top of this godforsaken hill?! It feels a little like the Saturday Night Live digital short about a schlocky megaclub DJ (portrayed by Andy Samberg) whose desperately anticipated bass drops make heads explode.

It's easy to see why SoulCycle is so enticing to lampoon. After my first class, though, I was too busy feeling amazing to be critical. I felt as if I were levitating a little off the sidewalk, all thanks to the endorphin high.

The next week, I attended another SoulCycle class to confirm the intoxicating experience wasn't a fluke. Then I went to another. Then my sister was visiting from LA, and I dragged her to one. A few weeks later, there was a country-themed ride, and I thought that would be hilarious to try. And it was: the instructor, Brent, showed up in custom jorts. Then a second location opened in the Loop, and I wanted to get a feel for that too—you know, for journalism.

At some point, I had to accept that I was more involved with SoulCycle than I cared to admit. And not for an article I was supposedly writing either, but for the actual workout—the experience of exercising much, much harder than I ever would on my own. Maybe even for that oft-touted moment of "soul." This "spiritual" portion of the ride is the primary thing sold to potential investors as separating SoulCycle from other fitness brands.

My apparent conversion was kind of embarrassing. Also, I was spending money I didn't really have. As group classes go, SoulCycle is not only expensive but exclusive: the pay-per-class model means riders can register only one week at a time, with sign-ups starting every Monday at noon. If you don't act fast, it can be difficult to book a class, much less one with your preferred teacher and/or bike. Experienced SoulCyclists are encouraged to ride up front to help lead the pack, while newbies/plebeians fill in elsewhere. In an episode of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, the title character, played by Ellie Kemper, is naive about this arrangement. "Next time let's go early so we can get bikes next to each other!" she tells her boss, wealthy Manhanttanite Jacqueline Voorhees (Jane Krakowski), after a "SpiritCycle" class. "Oh, Kimmy, you can't ride in the front row with me! Tristafé will summon you forward when you've earned it," Jacqueline replies. "I'll never forget where I was when Tristafé asked me to join the front row . . . "

Maybe silliest of all is the pricey SoulCycle apparel loyally donned by so many in attendance: $50 tank tops emblazoned with slogans like #soulsquad and love at first ride, $128 distressed sweatpants, and all kinds of branded gear on which the o in soul has been replaced by a skull and crossbones. According to Julie Rice, the SoulCycle cofounder, the symbol represents "the way you feel like a badass during and after your ride." But you know what feels particularly badass? Being an individual and not donning prescribed vestments.

Which brings me to the core complication in my relationship with SoulCycle. Having grown up in the evangelical Christian faith—my family's tradition, but also a scrim through which I failed to truly recognize differing opinions and beliefs—I now have somewhat of a knee-jerk reaction to systems that place too much emphasis on fealty, emotion, and transcendent experiences. Having been taught early on that while facts are important, faith ultimately trumps logic, I was slower than some of my peers to discover the merits of critical thinking. Now as an adult, I work hard to respect other viewpoints, but can't help but think—upon hearing tales of religious transformation or ghost stories or some "crazily convincing" meeting with a psychic—that the assumptions we make about the supernatural world ultimately pale in comparison to the real mysteries of the natural one. And isn't Carl Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World a great book?

Sometimes I have flashes of evangelical PTSD. A few years ago, at a friend's urging, I attended an informational seminar about transcendental meditation, which seemed harmless enough. But I left in a huff after learning that in order to get my supersecret mantra, I'd have to bring my instructor a clean handkerchief, some flowers and fruit, and a check for $2,500. (Here's a mantra for you: Hocus-pocus!)

With its clean, all-white interiors and a grapefruit-scented Jonathan Adler candle eternally burning, the lobby of SoulCycle has a spalike feel that can also be interpreted as a sterile, churchy one. The studios, meanwhile, give me occasional flashbacks to my adolescent experience with Acquire the Fire, an evangelistic youth rally sponsored by Christian youth organization Teen Mania Ministries that was first held in 1999 at the Pontiac Silverdome. It was three days in a dark stadium with inspirational sermons and altar calls and 70,000 teens sobbing to worship songs that just build and build. I was hooked. Only later did I begin to understand that specific elements—music, mood lighting, teenage hormones—helped whip us into that emotional state.

After a SoulCycle class late last year, my favorite instructor, Hallie W., stopped me in the lobby and said she noticed I was getting into the "soul" portion, which typically happens during the second-to-last song, when the instructor blows out all but one of the candles in the room and advises riders to close their eyes and really "dig deep" and ponder why we're there and how fear is a useless emotion and whatnot. "I went by and you were just really feeling it!" she told me.

Hallie W. is very down-to-earth and genuinely inspiring. She never phones it in, delivering with sincerity "soulful" messages such as "The dream is free. The hustle's sold separately!" Even though I know various factors—music, mood lighting, adrenaline—conspired to move me that day, I probably was really into it, in that way that exercising—and especially, I've found, exercising in near darkness—engenders a feeling of invincibility and a surge of fiery ambition coupled with the satisfaction of no longer spinning one's wheels.

I can't say how long I'll remain part of this "church." I haven't signed up for a class in weeks for lack of disposable income, and this summer I'm more likely to jog outside to my own playlist, featuring way fewer bass drops. But another SoulCycle location opened in February on Southport, so I'll probably go make an offering of $30, plus shoe rental, just to re-experience it all.

I have my own rules: Wear what you want. Never, ever evangelize about it. And let yourself get lost in the transcendent moment sometimes, however contrived. Who am I to judge anyone's soul journey? v

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