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SoulCycle Revolves Around the Psychology of You

SoulCycle opens up its first international location in Toronto. What sort of ride is this pricey spin class?

Right in the middle of my Instagram story, a peppy SoulCycle Toronto staff member comes up to me and briskly grabs my phone, too quickly for me to say no.

“Sorry,” says the man, who looked like someone who spins regularly; tall, lean and clad in black-and-white apparel branded for SoulCycle’s new location on Toronto’s King Street. “Phones aren’t allowed in the room. We don’t want bad electronic energy in here.”

He says it would be waiting for me at the front desk, fully charged.

Like many of the people in the room, I had never been to a SoulCycle class until last month. I’ve spun at run-of-the-mill cycling studios before, but never had I achieved what I would call a transcendent experience.

But that’s exactly what regular SoulCyclers speak of. For the believers, it’s more than just a spin. It’s an addiction, a cult, a high.

A shiny new boutique studio in Toronto’s King West neighbourhood is the first-ever foray into the international market for SoulCycle, a booming lifestyle brand that, according to itself, has “revolutionized indoor cycling and taken the world of fitness by storm.”

"SoulCycle has become known for its trance-like party atmosphere and celebrity spottings"

Whether it was their first time on a SoulCycle bike or not, everyone at the new Toronto studio must’ve heard of the chain, which originated in the Upper West Side of Manhattan in 2006. From there, it blew up stateside and now operates everywhere from Chicago to Texas to California.

Spinning in a seductively lit studio with a competitive atmosphere between participants (as is the SoulCycle way) has become enough of a cultural phenomenon that Netflix’s The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt did a parody episode. It centred on cutthroat competition to curry the instructor’s favour at “Spirit Cycle” classes and win a coveted spot in the front row of bikes, which are reserved for skilled cyclists.

Courtesy SoulCycle

In 2016, SoulCycle’s co-founders, Elizabeth Cutler and Julie Rice, resigned as co-chief creative officers after selling the company to Equinox, the high-end gym chain, for a reported $90 million U.S. each. With two Equinox locations already in Toronto, it made sense for the city to be chosen for SoulCycle’s first venture outside of the United States.

Equinox has already proven that there’s a hot market for luxury fitness in Toronto. Its basic monthly membership costs $165 per month, not to mention the $175 one-time initiation fee. If Torontonians will pay for that, surely they’ll pay $28 for a drop-in class, plus the cost of spin shoes ($2 each) at SoulCycle.

It’s not hard to see why people are dishing out that kind of cash for a ride. The experience is truly meditative.

Fundamentally changing the way people think about spin class, SoulCycle has become known for its trance-like party atmosphere and celebrity spottings (regular SoulCyclers include Jake Gyllenhaal, David Beckham, Jessica Alba). It differs from other spin classes by throwing in some dance moves to give one’s upper body a workout at the same time: At SoulCycle, riders use their biceps and abdominals to bob and rise to the beat while pedalling.

In the dark, candle-lit room where we spin, I can barely make out the faces of the other riders. The instructor cycles on a pedestal at the centre of the room. For the next 45 minutes, he’s not a fitness instructor, he’s a life coach. He continuously grunts at us, engages us, congratulates us. We’re encouraged to let go and be present. And by the third song, I’ve worked up a sweat that covers my scalp, neck, stomach and shoulders.

“Whatever’s going on in your life, no one can take this away from you."

Rihanna’s playing now, and we’re into the “choreography.” I bend my elbows, crunch my core, and lift my bum off the seat every four counts.

That last move is called the “tap back.” Some people around me can manage it, some don’t. We’re supposed to all be spinning in unison. In truth, we’re not.

Toward the end of the class, we “ride home,” which entails spinning as fast as you can. The instructor starts an impassioned speech: “Whatever’s going on in your life, no one can take this away from you. You have accomplished so much.”

I’m feeling euphoric, but my mind pauses to question his monologue: “Is he talking about the workout? Or about life?”

Well, who cares? I’m feeling good.

It’s in the head, as opposed to the body, where SoulCycle really works its magic as a brand. The company has to be admired for the flawless experience it presents, from the greeting you receive from the smiley, chiselled staff to the relentless “go, you!” attitude of the place.

The walls of the studio are littered in typography: “High on sweat,” one wall screams. Turn your gaze and there’s no escaping it: “Find your soul,” another wall flashes.

All of the above is meant to make it about you. The instructors – who are reportedly hired for their acting skills – are just there to help you realize your potential, says Gabby Etrog Cohen, senior vice president of brand strategy at SoulCycle.

“We really are, at the end of the day, a hospitality business,” she explains. “We cast our staff for each studio location. Their goal is to make everyone feel happy and welcome whether they’ve been to SoulCycle 100 times, or they’ve been to SoulCycle once.”

As for the health claims, SoulCycle really has none, other than the fact that you probably will burn 500 to 700 calories in a 45-minute class. To their credit, co-founders Cutler and Rice didn’t build the SoulCycle empire on a foundation of pseudo-science, they created it to make spinning fun.

Critics have reported that incorporating dance moves into the classes makes people more prone to back injuries, and combining the upper-body strength training is counterintuitive to a cardio workout. Jennifer Sage, an exercise scientist and indoor cycling instructor, wrote her concerns about SoulCycle in this Indoor Cycling Association post.

More numerous than the vocal critics, however, are the SoulCycle true believers; those who swear that they get high off the beats, the relentless mid-class cheering, and the wave of elation (i.e., endorphins) that overcomes you as you dismount the bike, wholly drenched in sweat.

Personally, I don’t think I’ll join the ranks of the faithful. All of that "life coaching" could get annoying if I had to hear it daily. But once a month, if I needed a pick me up, I’d certainly pay $30 for a 45-minute spin through fitness ecstasy. I'll be on one of the bikes at the back.  

Published Friday, March 3rd 2017

Header image credit: Courtesy SoulCycle



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