Her Campus Logo Her Campus Logo

In Zan Romanoff’s 2017 article published in The Atlantic, she writes, “You pay a regular tithe to support the community. In public, you wear symbols that identify you as one of the faithful. When you gather with other adherents, it’s often in small, close rooms. Breathing gets heavy; bodies sweat. If anyone speaks, it is to moan, or occasionally to shout in triumph.” At first read, the author seems to depict a practicing cult in which unwavering devotion is expected and bodily rituals are the norm. It’s not quite off base, since Romanoff actually describes exercise giant, SoulCycle. Founded in 2006 by a group of three women – Elizabeth Cutler, Julie Rice, and Ruth Zukerman – the cycling-based workout studio began as an independent venture on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and now boasts an international, “cult-like” following. The classes, themselves, a “sanctuary” to some, run for a quick forty-five minutes and emphasize individual betterment, group energy, and a chance to “find your soul,” all at a $35+ price point. A line of trendy, high-priced clothing and accessories, sporting the skull-and-crossbones logo, accompanies the classes, further supporting Romanoff’s claim that new-wave wellness practices are a form of “consumerist church.” Ultimately, SoulCycle combines the values of transcendentalist teachings – self-reliance, soulful pride, and connection to something greater – with modern world ideals of self-care, fad wellness, and social capital, to serve as not only a common fitness regimen, but as a form of religious practice for many devout participants. 

An analysis of SoulCycle’s main media source, its website, yields dozens of references to religion and spirituality, juxtaposed with various images of upbeat cyclists in dark rooms. Structurally, the site is divided into five sections: the home page is designated as the hook, with videos and images but little information, followed by the tabs “New to Soul,” “Our Studios,” “Shop Collection,” and, on the far right, an option to “Book a Bike.” Utilizing bold fonts and an aesthetically pleasing minimalist color scheme (black and white with hints of yellow), the page offers very little information on exactly who they are and what the company represents. However, frequent references are made to a mind-body connection and the spiritual discovery borne from discovering this link. The studio’s tagline, “Move your body, find your soul,” highlights what SoulCycle offers compared to other workout classes. Instead of a normal trip to the gym, the instructors and atmosphere provide added benefits like emotional clarity and mental freedom. The website describes this process as “your time to clip in, connect, and let go.” 

In addition, the website describes the general atmosphere of the space: “In a dim candle lit studio, led by the most magnetic instructors, you’ll surrender to the beat of the music and get lost in the energy of every other rider in the room as we push towards the finish line, together.” This phrasing, juxtaposed with various images of instructors leading class on elevated podiums surrounded by burning candles, creates an ambiance reminiscent of church service. Specifically, the word choice defines the SoulCycle experience as an intermingling of dogmas like yoga, meditation, and New Thought with the physical effects of exercise. Together, the studio claims, these practices create synergistic energy, making SoulCycle “way more than a workout,” but rather “a sanctuary.” Additionally, they emphasize acceptance and group mentality on each page of the website. The site enables users to connect with riders and studios nearby, as well as describes the space as one built on inclusion: “Our inclusive community welcomes and embraces every soul, always” and custom fit bikes for “everybody and every body.” This element of their practice caters to those opposing organized religion due to feelings of exclusion – women, divorcees, people of the LGBTQ+ community.

In addition to the minimalism and inspiring prose of the main sections, SoulCycle’s webpage also highlights logistical matters associated with joining the community – found somewhat buried under the flashy images. Discovery of this area yields some basic information about the program, itself: 93 studios, worldwide, offer regularly scheduled “spin” classes. The stationary bikes with manual resistance knobs are used for the entire workout and combine hill climbs, sprints, and arm circuits for upper body strength, all synchronized to a curated playlist and frequent instructor guidance. Additionally, prices range (depending on geographical location) from $30 per class to a whopping $45 per class. Despite the hefty price point, the studio boasts about its garnered loyalty and return rate. At the current prices, it is surprising that SoulCycle is able to cultivate and retain a large, faithful, and enthusiastic community of riders. It seems the participants are paying for “more than a workout,” and, instead, using this 45 minute window to fulfill a multitude of physical, mental, and spiritual needs.

The emergence of fitness classes as a form of secular worship, with SoulCycle serving as a prime example, speaks to the evolution of religion in the face of capitalism. In an excerpt from Stereotyping Religion: Critiquing Cliches, author Sean McCloud writes, “While the empirical evidence predominantly shows that people blend forms of culture rather than accept a monolithic orthodoxy, these studies arguably leave out how blending is determined by larger sociocultural, political and economic trends.” SoulCycle’s success, as both a fitness and religious site, is largely attributable to the shifting tides of these forces. As a culture, we have abandoned much of the religious orthodoxy practiced by earlier generations. Recent studies show that nearly 20% of Americans identify as “spiritual but not religious,” and 31% identify as neither. This workout experience caters to both groups, establishing a secular tradition in the age of the “nones.” Even as many move away from organized faith, these people still crave the sense of community, routine, and hope created by attending weekly services. SoulCycle’s dependable schedule, jovial riders, and self-help mantras fill this void almost entirely, allowing religious rebels to find a new home. Romanoff explains, “As more Americans have moved away from organized religion, […] they have also moved toward new forms of community building, as well as new ways to seek mental clarity and spiritual experience.” The “cult” of spin classes checks all the boxes. An activity for friends, a head-clearing exercise, and a time to personally reconnect with yourself can all be found in one space. Also, the company’s pedagogy, “leave your phone outside,” directly addresses America’s current state of personal disconnectedness, another product of shifting cultural tides. The rule seems trivial but allows participants a rare moment for personal peace within our fast-paced modern world. In Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Nature; Addresses and Lectures,” he writes of transcendentalist nay-sayers: “They think society wiser than their soul, and known not that one soul, and their soul is wiser than the whole world.” This statement connects to the mantra of SoulCycle. As the studio and rider community continues to grow, adopting new religious disaffiliates along the way, the wellness practice will continue to establish itself as both a fad-fitness regime and a mecca for spiritual discovery. Tara Burton, this time writing for Religion News Service, explains, “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.” In a sense, SoulCycle’s mastery is born out of emphasizing exactly what people want from a “religious” act and stripping away what they do not. Generally speaking, this rise to pop culture notoriety can be largely attributed to what McCloud defines as new “sociocultural trends,” like fitness classes and self-care. However, its staying power should not be underestimated, especially as the population of religious disaffiliates continues to grow. Romanoff explains it best: “In that moment, your world narrows to your shoulders, your hamstrings, your lungs and your heart. For a breath, the world seems brutally, beautifully simple.” In a modern world, SoulCycle fills a multitude of niches; it is both a gym and a temple, a therapist and a social event, a routine and a break. Essentially, it is everything a follower could hope to find in faith or religious experience.

Maddie is a junior at Brown from Connecticut. She is concentrating in Economics.
Similar Reads👯‍♀️