Paying For Soul

Posted at — Oct 28, 2019

Also posted on the Yale Herald here.

Paying For Soul Cover Photo by Annie Yan Drawing by Annie Yan

Each worship session, two large, cylindrical candles on the podium light up the dark room. We close our eyes and sink into a trance while our leader espouses his message. At the end of the session, we place our palms together and meditate. Finally, the lights turn on, abruptly reminding us that we are sweating on stationary bicycles in a group spin class called SoulCycle (or Soul, as the instructors called it).

It was the start of what would be my last summer internship in Silicon Valley. My company had offered use-it-or-lose-it “wellness benefits” (more like “productivity stipends”) that we could use to pay for exercise classes. I chose Soul, thinking it was just another group cycling class with great music. Indeed, an instructor on a stationary bike leads students — also on bikes — through a program of different resistance levels and weight training. Basically, it’s a generic gym “interval training” program. But, at Soul, you’re surrounded by people who will judge you. The front wall is a mirror, designed to allow riders to surveil their classmates. Group surveillance was perfect for me — I’m that kid at gym class who would walk most of the track and only start running when people were watching. It didn’t hurt that every other rider in the mirror had perfectly toned bodies; the mirror was a mural depicting everything I could be. I just had to keep cycling.

SoulCycle affirmed my need for the group. On a sign titled “Soul Etiquette,” it was inscribed that we ride as a pack — that “we ride close together so that we can feel each other’s energy.” Luckily, the studio gave us lavender-scented face towels so we wouldn’t have to smell each other’s energy. Another line stood out: “Talking during class is a major distraction for the spiritual folks around you.” Spiritual folks?

At the peak of my first class, all the lights were dimmed. The chorus of David Guetta’s hit song “Titanium” blared, “You shoot me down, but I won’t fall. I am titanium.” My mirror self was the only one awake. Behind her were riders with their eyes shut, teeth clenched, smiles stretched from ear to ear, bodies moving to the beat. When the sprint was over, many of them sang a cheer, almost as if they were speaking in tongues. The instructor ended the sprint by telling us to live our lives with intentionality. It felt like a platitude out of a Disney movie. Either way, my first time was a success. Whereas normally I could only cycle for fifteen minutes, the group made me cycle for 45.

Two weeks later, I was putting on my spin shoes when a tall, muscular man walked in, high-fiving people on his way to his seat on the podium bike. He introduced himself as Shane, our instructor. He started with an anecdote: “There were no fires today, so my team spent the day training at the gym.” In the mirror, Shane “the firefighter who saves lives” stood out amongst the crowd of women, freshly changed out of their office attire. “Someone complimented me on my arms and I told him he was exaggerating,” Shane said. “What I should have said is ‘Thank you.’” I leaned forward. As we proceeded with push-ups on the bars, Shane shouted, “When I say ‘You look great!’ you say ‘Thank you!’” I lowered my torso. “You look great!” I pushed up and mouthed the words, “Thank you.” The inspirational firefighter walked in front of me. I spoke the words louder, cringing. In the mirror I saw my Soul mates smiling and screaming in unison.

Somehow, I never brushed off compliments again. It occurred to me that though I hear platitudes every day, I had never been in an environment where I focused on one of them at length. I thought about how Yale’s most popular class was a class on happiness that taught students how to enjoy life. With all the pressure to be independent young adults, maybe we all just want to surrender control and let a grownup (and especially an inspiring firefighter) tell us what to do.

At the second session with Shane, his story of the day involved him resigning from his previous job, only to get a new job offer immediately after. The moral was that we had to close one door entirely in order for the next door to open. My heart warmed, and I smiled at him. Coincidentally, I had come to that session during my annual mid-internship identity crisis; I was questioning whether or not I should remain an engineer. At the peak of the ride, he preached, “Think of that one door you’ve been struggling to close. Muster all that strength. Close it!” My mirror self exerted herself harder than she’d ever done. When all was over, the noise in my mind faded away. The next day, I told my manager I wanted to transition away from engineering and into some engineering-adjacent business roles.

Perhaps letting out some existential tension in SoulCycle let me focus on my needs. Perhaps associating bodily motion with my will made it easier for it to manifest as action. Perhaps my body finally got to communicate its exhaustion at work to my mind — matter over mind. Or maybe it was the induced sweating and suffering during the sprint. The last time my mind was truly clear was when I was hunched over on the toilet bowl with food poisoning. When your body is in pain, you can better experience the difference between your aching meat and your shapeless mind. I thought about religious fasting and hair shirts, and I wondered if Soul fulfilled my subconscious desire to access my mind, without the diarrhea. I also thought about how rarely I associate my body with my mind. I live my days trapped in my head. I joke that with Soul, my body and mind became one.

One day, just before the final sprint, Shane blew out the candles. The smell of incense drifted below my nose. My tense eyebrows relaxed. As I accelerated, I lost control of my legs and they just kept pedaling. My mind floated above. The athletes call this ecstatic space “the zone.” After the class, I was surprised when a classmate told me she felt the exact same thing. She said we were probably light-headed due to the weak air-conditioning. Regardless, I found myself understanding why talking during class could be distracting to spiritual folks.

The next day, at my company’s lunch table, I joked about how ridiculous Soul was and invited friends to try it out. At the same time, a Buddhist coworker of mine was giving out handwritten postcard invitations to join him at his Buddhist meetings. While I instantly got two coworkers on board with Soul, I learned that only I had agreed to go to his meeting. It was much easier to invite people to my “place of worship.” I could distance myself from the radical “spiritual folks” and say that I only went to Soul for the exercise. I held the Buddhist postcard invitation in my mind. It was a copy of a hand-drawn cartoon of three animal friends holding hands together. I saw its juxtaposition with Soul’s sleek yellow and black billboards and targeted ads.

My friends and I would choose bikes right next to each other. Shane would ask that we gave cheers to our “neighbors” after each interval. Though these friends were acquaintances whom I had just met, after our first ride, we felt comfortable enough to start talking about how we want to improve ourselves. These friends, in turn, invited more friends and our post-“worship” small group grew to six. Sweating profusely in unison is a fast way of peeling away all pretenses and becoming closer together.

One day, I attended a different male instructor’s class. A classmate told him that she was moving and that this was her last lesson in the Silicon Valley studio. At the end of the ride, he told her, “Soul people are the best people!” The lights turned on, and in the mirror I saw a room of young white women — most of whom were wearing Soul’s Lululemon gear. Lululemon means $100 yoga pants and $60 sports bras. Amongst the SoulCyclers was a college student wearing a knock-off Under Armour T-shirt. Remember: she could only afford the $35 entrance fee because her Silicon Valley tech company paid for it.

The next time I went to Soul was my final session. My internship was ending. I walked in to the gym’s front desk which I now realize was a retail shop. I had known all along that it was “pay to play,” but I only now considered that it was also “pay to pray.” You purchase your Lululemon gear at the front and buy your religion in the back. Marx says religion is the opiate of the masses, and capitalism says, “Great. Let’s sell it.”

Inside the studio, my mirror self stared blankly at Shane. Underneath the smokescreen of candles, incense, and inspirational speeches, his concern for me, I realized, was conditional on the entrance fee. I momentarily thought of Shane as a pop star and myself as a monetized fan, but somehow our relationship felt more personal than that. Maybe Shane was the pastor, and I was a churchgoer who funded the church. Now back at college, I had to quit Soul, and I tried going to a Buddhist temple. I felt spiritually fulfilled, but couldn’t motivate myself to go there regularly. I tried spin classes at Payne Whitney. Though the gym was constructed to look like a Gothic cathedral, the instructor’s words were void of Shane’s magic. My mirror self looked at me. We knew where we would much rather be, but also where we couldn’t.