Students participate in an outdoor yoga class
Students rest in Child's Pose during an outdoor yoga class (Photo: Goodboy Picture Company/Getty)

Why So Many Workout Classes Feel Spiritual Now

In an excerpt from her new book, “The Gospel of Wellness,” Rina Raphael explains the broader cultural shift that's made some fitness classes feel like church

Students participate in an outdoor yoga class
Rina Raphael

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At seven in the morning, a group of stationary cyclists furiously pedal to the uptempo electro-beat of a Britney Spears remix. The song is “Till the World Ends,” an uncanny title given that the cyclists are there to find something akin to salvation. “How you do anything is how you do everything,” calls the energetic class leader, readjusting her headset. “Hell yeah!” responds a member from somewhere in the back of the room.

Lights are dimmed to near blackout, save for a few grapefruit-scented candles in the corners of the intimate SoulCycle studio. You’re cocooned in the darkness—a muted support system that lets you, the individual, shine. Working individually but in the reassuring presence of others, members can focus on themselves. There’s an element of freedom despite being squished together like sardines, a closeness purposely manufactured. Julie Rice, who along with Elizabeth Cutler stepped down after selling SoulCycle to Equinox in 2016, explained:

“When people were done complaining about “Can you believe they’re going to charge $27 and I’m going to have to sit that close to somebody?” What actually happened was, the lights were dark, and people could all feel the music at the same time, and you could almost feel somebody breathing next to you. Your foot was on the same beat as their foot was on, and all of a sudden it became connected, and it became tribal, and it was dark, and there were candles. The music was amazing and an instructor is telling you that you could be more than you thought you could be . . . There’s something about a moving meditation with other people that are rooting for you, that are holding space for you, that aren’t there to compete with you, that are there to elevate you so that they can be elevated as well.”

Heavily contributing to this altered state is the combination of music with movement, similar to the way EDM concerts inspire euphoric emotions. Such strong emotions can spark a spiritual connection to something outside ourselves; we submit ourselves to see the world as something good, beautiful, and powerful. And when we’re deeply entrenched in something, like when we’re wildly dancing at a party, the absorbing activity puts us into a near-trance-like “flow” state. We shut off that nagging voice in our head (with all its to-do lists) and redirect our focus to repetitive rhythmic motions. Hence the term “losing yourself” in an activity: when you’re so absorbed in pedaling, there’s no room for intruding, ruminating thoughts.

The self, as you’re accustomed to it, melts away. A “we” takes over. And suddenly you feel nothing but love and connection to your fellow rider. You look around the room and think, “we’re all getting through this ride together.”

Pedaling in unison takes on a powerful force, even in its digital equivalent, Peloton. But according to researchers at Oxford University, it is exercise’s mood-enhancing endorphins and serotonin (nature’s uppers) that might be responsible for some of those feel-good bonding emotions. In experiments where strangers were brought to row together, they discovered that moderately intense group exercise creates more meaningful social benefits than lower-intensity exercise. “It may be that experiencing exercise-induced natural highs with others leads to a sort of ‘social high’ that facilitates group bonding, friendship, and cooperative behaviour,” wrote the study’s co-author.

Of course, much of SoulCycle’s success also lies in its talent. (Before there were Peloton influencers snagging brand endorsement deals, there were SoulCycle star instructors, often known only by their first name, like Oprah.) The brand does not hire the average fitness instructor. It recruits charismatic performers. Dancers, cheerleaders, actors, models, Broadway veterans, and professional athletes audition in what Rice once called “American Idol on a bike.” The company scouts for charismatic showpeople oozing star presence—the same kind of people who can lead a congregation. Fitness pastors, you could say. SoulCycle promotes talent as the main attraction, some of whom reportedly earn up to $1,500 per class. And they make sure to live up to the hype.

Instructors say they “strengthen faith muscles,” supplying a kind of emotional catharsis for those in need of healing. As one teacher explained, “I get them to a point where they are so tired that emotionally they are so much more vulnerable. They no longer rely on their physical strength; they have to go deeper. That is when the experience becomes more than a workout.” Instructors motivate, but they also exhibit a slice of vulnerability to connect with congregants. “Sorry I’m late, my four-year-old was sick,” one instructor told a class. “If you thought I looked too young to have a kid, I also have a six-year-old, a ten-year-old, and a divorce.”

Plenty of SoulCycle instructors develop strong ties with repeat customers, who at times rely on them during moments of crisis—a divorce, a breakup, Barneys closing. Fans report that they’ll text their fitness mentor when they’re going through a rough patch or stop them after class to seek counsel on sensitive matters. This attachment is not unlike the dependence on self-help books, which some researchers say fill in the gaps once filled by organized religion or closer-knit female communities.

“It is possible that the emphasis placed on friendship in women’s lives has diminished as we have entered the paid labor market in greater and greater numbers, as the division of labor has become more specialized, and as families have become smaller and more isolated,” writes the sociologist Wendy Simonds in Women and Self-Help Culture. “All these trends may have helped to professionalize the giving and receiving of advice, at least among the rich and middle class.” What was once a mainstay of female friendships—of telling someone to dump their dumb boyfriend—has now been outsourced to “professionals” as a commodified service. One’s psychologist or Peloton instructor has replaced a once ordinary exchange because we’re all too darn busy or far away to be there for one another.

Fitness brands may have created new ministers, but people need more than just a priest. They need a congregation. People need people. And with those people, they need to feel something. SoulCycle emphasizes “community” as much as it does its impressive talent, and Peloton advertises working out “together” in your living room. As the beloved indoor cycling brand posted on Facebook in 2020, “Sun up to sundown, you’ll never ride alone.”

So exercise classes are group therapy and High Holiday services and country club social time all rolled into one. They are, as the sixties “seekers” sought, an experiential spirituality. Whereas once mankind shook at Sinai to bombastic commandments or participated in gleeful revelry with faith healers, now we get a spiritual boost from group cardio. There are now even wellness festivals where 10,000 or more people (80 percent of them college-educated women) join in mass yoga like a Zen revival tent. Women are expressing a need for intense tribal gatherings. And Beyoncé goes on tour only so often.

The Gospel of Wellness book cover
(Photo: Courtesy Henry Holt and Company)

Buy The Book

Excerpted from THE GOSPEL OF WELLNESS: Gyms, Gurus, Goop, and the False Promise of Self-Care by Rina Raphael. Published by Henry Holt and Company.  Copyright © 2022 by Rina Raphael. All rights reserved.

Lead Photo: Goodboy Picture Company/Getty

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