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Spiritual Fitness

How SoulCycle led me to the rabbinate

Sammy Kanter
July 24, 2023

Original photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Original photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

The 2020 Pew study of American Jews found that a large proportion don’t identify with the religious aspects of Judaism; 27% of all respondents—including 40% of those ages 18-29—consider themselves Jewish by cultural, ethnic, or familial background, but describe their religion as atheist, agnostic, or “nothing in particular” as opposed to Jewish. However, this does not tell the whole story. High numbers of Jews (and other Americans) of no religion report belief in a higher power. According to the Pew study, three-quarters of U.S. Jews report that they believe in God or some spiritual force in the universe; even among Jews “of no religion,” 66% reported that they believe in a higher power.

These numbers tell a radical story about American society and religion, one that renowned theology scholar and Presbyterian minister Linda Mercadante calls the rise of the “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR). In her research, she plainly states that most people look for meaning in their life, and they also try to make sense of faith and hope. Mercadante wrote in her book Belief Without Borders: Inside the Minds of the Spiritual but Not Religious that movement to spirituality outside of organized religion “is a way to get out from under the external constraints of authorities, traditions, or institutional bonds, and personalize one’s spiritual quest.” This movement, she believes, is sparking a new level of spiritual interest among Americans.

That spirituality shows up, according to scholars, as the unbundling of religious identities. In today’s internet-defined generation, many people are more willing to mix and match religious ideas and practices than ever before. The “Religiously Remixed,” as Tara Isabella Burton calls them in her book Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World, might get their sense of community from one place, their sense of meaning from another, and practice wellness culture rituals, and see their purpose as political. These “new religions” have the “Remixed” person demanding agency and creative ownership of their spiritual lives, valuing authenticity and one’s emotional experience as key indicators for interpreting the meaning and purpose a practice might offer. One of the most popular outlets for the Remixed, currently a $4.2 trillion industry in the U.S., is health and wellness culture.

In other words, a lot of American Jews are finding their spiritual fulfillment through places like SoulCycle. I should know. I’m one of them. And I can attest that these aren’t simply paths away from Jewish religious practice. In my case, SoulCycle led me all the way to the rabbinate.

I am deeply invested in the learning and teaching of Jewish text and tradition, and yet, there are many days when SoulCycle is where I learn, connect, and pray. For instance, a viral TikTok video this past March featured Mady Maio, a Los Angeles podcast host and entrepreneur, sitting in her car in workout clothes. She begins by saying, “I just got out of synagogue. It’s this small Reform synagogue called SoulCycle West Hollywood. The rabbi’s name is David, and he had the most eye-opening, third-eye-opening teaching I want to share with you.” Maio proceeds to share the words of LA SoulCycle senior master instructor David Zint as if it is Torah. While many liked the video for its comedy, as a rabbi, I connected to this video for the resonant Torah that Zint shared, which also resonated with me.

Maio and I, as Jewish millennials, are not alone in finding spiritual fulfillment in workout classes. According to Amanda Montell, author of the 2021 book Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism, the ancient practice of yoga became part of mainstream American culture toward the end of the 20th century, beginning the trend of spirituality in American fitness classes. Yoga, according to Montell, is a practice concerned with one’s “emotional well-being and spiritual enlightenment” alongside the well-being of one’s body, which was a radical change to the fitness-centered American exercise culture of the ’90s.

Yoga is a term that characterizes a variety of physical, mental, and spiritual practices from ancient India, with many schools of yoga tied to Buddhism and Hinduism. For the most part, the yoga studios we see in the U.S. today are unmoored from specific religion, yet they borrow poses, sacred text, and breathing practices from different yoga strains. While yoga is a fitness trend that started in a religious context and became separate from one in the American framework, its practice inspired a rise in what Montell calls “cult fitness” in the early 2000s.

The spiritual methodology and teaching from SoulCycle helped me understand Jewish texts in a new way.

With the promise of inspirational mantras and communities of new friends, fitness brands like CrossFit, SoulCycle, and later Peloton began to take the spirituality mindset from yoga and apply it to their workout. These companies use broad but relatable language and mantras in their marketing and classes that imply the class is a place for the client to have a spiritual experience that fits their needs that day. While not based in any particular religion, these brands see an opportunity to use their companies to meet the spiritual needs of the Remixed spiritual seeker. “The most important thing you own is your story,” Zint often says in his SoulCycle classes, “and you are the author of that story.” Studios are often deemed sacred and, implicitly or explicitly, the instructors preach a powerful ideology that creates a deeply personal experience for many clients. Using religiously infused language with biblical undertones, Montell said this language on repeat in each class convinced listeners to believe they were on a path to the “perfect” life.

Founded in 2006 with one small studio on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, SoulCycle is an indoor cycling company that revolutionized the fitness industry with its style of workout, emphasis on community building, and spiritually focused brand. In a one-on-one interview with me, Jewish co-founder Julie Rice said, “Every SoulCycle journey has a similar arc, which peaks during a hill ballad when riders turn up the resistance dial on their stationary bike and climb uphill in the dark.” Rice describes the transformational experience as a moving meditation that creates a transcendent connection. “Where I’ve worshipped, it’s always been that God believes in you and wants you to be the best version of yourself,” Rice said in a Zoom interview. That ideology is presented to riders from the moment they walk into the studio, with the words “find your soul” at the entrance. With arguably a similar goal of a davening experience, many SoulCycle instructors use songs or language that helps to guide riders to reflect on and become the best version of themselves when they walk out of the SoulSanctuary (the name for the spin studio).

For me, SoulCycle has been a place where I seek to discover the best version of myself as a rider since 2013. The SoulSanctuary has held me through times of joy (birthday rides, my bachelor party) and through a lot of tears (heartbreak over lost love and other life transitions). I am drawn to SoulCycle for the way the workout can help me access my true self by relaxing my mind, allowing space for me to think critically about who I am in the world, and sharpen the idea of who I want to be. In a recent class, in the midst of challenging routines on the spin bike, Zint said, “You are not just a reflection in the mirror. You are a connection to your source. A connection to your future.” I walk out of each class having completed a workout, worked through my thoughts, and connected to myself and the world around me in a way that feels transcendent, and often, divinely inspired.

While SoulCycle’s spirituality can appear broad and flimsy to critical eyes, this vague and broad language is what makes SoulCycle’s teaching resonant to so many people. Situated alongside New Thought and contemporary wellness culture, SoulCycle’s theology creates that “apex of spiritual individualism,” according to Burton, that leads each rider to easily take a teaching and apply it to themselves in the way they see fit.

While SoulCycle is powerful for me, other brands like Peloton and CrossFit are reaching many worldwide with their own brand of spirituality. Peloton revolutionized the fitness industry by offering a workout class experience from the privacy of one’s own home. For Peloton riders, there is an intimacy in the riding experience. Some report feeling as if the instructor is speaking directly to them. At the end of a class with instructor Ally Love, she explained that riding a Peloton can help make the person whole so one can give back to the world. “All it takes is one person to change the world,” she said. CrossFit’s spirituality is about finding a state that’s natural. In a CrossFit video, founder Greg Glassman said CrossFit strives to “collectively advance the art and science of optimizing human performance,” by returning humans to our natural state. Scholar Cody Musselman describes this philosophy as the path CrossFit takes to promote the natural state of the human body in the present so that human bodies will be more able to face the unknown of the future.

I began to consider becoming a rabbi when I felt spiritually transformed by SoulCycle, and from there, I wanted to create those spiritual experiences for others through Judaism. Growing up in an active Reform Jewish family, I always felt deeply connected to the community and family aspects of Judaism. While we went to temple often, I never understood how Judaism was a spiritual address for me to connect with God, or any higher power, to make sense of my existence in the world. SoulCycle was the first place where I wrestled with these existential questions, which in turn helped me connect to myself and God in a deeper way. That spiritual connection on the spin bike pushed me to take a closer look at what meaning Judaism could offer me, which led to my path to the rabbinate. As I studied at Hebrew Union College over the past five years, I realized that the spiritual methodology and teaching from SoulCycle helped me understand Jewish texts in a new way. Alternatively, Jewish thought helped me have a more spiritually grounded and connected experience when I rode on the bike.

For example, I found parallels between New Thought philosophy of the early 19th century in the U.S. that impacted health and wellness culture and the teachings of Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi in the 1970s. In an essay titled “God Hidden, Whereabouts Unknown,” Schachter-Shalomi writes: “God has become so immanent, so indwelling, that the way to God was no longer via prayer directed ‘upward’ but by going to the core of the core, inside of us.” He emphasized that the path to accessing the divine is located within each person, and the role of prayer is to help everyone of us access that God within oneself. This idea helped me see the act of going within in a SoulCycle class as a way of connecting with God, and it changed the way I approached each ride to consider each class as if I’m bringing the kavanah (intention) to davening.

Jewish Science also offered me another way to deepen my understanding of the divine within. “[Power] is not outside of you, it is all there within, an endless fount, and endless capacity, infinite and endless since it is part of God; you have only to recognize it as such and realize its outward expression.” In a blind guessing game, these words might seem to belong to a SoulCycle instructor. Yet, these words belong Tehilla Lichtenstein, longtime spiritual leader of the Society of Jewish Science, from 1961. Alongside her husband, Rabbi Morris Lichtenstein, a major figure in the Jewish Science movement, the Lichtensteins created a platform in the mid-20th century for Jewish New Thought. In the Jewish Science Interpreter in 1923, he wrote:

God’s presence within man is manifested by the very life that is in him, by the presence of thought, feeling, emotions. For while it is ours to utilize those powers within us, it is not we who have brought them into existence. Their existence is due to the divine within us. It is the divine in us that we call on to express itself in perfection when we offer these prayers or affirmations. And these prayers are always answered.

In this theology, part of the work of finding the divine within is a self-acceptance of the divine in our thoughts, feelings, and actions. Knowing God involves a deep sense of trust in oneself that we are good, beautiful, and holy. While these messages might seem simplistic, I believe this sort of positivity is sorely missing in today’s American obsession with materialism and comparison. Through its branding and teaching, SoulCycle provides an outlet for seekers to visualize the inward journey by embodying the challenges of life in a workout. While pushing oneself physically, riders become more open to receiving the philosophy of SoulCycle that is delivered in a simple, direct, and buzzy way that is easily digestible.

It is my hope that the organized Jewish community pays attention to these trends and turns to communities created by SoulCycle, CrossFit, and Peloton to understand how to draw the “Remixed” generation in. What does it look like to elevate the texts in our tradition that promote the idea of finding the divine within? Are our spiritual leaders using language that feels relevant, intimate, and meaningful to today’s seekers? Is our prayer practice embodied in a way that unites the body and mind in the effort to connect to transcendence? I believe these questions and others sparked by this research are key to creating a Jewish community that meets the needs of today and future young Jews. It was only when I paired my SoulCycle practices alongside Jewish prayer and my own theology that the meaning of both systems became greater in my life. It is my hope that health and wellness culture in today’s society will continue to enrich, strengthen, and empower American Jews, and our organized Jewish world will use these ideas to shape American Judaism for generations to come.

Sammy Kanter is a recent graduate of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles, and he is currently the Senior Rabbinic Fellow at B’nai Jeshurun in New York City.