Last week, I lost my SoulCycle virginity. As a self-proclaimed contrarian, it was against my nature to taint my SoulCycle-less purity. For years, I had endured a ceaseless barrage of encouragement to “give SoulCycle a chance,” and countless promises that it would be “life-changing.” When I finally capitulated, I excused the visit as journalistic reporting, an investigation into a cultural phenomenon. Yet I would be lying if I said that my visit wasn’t somewhat motivated by my own curiosity. It is hard to live in a city where SoulCycle has spread faster than mononucleosis without wondering what makes the obsession with the class so contagious. If I had to determine the source of the contagion, I would designate Upper East Side moms as the patient zero. Once they decided that this brand of exercise was stylish, it wasn’t long before girls were using SoulCycle bags as backpacks and the bedazzled yellow logo adorned every pair of leggings in sight. “To soul” became a commonly heard verb, and soon almost everyone I knew— from friends, to friends’ moms, to mom’s spouses, to my history teacher—counted towards the 20,000 people who “soul” each week. I had to see what the hype was about.
Upon walking into the studio, I was struck by the insufferable heat and overwhelming scent of grapefruit. Swarms of women brushed back their blown-out hair into perfect ponytails and discussed their children’s SAT scores. They positioned bottles of Smartwater on either side of their bikes and tossed their Prada purses underneath their seats. When Halle B, instructor and self-proclaimed “spiritual gangster,” entered the room, it fell silent. The women simultaneously mounted their bikes and began to peddle. Before I could figure out how to clip in my shoes, the lights dimmed and Beyonce’s “Love on Top” vibrated throughout the studio.
“Let’s ride,” Halle B shouted down at us from her candle-lit podium. I awkwardly gripped the handlebars for dear life. She instructed us to peddle our feet in circles, bounce our torso from side to side, and move our arms up and down. She explained that we should lift up out of our seat, “naturally and authentically.” Unfortunately, she failed to mention the risk of losing our footing and banging our knees into the side of the bike. She instructed that we “think about nothing,” while simultaneously imagining “the best versions of ourselves fulfilling our dreams at all times.”
It seemed I was utterly alone in my inability to “find the rhythm.” I sat in the back row, uncomfortably close to the rear ends of the older women and other beginners around me. A little ahead of me were the women pedaling the hardest, soaking their towels with sweat. The idea of making it to the front, only a few thousand dollars in sessions away, clearly tantalized each and every one of them. Halle encouraged Meredith to “Dig a little deeper!” and told Charlotte to “Fix that grip!” The leanest women, dressed in SoulCycle apparel from headband to customized shoes, bounced effortlessly in the front row. The setup of our room was no coincidence. Rule #5 of “Soul etiquette” politely warns newbies: “If you want to do your own thing, please don’t ride in the front.
At the very head of the class, our SoulCycle instructor loomed over us like a sex object to be lusted after. We spent close to an hour staring up at her flawless body, barely clothed and drenched in sweat. Though it wasn’t apparent in the way that Halle B nonchalantly curled ten pound weights while biking standing up, she had worked hard to earn her place on that podium. All instructor prospects undergo a process designed by Julie Rice, one of the founders of SoulCycle. Julie used the skills she acquired while working as a former talent agent to create a highly competitive “audition” process. By targeting former fitness models and actors, her method ensures that each of the candidates selected have washboard abs, bulging calf muscles, and unnaturally white teeth. The entire wall behind them is a mirror so that you can spend the class comparing yourself to these demigods and see the insecurities you have yet to dispose of.
Rice also developed a twelve-week hospitality training program called “Soul University.” There, Halle learned how to make the riders feel like they are part of a community by inviting them to private yoga classes and complementing their choice of lip gloss. She was taught how to be both therapist and priest. As a result, the class was one long sermon, interrupted only by Lady Gaga’s voice over the speakers, in which Halle B told us how we should “connect” with our “inner selves” and “never say no” to who we “really are.” She often referred to her scripture, the words painted on the walls such as “reconnect”, “power”, “warrior”, “athlete”, and “rock star.” The passion with which she told these millionaires that they were “survivors” made me laugh. I instinctively looked around to see if anyone else found the lecture amusing, but saw instead that each of the riders was obediently nodding along.
At the end of the loudest, sweatiest 45 minutes of my life, I waddled out of the studio, tripping on the clips attached to the balls of my feet, and massaging my sore butt. After almost an hour in the candle-lit darkness, the blinding lights of the outside world hit me like they do at the end of a film at a movie theater. Just as I feel after watching a Hollywood motion picture, I experienced the jarring realization that I had been abducted into an engineered reality. At the movies, you suspend your disbelief to accept that monkeys can fly or Jennifer Anniston can always find love. At SoulCycle, I had been convinced by neon signs and a spunky instructor that I was “beautifully amazing in the most unique way.” If I wanted to be praised again as a “rock-star” or a “kick-ass warrior,” I would need to pay another $35.
Rice herself admitted that each session is less like an exercise class and more like a “mini production.” It is all about theatrics—the flashing lights, the eardrum shattering music, and the Oscar worthy actors—the instructors who feign interest in your life and flatter you with praise. Those who regularly “soul” spend over ten thousand dollars a year (shoes and water sold separately) to escape into an artificial world that promises support and salvation. Personally, the next time I want to escape reality, I think I’ll opt for the $10 movie ticket and sit back with a Coca-Cola and bucket of jumbo sized popcorn.