I pull open one of two towering glass doors and step into the SoulCycle studio at 3:43 p.m., assuming that I will need a few extra minutes to complete my first-timer waivers and to get acclimated to the magnetic cycling machines before my 4 p.m. class. Several tank top-clad girls welcome me at the front desk, and as I complete the sign-in process I notice that every employee I’ve seen since entering the building (an admittedly lacking sample size of five) appears incredibly well-hydrated. I have never seen such consistently glowing skin among a group of individuals in my life.
I toss my bag and tennis shoes in a locker, slipping into my cycling shoes and hesitantly entering the studio. I notice a container of yellow earplugs on the wall outside the studio as I enter. Who needs earplugs for a cycling class? I wonder. I walk past without taking any, figuring that I don’t need extra items to keep track of as I try to navigate the 45-minute experience.
As I walk slowly to the general area of my assigned bike, another yellow-shirted employee asks if I’m new. I get the feeling that she’s been waiting for me, since my name was highlighted in green on the sign-in sheet. According to the chart, I am the only person in today’s class taking advantage of the two for $32 newbie deal. I try to push this thought out of my mind while Shannon* adjusts the many components of Bike 20. She helps me clip in my shoes and I start pedaling. I am still the only person in the studio.
I manage to keep my legs moving for ten minutes, during which I decided I should refill my half-empty water bottle, realized I probably wouldn’t be able to clip my shoes back in without assistance, abandoned the idea of hydration and watched the studio fill up with more experienced SoulCyclists. The instructor suddenly skips into the room. A few people cheer. The instructor, Jamie*, is followed closely by a college-aged woman in a sports bra and wildly-patterned leggings. She hops on the elevated bike on the front of the room and Jamie introduces her as Shelby*, our class’ model. I notice that Shelby’s feet are moving remarkably fast. As I will soon learn, she plans to keep this pace consistent for 40 minutes (of the 45-minute the class). I think Shelby may not be human.
The lights go off, and a red glow envelopes the room. It appears that I am the only person in the studio not wearing earplugs. Jamie connects his playlist to the studio’s speakers, and I realize too late why everyone else opted for the earplugs. The combination of dim lighting and insanely loud hip hop music more closely resembles a rave than a boutique fitness class.
The next 45 minutes are a whirlwind of an athletic endeavor that can only loosely be described as “cycling.” I struggle to keep my legs moving at the pace of the deafening music while also attempting to engage in all the push-ups, high-fives, rotations, body shifts and other dance-like movements prescribed by Jamie, who alternates between directives and motivational assurances. I would describe this part of the experience in more detail, but I’m fairly certain I blacked out for a sizable portion of it.
Toward the end of the class, Jamie lights candles and places them on the floor in front of the first row of bikes. I am confused until later in the song, when he ceremoniously offers each candle to a cyclist, who in turn somehow understands the tacit order to blow it out. I pray inwardly that he doesn’t approach me for this task, since I am confident that the steady stream of sweat sliding off my nose would extinguish the flame before I could gather enough breath to blow. He offers a candle to the woman directly in front of me instead. I try to breathe a sigh of relief but cannot stop gasping for air long enough to do so.
When the lights finally go on again, I am relieved for a second by the thought of freedom. This comfort is rudely interrupted by the horrifying realization that every other cyclist can now see the dripping, tomato-red mess that I have become over the course of the class. I follow the stretching instructions that Jamie gives over calming music, shuddering to think of what my legs will feel like tomorrow.
Before embarking on my SoulCycle experiment, I sought intel from more experienced friends. A consensus formed around the description of Soul as “cultish.” Indeed, the company’s website describes its classes as “primal,” “tribal” and “transformative.” During class, instructors encourage cyclists to “release your inner warrior,” and to “take control of your journey.” I’m still slightly unclear on what these affirmations really mean, and I’m not totally sure where I stand on the experience itself (in part due to sensory overload and in part due to my own incompetence, both of which inhibited me from getting the full experience). But when I called my mom on my walk back to campus and she asked how my first class went, I defaulted to the only evaluation I was certain about: “I don’t even know how to describe it, but I definitely want to try it again.”
*Name has been changed.
Contact Jackie O’Neil at jroneil ‘at’ stanford.edu.