Playing the Field

Is the SoulCycle Instructor Preaching for Your Spirit, or Your Wallet?

On group fitness, and the exchange of capital for quasi-spirituality

6 min read

A group of people sit cross-legged on a beach, meditating.
Image credit: Don Johnson // CC BY-ND 2.0
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I was at my yoga studio not long ago–waiting for the previous class to finish so I could go in–when I heard a woman talking about a yoga retreat she’d just returned from in Bali. While there, she had stretched with her guru beneath riotous sunsets and tropical storms. It was a transcendent experience, she said. Doing yoga back in Los Angeles just wasn’t the same. “Where’s my sunset?” she asked.

I tried to hide my distaste as I listened to her, while also avoiding eye contact so she wouldn’t engage me–a strategy I’m afraid to say I usually adapt when I’m in the yoga studio. As much as the culture that surrounds yoga in LA might bother me, I really do love the exercise. I love feeling the weight of my own head decompressing the space between my vertebrae in forward folding postures, or the feeling of the soles of my feet pressing into the palms of my hands as I stand on them, stretching my wrists. I like sweating–like it when my eyes sting from my own sweat as it seeps into them from odd angles as I turn my body sideways, upside down, and back up again. I like that my body feels different after a class than it did before, and that I can just move through the world more easily, whether hopping fences or balancing on my toes in the kitchen to reach a high shelf.

Yoga was the first type of exercise I tried where the shape and size of my body didn’t feel like a liability. I was so small as a child I’d be mistaken for someone about two years younger, and I was uncoordinated. As a teenager and then adult I became thicker and more top-heavy but no less clumsy. When I started going to yoga classes at my college gym, the teacher’s constant insistence that this wasn’t a competition felt soothing.

In LA, the aesthetics of a class, the way the straps and mesh bits on women’s yoga clothes accentuate every toned muscle, or the way the men practice shirtless–sporting a variety of fascinating tattoos–somewhat undermines the instructors’ insistence that we pay attention to our own practice. I can’t say I particularly mind the distraction. What does bother me is the constant pressure to spend money in order to “deepen your practice.” The monthly membership fee is reasonable, and if I ride my bike to class I can borrow a mat for free. But flyers for yoga retreats in Bali or Southern Italy, costing thousands of dollars, line the tables in the studio. The spandex yoga clothes they sell in the studio shop are all upwards of $70 an item.

The idea that capitalism is besmirching the purity of an ancient faith has never really bothered me. People have used religion to talk each other into handing over money and quite a bit else for centuries, but there does seem to be something especially phony and imperialist about white Americans using Indian religious texts for extravagant profit.

Since I go to yoga class to work out and calm down, and not to have debates, I stick to small talk in the studio. But doing research for this story I found that, as in church, there are plenty of other quiet skeptics in the fitness studio, going through the motions and keeping their mouths shut.


Sasha does SoulCycle, not yoga, but when she tells me about the classes, plenty sounds familiar. She loves the way the classes feel–she’d attended seven when I spoke with her–but the vague spirituality of some of the jargon in their marketing creeps her out. “If you get 10 rides under your belt, you start your ‘soul cycle journey,’ which “¦ I have no idea what that means,” she told me over Skype. Realistically, she thinks it probably just means they’ll try to get her to buy more classes.

SoulCycle is a very expensive version of spinning, which is riding stationary bicycles with a group of other people while following an instructor. Sasha spreads out the classes she attends so that she can afford them but suspects most others in the studio are able to buy the class packages, which cost thousands of dollars.

The room is dark, but the instructor’s station is surrounded by candles. “It almost looks like an altar to me,” she said. “They’re real candles because when they blow them out I can smell the wax smoke.” At the end of each class, students are instructed to: “Put your arms up and take in the positive energy in the room, and then put it to your heart and then you like, let it out. Or something like that,” she said.

Other than that, there isn’t a whole lot of spiritual or philosophical talk in the class. This bothers her some, that SoulCycle seems to thrive off a reputation for being deeper, without actually standing for anything. “If you asked me what is the philosophy of SoulCycle, I’d be like, I have no idea,” she said.

Some of the things Sasha described, though, sound very much like the “philosophy” espoused in most American yoga classes I’ve been to. The SoulCycle instructors’ insistence that “only you know what you want to get out of this,” and “only you know what you deserve today,” remind me of my yoga teacher’s constant urges to “make it your practice.” The ritual about spreading “positive energy” also reminds me of how yoga instructors encourage students to retain a grounded, positive attitude “on and off the mat.”

As much as she might roll her eyes at SoulCycle, Sasha expects she’ll keep going. “I’m a victim of a violent crime, so part of my PTSD recovery is making sure I get certain amounts of physical activity in every day, because A, it helps me sleep, and B, it helps me feel endorphins.” The dance-like atmosphere in the SoulCycle studio makes the intense cardio enjoyable, she said. Finding exercise you actually like is hard.

A person on an exercise bike.
Image credit: US Navy // CC BY-ND 2.0

Unlike Sasha or me, Kenny Kane is a true believer. He owns CrossFit LA, a small gym located in Santa Monica, and he’s passionate about it. His devotion to his gym and coaching philosophy are inherited, in a way; his mother, Marion Kane, was a synchronized swimming coach of international renown who encouraged her son to take up martial arts and carefully coached all his athletic endeavors. “I get a lot from yoga, I get a lot from martial arts, but I get a lot from her,” he told me. “She was the toughest person I ever met. She just was gnarly. There’s this hardness that I have that she kind of brought me up with, but then there’s this softness that I developed because I wasn’t the athlete that she was and I’m yet to prove the coach that she would end up being.”

His talk of softness conflicts with CrossFit’s reputation: It’s known as one of the most macho and elitist of the group exercise programs that have become popular over the last couple decades. In recent years, CrossFit gained more media attention due to the popularization of the CrossFit games. This is where Kane says CrossFit began to lose its way; as people got more intent on becoming the strongest, they were hurting themselves.

“About four years ago I had to challenge the whole thing and say, “‘Look, there’s a big piece of this missing.'” The missing thing was context, he thinks. “Context is your mindset, your heart-set,” he said. To repair this, Kane added what he calls “mental toughness days” to his regular rotation of workouts. “Mental toughness days are days dedicated to sort of like, “‘Hey, this workout might mean something bigger than yourself, bigger than the score that you intend to write on the whiteboard. Bigger than what your ego wants you to do.'”

He elaborated on a workout that he named after his daughter, Cameron: “I wrote the workout with the intention of sharing it with my community and then when we coached it put it in the framework of, “‘Hey, is there somebody that you would die for? Like, think about that person in the middle of this workout when you want to stop.'”

As he described his philosophy and how it differs from other CrossFit gyms, again I’m struck by the familiarity, even if his methods sound more extreme. The idea that each person should be mindful of their individual practice instead of focusing on competition and ego comes up again, as does the idea that your workout should continue to be meaningful in your life after you leave the gym.

The inclusion of these ideas was not just a philosophical decision for Kane but a marketing decision as well.

“I wanted to model the change of direction from where CFLA was going to what I saw the markets were doing,” he said. He wanted to add some of the philosophy associated with yoga and martial arts because, he said, they’ve worked for a long time. “The themes of mastery and the idea of practice is entrenched in those communities, and they’ll be around for another several thousand years. I don’t know if CrossFit will or won’t be around in several thousand years but my guess is that martial arts and yoga will be.” His gym, at least, looks like it’s here to stay in the immediate future: Business has improved since he changed the philosophy.

Part of the focus on individual practice means that Kane requires anyone who wants to join his gym to attend 10 personal training sessions with individual coaches first, costing $85 each. “The barrier to entry is high,” he admitted.

At one point Kane tried to quote Aristotle to describe his philosophy to me but couldn’t remember the exact phrase. I knew what he was talking about, not because I’ve studied Aristotle, but because I’ve heard it in a yoga class. That day there had been a sub, and I wrote down some of what he said for this story. As he walked among the mats, between telling us to “get that butt up” and rattling off Sanskrit incantations, he repeated this quote: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

We are what we repeatedly do. If that’s true, then yoga, this very American type of yoga, is certainly a part of me–and so too is the cocktail of positivity and mindfulness that comes with it; this easy-to-sell, collapsed version of Zen and Patanjali, and, apparently, Aristotle. It’s not so different than the relationship between a skeptic and their religion. I’m constantly questioning, I’m certain that a privileged few are running the show, but still, I keep going back. There’s something about it that I need.

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How We Get To Next was a magazine that explored the future of science, technology, and culture from 2014 to 2019. This article is part of our Playing the Field section, which examines how innovations in sports affect the wider world. Click the logo to read more.