The cult appeal of SoulCycle

After 12 years, the cycling studio finally lands in Atlanta. But why are people crying in the middle of it?

Atlanta Magazine/June 25, 2018

By Ellen Huet

I’m crying—not from pain, or because I’m sad, or because I’ve seen one of those P&G “Thank You, Mom” Olympic commercials. I’m crying in the dark, riding a stationary bike, next to a bunch of strangers, all of us timing our pedal-strokes to the beat of a hip-hop song at the new SoulCycle studio in Buckhead. My tears are a bit surprising to me, given that I tend to be obnoxiously skeptical of workouts with a cult-like following. But here I am, crying nonetheless. And it’s not weird here. In fact, crying is part of this indoor-cycling studio’s mission statement: “The experience is tribal. It’s primal. It’s fun . . . Our riders say it’s changing their lives . . . We laugh, we cry, we grow—and we do it together, as a community.”

This isn’t my first time taking a SoulCycle class, and I’ll admit it’s not my first time crying during one, either. Of the New York City-based chain’s more than 80 locations, I’ve visited four in the United States and Canada, and I took class in Atlanta when Soul did a pop-up collaboration with Target in 2016. So it makes sense that I’d be here when the 12-year-old company finally—after the local fitness community pretty much begged them to—set up a permanent location in Atlanta.

It is correct to say that SoulCycle is a little bit like a cult. Talk to devotees and they’ll speak of their instructors and classes with a reverence that borders on creepy. They use “soul” as a verb. Says one of my friends, who admits she’s an addict: “I know it sounds so dumb, but it’s a thing. It’s emotional. I just love it. I need it.”

So how does SoulCycle, a company that makes you pay $30 for 45 minutes on a yellow bike that goes nowhere, make you feel something more than just the muscle burn? The company keeps that a secret.

I’ve heard, from fitness coaches and influencers in the know, that SoulCycle trainees go through an eight- to 10-week, full-time, immersive training program in New York City (“You have to move in,” a SoulCycle employee told me. “It’s kind of like camp, I guess.”). If you make it through training and are selected to join the team, you’ll be expected to work full-time and exclusively for SoulCycle, an unusual requirement given that most fitness studios employ coaches who have day jobs or teach a different kind of class elsewhere.

Another strategy that seems to be unique to SoulCycle: While most new entrants to Atlanta’s fitness market pull popular coaches from other studios to quickly build a following, SoulCycle has so much buzz, it doesn’t have to bother with that. The company drops its own instructors in from other markets.

This strategy works. While other cycling companies (and they are many) may have individual instructors who are incredibly moving and motivating, none of the other studios have this as part of their DNA quite the way SoulCycle does. The following is devoted, and classes go almost as quickly as tickets to Hamilton.

Science is on SoulCycle’s side—exercise releases endorphins, which interact with serotonin and dopamine, the chemicals that affect mood. Additionally, “exercise can stimulate neurotransmitter activity in the brain, which may lead to increased emotional intensity,” according to Dr. Jennifer Carter of the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.

But why does SoulCycle make me cry? I’m not entirely sure. Here’s my guess: Turn off the lights, light up some candles, turn on some loud and powerful music, tell me your own story of struggle, push me to ride as hard as I can up a virtual hill that serves as a metaphor for my own challenges, and do all of this in a room full of like-minded fitness freaks trying to be stronger and faster and better not just here but everywhere in their lives, and I guess I’m gonna cry. It’s an “almost sense of communal release. Of high-charged emotional camaraderie,” according to an article on SoulCycle in Time Magazine.

Indeed. As I dabbed my eyes and my sweat after class in the new Buckhead studio, I wiped away my cynicism, too. Whatever the special sauce, whatever the science, I’m sold on SoulCycle.

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