Soulcycle brands spinning and spirituality

Having heard about Soulcycle, a cult-phenomenon among NYC spinners, I tried out one of their classes during a recent trip. Soulcycle’s spin on spinning is to add dumbbells and dance moves to stationary biking. It operates back-to-back 45-minute classes in eleven studios around New York, three in Los Angeles, and soon will have two in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Soulcycle also incorporates watered-down spiritual messages of the type one hears in yoga classes — but unlike the typical yoga class, a Soulcycle workout is shorter, burns way more calories and includes minimal stretching. Think of it as a yoga-alternative for the Type A exerciser.

Are you ready “to soul?”

I went to Soulcycle’s West Side studio after signing up for class online. While online signups are typical for many exercise classes, Soulcycle actually had me choose a specific bike on their website. My registration was confirmed with a “Welcome to Soulcycle” message that listed my assignment to Bike #32. It also offered information about attire, hydration and Soulcycle etiquette.

Soul Etiquette - SoulCycle

Soulcycle packs in the riders

As a fan of good manners, I loved the etiquette rules — especially the part about “laundry,” since Soulcycle places their bikes as close together as possible. It’s a New York thing — people there have learned to tolerate less personal space than those of us who live in California suburbs. All the same, with 50 to 60 bikes crammed into a space about three times the size of an average living room, personal hygiene is key.

Although crowded, Soulcycle finesses their routine so that, even when you’re doing dumbbell raises, you rarely bump into the people on your left and right. For example, arm extensions are performed to the front, the rear and at 45-degree angles — but never out to the sides.

Soulcycle workouts are tough for a newbie

The workout itself was challenging. Thank goodness I already knew a little about spinning, as adding handlebar pushups and chest presses while still pedaling would have bewildered me.

What annoyed me about the class, however, wasn’t the crazy moves. It was that 90% of our workout was “out of the saddle.” I imagine they do this to take your heart rate higher over a shorter timeframe, as well as to create more up/down room for the dance moves. But the only time we sat down was to lift weights. Not only was all this standing and pedaling difficult — it grew boring, since variety came mainly from pushing off the handlebars or waving our hands around in the air.

Soulcycle Mantra Sweatshirt

Soulcycle’s spiritual side

While sweating it out with more people than I’ve ever exercised with in a group class, I wondered why the instructor didn’t turn on the fans. Maybe she wanted to create a hot yoga type of effect. (Although I’ll have to admit, it was less offensive to the nose than hot yoga classes I’ve visited — gotta appreciate those hygiene policies.)

Another thing about the class that reminded me of yoga was our instructor’s chatter. While the lights were dimmed — typical for spin classes (“rock and roll in the dark,” as a friend calls them), the teacher’s platform was rimmed with pillar candles. Her opening comments encouraged us to dedicate “this moment, this present moment” to “being the best we could be.” She exhorted us to “feel our strength” as we turned our tension knobs to make the ride harder.

Pedaling maniacally, I puzzled over what it might mean to “experience the ritual,” and how “in the ritual, there was unity, and there was peace.” I strained to see the teacher, since the main thing in my line of sight was the derrière of the guy in front of me.

Soulcycle sweatshirt

Soulcycle: a brand and a lifestyle

When the “ritual” ended, I left the studio with dozens of other sweaty people and passed through a tiny locker area into the retail display at the front. Balancing against the wall to change my shoes, I noticed a woman buying a Soulcycle brand iPhone case. Other merchandise included clothing, bandanas, scented candles, grey and yellow nail polish, even a Soulcycle bike priced at $2200.

I elected to skip the shopping in lieu of fresh air outside. But if I change my mind, Soulcycle’s website contains eighteen pages of products I could buy to help them advertise — while of course showing people how cool I am.

Soulcycle succeeds at branding their fitness classes as a lifestyle choice. And at $34 a class, I trust they’re also making money. But their biking cum spirituality doesn’t work for me — for now I’ll stick with plain old spinning, and leave the skull bandanas to others.

Soulcycle is opening studios in San Francisco and Marin — they’re recruiting instructors, as a matter of fact. Do you have a Soulcycle experience to share? Let me know in the comments!

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