Absolute Beginners: SoulCycle And What “Community” Means

There’s a SoulCycle-licensed tank top you can buy that describes the phenomenon thusly: “Pack, tribe, crew, posse, cult, gang, community, SoulCycle.” I was told, specifically, that it would be a cult, and I’m glad that the company is itself embracing that term, because there is something at least a little bit cult-like about sweating your ass off in a candlelit room while you get a pep talk from, basically, a really fit motivational speaker.

But that’s really not it, of course. SoulCycle isn’t a cult, it’s a status marker. It’s one of those fitness activities that brands itself as personal, intellectual, and emotional change via really difficult workouts; ergo, when you go to SoulCycle, everyone is super duper nice, incredibly hospitable, and will stroke the living hell out of your ego for having shown up in the first place, for trying the workout in the second, and for hopefully finishing it in the third – because your participation in SoulCycle’s not cult but culture means that you’re a strong human being inside and out.

Which feels really good, I’m not going to lie. It’s really nice to have people treat you sweetly, tell you you’re a good person, and provide for your every need: They give you towels and shoes, a water bottle; there’s face cleanser and hair elastics in the bathroom along with spacious, clean shower stalls, and there’s even a USB port in each locker – for which you don’t have to bring your own lock – so that you can charge your phone while you work out. I felt cared for and appreciated just by the locker room. There’s a lot to say for that.

As for the workout itself, it was really, really similar to other spinning workouts I’ve done, and while I was told that the workout would kick my ass physically, it wasn’t too strenuous, which I hope is encouraging for people who want to try it but are wary. You control your output, because each bike comes with a resistance knob. You’re left to decide what you want to do with your hour on the bike, whether today is a walking-through-molasses-level-resistance kind of day or a riding-your-10-speed-resistance kind of day. The nice thing is the extraordinary level of support that you get from the instructor, because if you’re doing a really challenging workout, you’ll get motivation; but if you’re doing an easier or lighter workout, you’ll get acceptance. And that is really cool.

For me, it was more an issue of testing my patience. I’m sure I’m not the only person who gets mental burnout with long workouts, who’s impatient and who gets cranky when she’s getting physically exhausted (right? Any fellow ADHD cosmonauts here?). And I think that the thing I liked the most about SoulCycle was the fact that toward the end, I had to tap into something I hadn’t tapped into in seven months, which is persistence. The last time I found myself thinking, “Yeah, this hurts; yeah, I’m bored; yeah, I’m tired; but I am going to finish anyway” was around mile 19 of the marathon I ran in October. When I work out on my own, it’s possible for me to get bored/tired and quit and not feel bad about it. SoulCycle’s magical combination of motivation and community held me to finishing strong, and that was a nice change of pace.

But. There’s a tiny little caveat that I have about SoulCycle. I walked to their Chicago Old Town location from the Water Tower mall, and on the way walked through what those of us who live less centrally in the city endearingly (ok, not actually endearingly) call “The Viagra Triangle,” so named because it’s full of old, rich white people. And I realized that the last time I had taken this route down Rush Street, I had been running, splitting up from my friends to dodge the cops. I was hanging out, at the time, with a bunch of anarchists and socialists, photographing their anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, anti-war demonstrations. When they protested in the Loop, the cops were pretty used to doing really mild crowd control, attempting and mostly failing to determine the route of the protest in order to keep traffic flowing smoothly (the protesters didn’t want that – the point is to disrupt and call attention). But when they protested in Old Town, interfering with sidewalk traffic around the upscale, luxury shops both there and on the Magnificent Mile, the cops got pissed and tried to pick them off. No one got arrested, thankfully, and we were able to regroup without further interference.

The caveat is that SoulCycle encourages change and improvement via fitness, and tells its practitioners that they can change the world from their bike by using their workout to become a better person. But that’s not really world-changing. The gyms are located in extremely posh areas and cater mainly to wealthy white people who could change the world by distributing some of their income (anonymously, I would hope), to community mental health clinics, homeless shelters, food pantries, seniors centers. They could volunteer with Sarah’s Circle, Food Not Bombs, 826CHI, PAWS, or sign up with Chicago Cares to get trained for and matched with volunteer services. Instead they go to SoulCycle, shop at Prada (I know this, because they came straight from shopping with their bags), and elect a mayor who closes mental health clinics and schools in south and west side neighborhoods that they’ve never bothered to visit.

The anarchists and socialists worked in journalism, sustainable technology, and not-for-profit administration during the day, organized demonstrations in part of their free time, and spent another part of it doing community-based volunteer work. And they were privileged white folks who could be (and were, there’s a reason I don’t hang out with them anymore) huge assholes, too, don’t get me wrong. I just admired the fact that even though they were interested in having social capital, they were interested in having the social capital that comes along with dedicating your life to helping other people, not the social capital that comes along with being able to afford to tell yourself that you’re changing the world by becoming a better person by spinning your legs around on a bike at high resistance.

Which isn’t to say that SoulCycle doesn’t get involved. The company started in New York, and it raised $100,000 for hurricane relief after Sandy hit the city. It’s also done fundraisers for Best Buddies, teamed up with Glamour to have Max Greenfield (Schmidt from New Girl) instruct a fundraising class for child literacy organization Milk + Bookies, partnered with Revlon and the S.E.A.K. Foundation to raise funds for New York’s High Line Park, and recently fundraised for Boys & Girls Clubs with 21st Century Fox.

It’s just that I believe so strongly in community organizations, because they know the specific needs of their neighborhoods, know what’s going on in their cities and how to address the problems they’re there to address, and really, really need funding to help them accomplish their missions. Community is SoulCycle’s most prominent stated value, and now that the company is expanding so rapidly into new cities, it would be great to see their locations not just participate in high-profile fundraisers, but put that value to practice and get involved on an ongoing level with their new communities. SoulCycle patrons have not just social capital, but financial capital as well, and if they really want to change the world, it’d be cool to see SoulCycle encourage them to start doing that in the world, not just in the gym.


[Image via Getty]

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