The most moving spiritual experience I’ve had in the past decade didn’t take place in the pews of my synagogue. It did not involve a rabbi, or reading from the Torah, and I wasn’t wearing my yarmulke or my prayer shawl. Instead, I was hunched over on a stationary bike in the dark, sweating into a neon green tank top and spinning my legs furiously as an impossibly chiseled instructor whinnied motivational slogans against the background of blaring pop songs. “It’s time,” he said from his elevated perch in the front of the room, lit solely by votive candles, “it’s time to put some more truth on the wheel.” I closed my eyes. I pedaled hard. And I felt something very close to transcendence.
If you have never been to a SoulCycle class, all of this may strike you as a bit of bobo nonsense. Why rub your perspiring elbows with malodorous strangers while paying nearly a dollar a minute for the sort of workout you could get for far less simply by picking up a used Schwinn on eBay? But to think in terms of cost effectiveness or comfort is to miss the point. SoulCycle, and the many copycat high-end workout classes that have sprung alongside it—CrossFit, CorePower Yoga, and Pure Barre, to name but a few—promise much more than exercise. They invite you to attend a place of significance at set times while wearing special garments and communing with other people who share your most intimate desires. They are, in short, a lot like church.
Admittedly, this observation is neither new nor original. Our self-appointed moral and intellectual betters have been huffing about the boutique exercise industry for years. They interpret its wild popularity—some surveys have it growing by hundreds of percentage points over the last decade alone, taking business away from traditional gyms and accounting now for a full third of the workout market—as a sure sign of social decline. One millennial philosopher, for example, took to the pages of TheAtlantic to argue that ventures like SoulCycle only further prove that America is a soulless den of all-consuming capitalism. They proclaim overwork and exhaustion as virtues while taking in a handsome profit.
This line of denunciation received a new rush of life last month when SoulCycle’s co-founders, Julie Rice and Elizabeth Cutler, announced the launch of a new business venture. They call it “Peoplehood,” and it involves sitting around a circle with a moderator who facilitates conversations about fears, hopes, beliefs, and other matters. These are “workouts for the self” that your local priest or pastor or imam would be only too happy and perfectly qualified to discuss, although these old-fashioned clergymen are, bless them, more interested in virtue than in market valuation.
Those who find this new brand of spiritually infused workout culture distasteful are missing the point. Sure, classes are all too expensive, merchandise all too prevalent, and the messages of empowerment dispensed by instructors too facile to pass for anything approaching real wisdom. But the first law of thermodynamics applies to spiritual energy as well—it can be neither created nor destroyed. It can simply be transferred from one form to another. Those who yesterday prayed the rosary are now looking for a soul workout with spinning classes and a towel. As a permanent exchange, this one is lamentable. As a way station, it’s a blessing.
Consider the evidence. As any committed believer will tell you, faith isn’t just felt; it must be practiced. It’s not enough to subscribe to a few articles of belief and call them a religion. To live a life of observance is to strive to embody the principles passed on to us from on high in deed rather than just in word. That’s why Catholics tithe and fast and attend Mass, why Muslims make the hajj to Mecca, why Jews observe the Sabbath and abstain from eating pork. Take away the actions, and you’re left with atomized ideas floating in the ether, which is an enervating condition. For at least six decades now, we’ve been taught by the proponents of moral relativism that disembodying various ideas with caustic tools of “critical thinking,” a state of solipsistic self-indulgence, is the paramount peak of human intelligence.
How, then, might we reorient ourselves toward ideas-in-action? Doing, after all, requires using a set of muscles radically different from those toned by universities, newsrooms, and social media platforms. A life of consistent deeds requires more than just the occasional burst of inspiration or outrage, more than typing a few words into a smart phone and then hitting send, more than grandstanding in a classroom. It requires getting up, getting dressed, and getting going. It requires engaging with other human beings on a regular basis, not as pseudonymous avatars or ideologically driven abstractions, but as real people with real bodies and real flaws and real needs. It requires, in short, precisely the qualities currently cultivated and celebrated by our thriving exercise culture, however partially and imperfectly.
Where else in America these days are you told that practice makes perfect? Where are you encouraged to push against the barriers of comfort and adopt a routine of committed discipline? Where are you asked to bear down and give more of yourself? Not in schools, where children’s feelings are coddled at all costs. And not on the airwaves, where pundits either preach self-love—not duty or excellence—or market partisan soundbites that reassure us that we’re on the right side. Step into an airless workout studio and you’ll get a very different vibe. You’re expected to labor with attention and intention. And all this is meant to be done cheerfully alongside others, with words of encouragement and high fives.
Which, as far as religious training goes, isn’t a bad start. Sure, it would be infinitely preferable if we all found our ways back to the parishes that once sustained our ancestors, back to the old shuls, back to the old-time religion. But you cannot undo half a century of arid and astringent secularization overnight. Ask the denizens of New York to let Christ into their hearts or to trust in Hashem and they ignore you; tell them to put more truth on the wheel and burn a few more calories and, lo and behold, they do.
Count me encouraged. As every religion figured out in its infancy, the body is the soul’s essential partner in practice. We’re told to restrict what we eat and to consume particular foods at particular times, or to apply aromatics or prostrate ourselves or perform any other physical action. That’s because we are not merely ephemeral essences floating ever upward toward the heavens. We’ve eyes and noses, limbs and spleens, and a mess of other organs through which—and only through which—we experience the world. The ancient rabbis instructed their charges to sway as they prayed; talking to God, they said, requires every bit of you, from your head down to your toes.
SoulCycle, then, has it more right than wrong. If you’re not trained from youth in the fine art of worship, a sensory total-body experience, you’re more likely to feel something like a spiritual awakening while working out rather than while reading a book or having a conversation. And ushering you into a cavernous, candlelit world that looks and smells and feels like something very different from your home or office is not a bad way to begin reenchanting the world. Yes, spin classes and other gourmet workouts are just exercise with adornments. But that’s not nothing. They introduce their devotees to the essential difference between the earthly and the holy, the profane and the sacred, the workaday and the exalted.
Anyone serious about faith, then, should take heart. A growing number of our fellow Americans are seeking precisely this kind of experience. On stationary bikes, yoga mats, and Pilates machines, we are being retooled with religious imaginations, taught anew to know the world by training body and mind toward purposes higher than our lower appetites and more noble than our gnawing anxieties. We may think we’re there to lose a few pounds, or to flatten our stomachs, but we commune and we work and we sweat together because we know there’s more to life than the blinking screens that demand our endless attention. Our muscles, corporeal and spiritual alike, grow stronger with every session. And we’ve only just begun.
Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and the cohost of its popular podcast, Unorthodox.