Saturday 5 October 2019

I tried Beyoncé’s favourite workout, SoulCycle, for five days – here’s what happened

Writer Olivia Petter tries one of the world's most famous workouts

I am in a candlelit basement with 60 people and we are chanting. None of us have met before, but I know that half the room support Chelsea FC and the woman next to me likes to whip her towel around in the air and squeal when she gets excited. I’m staring at my very sweaty reflection, and like my comrades, am singing “I look good, I look good, I look good”. I absolutely do not.

This is SoulCycle, the cult spinning class that describes itself as a “sanctuary” rather than a workout, dubs its instructors “rockstars” and claims to benefit the mind, body and soul in just 45 minutes. The American company is perhaps the most famous fitness studio in the world, having made cameo appearances in Hollywood films (notably, I Feel Pretty) and earned itself an unparalleled celebrity following, with Beyoncé, Victoria Beckham and Tom Cruise among its fans.
I Feel Pretty/STX Films

A few years ago, there was nothing like it outside of the US. But thanks to the advent of boutique spinning studios such as Psycle and Boom Cycle – unmistakably inspired by SoulCycle – similar offerings exist around the UK. But SoulCycle is taking back its crown having opened its first London studio earlier this month. It’s louder, slicker and, it must be said, far more American than any of its counterparts. My earnest Californian instructor even admitted this himself in my first SoulCycle class when he asked us to high five one another mid-way through. “I know you Brits don’t love it,” he confessed, referring to our nation’s signature stiff upper lip, “but I’ve only just moved here, let’s make friends with our neighbours!”

I’ve tried countless boutique exercise class in London, but as one of the first companies to convince us that it’s socially acceptable to pay £24 for a workout, SoulCycle has long been my white whale. I was desperate to find out what all the fuss was about: would I find it physically draining? Would I struggle to swallow the stream of happy-clappy aphorisms? Would I find my inner self and emerge reborn as a transcendent -and very toned – spiritual being? Anything was possible. Here’s what happened when I tried SoulCycle for five days.

Day one
I feel like I’ve just walked into Gwyneth Paltrow’s garage. Everything is white, there are inspiring slogans on the walls and everyone looks like they sell kombucha on Instagram. Even the filtered water machines look like something straight out of Kim Kardashian’s private distillery. There’s an expensive smoothie bar in the corner that sells drinks with names like “Soul Life” and “Matcha Love” and the women's changing rooms are packed with preposterously plush toiletries (Le Labo and Drunk Elephant). I smother my face in the free facial oil – it just felt like the right thing to do – and I’m ready for my first class.
A SoulCycle-inspired class featured in an episode of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt in 2015. (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt/Netflix)

My instructor is a blonde-haired muscle man named Mantas who looked like he’s leapt off the front of an Abercrombie & Fitch bag. He begins by taking us through some stretches and asks us to “f***ing inhale” before telling us to “get to know” our bikes as if they’re Tinder dates. Then the lights go out and I suddenly notice there are candles surrounding the central podium Mantas’ bike is on. The music begins – I think it’s Kanye West but I can’t be sure – there’s a heavy beat pounding and a spotlight flashes on and off Mantas in time with the music. This feels like a nightclub. But as Mantas tells us to increase the resistance on our bikes and move our legs faster than is humanly possible, it soon becomes apparent that I am, in fact, exercising.

Similar to dancing, we’re supposed to ride our bikes in time with the beat of the music – I soon realise this isn’t something I’m capable of doing, which makes sense considering I’m an atrocious dancer. Luckily my bike is near the back, so Mantas doesn’t call me out on this like he does with some of the other front-running riders. It’s not long before he’s asking us to fist-bump our neighbour and “be vocal” ie make whooping sounds. Many people oblige while I snigger like a schoolgirl.

There’s a brief weight-lifting segment featuring two 3kg dumbbells, which we use to perform bicep curls and overhead rows among other arm movements. Then a bit more spinning (we're told to spin standing up, return to sit on the bike and stand up again), some bumper sticker aphorisms from Mantas (“when you see the finish line, you don’t slow down, you speed up!”) and it’s over. I’m very sweaty and I scuttle out before the end stretches.

Day two
I’ve nearly arrived for my 8.15am class when I receive an email telling me the showers aren’t working this morning at the studio. It’s too late to turn back now, so I accept my fate of spending the day as a smelly person. Despite the message about the showers, the class is full.
Victoria's Secret models attending a charity SoulCycle event in New York City in 2015 (Getty Images)

I head to my assigned bike and am shocked to find that it’s on the front row in the middle. Nowhere to hide. Did I really choose this one?

Before the class, Mantas introduces himself to me and to the woman next to me, Mackenzie, who is also American and, naturally, a SoulCycle pro. We chat, mostly about spinning and Mantas’ unbridled enthusiasm, until a disgruntled gentleman asks me to please get off his bike.

We do a lot of press-ups on the bike this morning, which I enjoy because it takes the pressure of my aching legs, sore from yesterday’s class. There’s no spotlight action, but Mantas is no less sprightly with his coaching: “find your journey, see it, take it”, and the music motivates me through a rather painful weights session in which he asks us to perform the exercises lifting two weights in one hand – this portion of the class is longer than ones in the likes of Psycle and Boom Cycle.

The class comes to an end with the usual “congratulate your neighbour” encouragement and I am relieved to exit and find that the showers are fixed. I celebrate my unexpected cleanliness by buying a protein shake. It costs £7 and tastes like liquid avocado.

Day three 
This is when the chanting takes place. It’s during the weights session and Mantas, who I’m beginning to think lives here, has got us all chanting “I look good” with every shoulder press. I mouth the words because I can’t bring myself to actually say them while looking at the ratty, sweaty mess that is my reflection.

Actors Hilary Duff and Lea Michele attend a SoulCycle event in partnership with Target in 2016 (Getty Images)
This is also the class when I discover how many SoulCyclers support Chelsea FC, because Mantas has written “LONDON” on the misty mirror facing us all and asked us to shout out the names of the football teams we support (not before he asks us to clarify the British translation of “soccer”). It seems that only one woman is passionate enough to yelp out her team of choice (this is the same woman who whips her towel around in the air), prompting the rest of us who are too embarrassed/nervous to contradict her to concur when Mantas asks if we all support Chelsea. Given the ratio, I decide that half of these people are probably actual Chelsea fans.

After the class, I feel like buying a small bottle of hydrating coconut water. It costs £5. The feeling has gone.

Day four
Ah, a new instructor. He’s English but I don’t catch his name – I hope Mantas is getting some sleep next door. The music is a bit grungier today – there’s a lot of Papa Roach -  there’s minimal inspirational chit chat and I sweat far more. I soon realise this is probably because I’m hungover. We spend almost the entire class riding on a high resistance, which feels incredibly tough on the legs and makes the whole thing feel a bit like mountain biking.

The tone of the class feels a little less cult-like and a little more British (I don’t speak to anyone around me), and I realise I’m pushing myself harder. The weights segment is shorter today and not as heavy because we stick to 3kg in each hand, all of which I’m grateful for because my shoulders are sore from yesterday. When the class finishes, the woman next to me hops off her bike immediately without so much as a glimmer of eye contact. Normality, at last.

Day five
This is the hardest class yet. It’s led by a British woman named Lauren Naomi who is as energetic as a puppy in a playground. We move around the bike more than in previous classes, constantly changing our hand positioning and bopping from side to side in time with the music – ish. I think I’m managing okay until she asks us to do a body roll. Lauren Naomi does this with the elegance of a gazelle and the rhythmic flair of someone in Step-Up. I almost topple over my bike.

“You are your own worst enemy!” she yelps as we enter the final stretch. “I want you to look inside yourself and tell yourself you can do this! You got this!” People are cheering, whooping, clapping. For a brief second, I forget that I’m in indoor cycling studio and picture myself climbing Mount Everest. I cycle faster, harder and finish sweatier than I’ve ever felt. Maybe there’s something to this motivational chat.

Final thoughts
SoulCycle truly is like nothing I’ve done before. Yes, it has spawned similar concepts, but nothing quite compares to the high-voltage, primal energy that suffuses every class. I might not have emerged a transcendental being after just five days, but once I let go of my hesitations and embraced SoulCycle’s strange, American idiosyncrasies, there was something meditative about the experience. I felt calmer, cooler and more in touch with my body. I can see myself returning, though the £24 price tag is a little steep for me to become a regular.

But who knows, after a few more inspirational soundbites and group chanting sessions, I might find a way to rationalise the expense. If not for the workout, then at least for the laughs.

(Source: Independent)

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