Tara Isabella Burton on 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

“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.”

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Source: Religion News Service