SoulCycle Looks to Sell its Soul

Jill Kargman, creator and star of Bravo's "Odd Mom Out," achieves a state of ecstasy in a SoulCycle-like class.

Since its inception in 2006, SoulCycle has done two things really, really well.

First of all, it has turned the stationary biking class—a.k.a. spinning—into a fashionable, upper-crust, New-Agey-communal experience. SoulCycle classes involve candles, loud music, in-sync cycling, and exhortative therapy-speak from instructors, many of whom sideline as models. The spiritual dimensions are sometimes explicit—note the “Soul” and the dharmachakra-esque logo. The phenomenon has been described as a church, a cult, and, more cholerically, as “the most mindless version of being ‘spiritual but not religious.’”

And second, SoulCycle has made money. A lot of money. This tends to happen when you charge people more than $30 for a single spin class, and still manage to sell out 60-person sessions.

The spiritual and the financial can coexist, of course, and SoulCycle will be testing its model even more in the coming months. Highly profitable and growing fast, the company recently began proceedings for an initial public offering. In doing so, SoulCycle is gambling that people outside of New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles (which, together, account for 95% of SoulCycle’s revenue) will be willing to drop $30+ in order to pedal in unison with strangers, listening to messages of empowerment, growth, and self-actualization.

But SoulCycle is also part of a larger gamble: namely, that Americans will be willing to meld the forms of spirituality and the forms of capitalism in more and more blatant ways. In this, SoulCycle has a lot in common with prosperity gospel preachers, ethical consumption marketers, and other moneymakers testing the frontiers of luxury and soulfulness.

Let’s not be naïve: spirituality has been profitable for a very, very long time. In one of the most well known stories of the New Testament, Jesus drives the money changers from the Temple. For centuries, many temples in India functioned like banks, making interest-bearing loans. Commercialized forms of penance helped inspire the Reformation in Europe. The landscape of American religion is often conceived of as a market in which churches and denominations compete for worshippers. Sales tactics influence evangelists, and companies use religion to push political agendas.

Nevertheless, there’s an anti-commercial texture to spiritual life, even in the United States. Mosques, churches, synagogues, and temples are nonprofits. Even Joel Osteen’s ministry has 501(c)3 status. Very few religious leaders get wealthy from their work (the fame of those who do tends to skew our perceptions). And while all sorts of class dynamics can shape denominational membership, extraordinarily few spiritual communities place a fixed cost barrier to entry.

SoulCycle isn’t a church. But it certainly wants to look like a happy universalistic spiritualized family—albeit one with a healthy profit margin. Accordingly, it’s not cheap. A package of 50 classes in the Hamptons (which includes early class signups) runs for $4,000. New York magazine interviewed one New York City rider who, by the magazine’s estimate, was spending more than $21,000 on SoulCycle each year. A single class, sans early sign-up perks, costs nearly as much as a month-long membership at my local YMCA.

Meanwhile, back on SoulCycle’s website, instructors describe their work in frankly spiritual language. Here’s the lightly condensed bio for Noa, a SoulCycle instructor at studios in Brooklyn:

Coming from a long line of teachers, he uses his own spiritual practice to show his riders how to be the best versions of themselves…Get ready for a spiritual journey disguised as a rock concert!

And here’s James J., an instructor at studios in and around New York City:

Since starting his journey at Soul, James has discovered what can be done together—as a family—with the lights down low, the music up high, and our hearts wide open.

Many riders seem to buy in. From a customer’s Soul Story on the SoulCycle blog:

When I moved to Boston after graduation, I was ecstatic that there was a SoulCycle. My first ride at Chestnut Hill was with Charlotte at 8:30 AM and I brought my Dad with me. We converted my Mom eight months later… I am grateful to have SoulCycle in my life; for me, it’s not just a workout studio. It is a community of people with “good vibes” and sincerity. It is a community where strangers become lifelong friends. That is why SoulCycle is special to so many people.

Reading SoulCycle’s pre-IPO filing is a bit like paging through the Wall Street Journal in church, or finding Psalms in an Abercrombie & Fitch catalog. The document toggles between the economic and the spiritual, and the legalistic and the New Age, with a seamless fluency. On a page of the S-1 form that discusses “the lifelong quest for meaning, wellness, and personal growth,” we also learn that this lifelong quest has had a happy outcome, namely an “increased Adjusted EBITDA from $11.2 million in 2012 to $35.7 million in 2014, representing a CAGR of 78% and an Adjusted EBITDA Margin of 32% in 2014.”

Is SoulCycle in “the business of changing lives” or is it in the business of producing the “highly attractive financial profile and unit economic returns” and “strong Free Cash Flows” that investors crave? After 148 pages I’m still not sure.

These two businesses may not be mutually exclusive, but if, as the IPO filing claims, “we believe SoulCycle is more than a business, it’s a movement,” then that movement offers some strange dynamics.

On the one hand, it speaks in the frankly universalistic terms of self-improvement, spiritual community, and personal growth: “We do not have a target demographic because at SoulCycle, ANYONE can be an Athlete, a Legend, a Warrior, a Renegade or a Rockstar,” the IPO filing explains. “It is the place people come, regardless of their age, athletic ability, size, shape, profession or personality, to connect with their best selves.”

On the other hand, scarcity is essential to SoulCycle’s business model. The classes may be open to anyone “regardless of their…profession,” but I somehow doubt that sanitation workers outnumber investment bankers in SoulCycle studios (one of which is across the street from the Goldman Sachs headquarters in Tribeca). Classes with popular instructors sell out in minutes, and patrons can pay upwards of $70 per class in order to get priority booking.

“Ultimately, this is what brand religion is all about: stoking emotion with a combination of scarcity and urgency,” writes Virgin executive Ron Faris, covering SoulCycle for the Harvard Business Review. “It’s irrational commerce at its finest.”

In some ways, SoulCycle looks like a prosperity gospel church for secular coastal elites. Preachers in the prosperity gospel tradition get a lot of flak for being exploitative, for being dishonest, and for making a lot of money. But I suspect that our deepest discomfort comes from their naked appeals to the perfect coherence of capitalist success and personal salvation. These appeals come through a relentless emphasis on individual improvement and positive thinking.

An exercise studio is not a church. But SoulCycle seems to come at some of the same themes of the prosperity gospel, only in the opposite direction: a business using the tools of a spiritual community, instead of a spiritual community celebrating the values of a business. Here, too, we get the unambiguous mélange of the profitable and the ethereal. And here, too, there’s a fierce emphasis on individual improvement, in which positive thinking is linked to physical gains.

SoulCycle isn’t alone in its willingness to fuse spirituality with publicly traded commerce. Whole Foods Market is another example of a for-profit company that sells New Age values and ethical lifestyles to its customers. Like SoulCycle, it does so in an openly commercial context with high cost barriers.

And, as Yale religion scholar Kathryn Lofton has argued, Oprah has built a (privately owned) empire, in part, by developing a powerful hybrid of spirituality and consumerism.

So who cares? If the market can deliver spiritual or ethical goods, then shouldn’t it do so? And aren’t most people at SoulCycle just trying to get some exercise?

Those caveats matter. But as traditional religious structures continue to break down, and the nones’ numbers swell, it’s worth asking ourselves what new institutions will emerge—and what will change when these movements ultimately serve the cycles of the market, rather than communities of souls.