The one and only thing I know about SoulCycle prior to this point is that my class (henceforth referred to as a “Soul Session”) is scheduled to begin at 1:00pm. I am told to arrive by 12:45pm, and as usual, I am not only behind schedule, but as I quickly learn, I’m also dangerously ill-prepared. I round the corner at approximately 12:51pm and encounter handfuls of traditionally beautiful athletic women loitering on the sidewalk. Most are outfitted in expensive-looking athleisurewear that has molded to their sculpted bodies like a recently-applied coat of Flex Seal. Some are nonchalantly grabbing their foot behind their buttocks for a preemptive quadricep stretch. Others are huddled together admiring what I can only imagine are last night’s selfies on their gold glitter-encased iPhones. Everyone appears as though they have spent their entire morning curating a well-put-together aesthetic while at the same time taking great strides to maintain an explicitly care-free persona that says “I text in all lowercase letters.” As for myself, I have not shaved in roughly five days, I’m wearing a soiled baseball cap to cover my unkempt hair, and my jeans have a blossoming hole in the crotch that’s already about 3 inches in diameter.
I weave my way through the crowd on the sidewalk and garner reactions of covert finger-pointing, hushed gasping, and mouths involuntarily falling agape — I feel like Christ carrying the cross on the road to Calvary. Eventually, I make it to the streak-free glass doors, pull them open, and enter the frantic lobby (henceforth referred to as a “Soul Standby”). Inside, everything is a vibrant hue of white — the walls, the floors, the countertops, the fluorescent lights, the lockers, the meticulously folded towels, the front desk staff, and the overtly eager lycra-laden Soul Session clientele. Bodies everywhere are moving very briskly and with intense purpose. I’m unsure where to stand, so I spend a few moments shuffling from one square foot to another and cocking my head back and forth like a Great Horned Owl on guard, a maneuver that undoubtedly cements my status as a foreign visitor.
The time is 12:56pm when I am flagged down by a SoulCycle employee (henceforth referred to as a “Soulstress”) behind the check-in desk. We lock eyes as I approach her and witness her mouth quickly mold into a full-toothed smile that says, “I practice unyielding friendliness and patience in this sacred space but have a deep history of aggression and short-tempered behavior, so let’s limit this interaction to the bare necessities.”
“Hi! Are you here for the one o’clock?!” she hurriedly inquires.
“Yes,” I respond briefly and obediently.
“Okay, well, we have to start at exactly one o’clock, so we’re going to need to get you signed in really fast,” she says. I can sense my tardiness and naïvety is a source of internal frustration for this particular Soulstress, whom I would soon learn is of a particularly high ranking. She is Blossym, our Soul Session instructor, and although I have seriously put her under the gun time-wise, her smile remains full-bore for the entirety of the sign-in process. Said process involves one page of liability paperwork that I haphazardly complete with straining nerves and borderline illegible penmanship.
“What’s your shoe size?” Blossym asks as I hand her the form.
“Well, I’m normally a ten…” I reply, and before I can add an addendum noting my common fluctuations in footwear measurements, Blossym slaps a pair of velcro cycling shoes onto the counter and swiftly dismisses me.
My panic heightens as the countdown to 1:00 is fast-approaching. I duck into a bathroom and hastily change out of my street attire and into my very unstylish exercise outfit. I feel self-conscious and scared as I slide the plastic-bottomed shoes onto my feet, immediately realize that a ten-and-a-half would be a much better fit, and roll my ankle on the marble floor as I rush towards the classroom (henceforth referred to as the “Soul Sanctuary”).
Upon entrance to the Soul Sanctuary, I can actually feel my pupils dilate, and I become fairly certain that I’m experiencing the early stages of an epileptic seizure. Strobe lights flash from various corners of an otherwise pitch black space — it feels like I’ve walked into a void in the universe, and if I take one wrong step, I may enter an alternate dimension. If I stand on my tip-toes, the crown of my head might touch the ceiling, and someone with an impressive wingspan might be able to reach from one wall of the room all the way to the other. Anywhere from 40–50 women and exactly three men are already atop their stationary bicycles, looking very serious, pedaling in unison. The bikes are positioned no more than six inches from one another, and I learn that I can add claustrophobia to my already-extensive list of anxiety disorders.
An attentive Soulstress senses my bewilderment and waves at me from mere feet away, but the shrilling, bass-heavy electronic music thumping from undisclosed speakers drowns out her voice. I use makeshift sign language to symbolize I can’t hear, hobble towards her, and place my head next to her mouth, inviting her to shout directly into my ear.
“What bike number are you?!” she yells with the urgency of an EMT tending to a life-threatening gunshot wound.
The claustrophobia now takes a back seat to a different, unidentifiable anxiety disorder. In my haste, I have neglected to ascertain my bike number, an error I worry may be enough to put this Soulstress — as well as my fellow Soul Sessioners — completely over the edge.
I attempt to stall by pretending I still can’t hear her, a strategy she sees right through. We are running out of time. She grabs my wrist and pulls me towards an open bike.
“Stand next to the seat,” she politely demands, then militarily adjusts the saddle’s height to be aligned with my hips. She moves on to calibrate an appropriate distance from seat to handlebars, using the length of my forearm as a measuring apparatus. She taps the seat twice with her palm, the international sign for, “climb aboard.” I follow orders, and before I’m able to do so much as shift my weight to avoid sustained discomfort to my taint, she clips my shoes into the pedals and vanishes into the brooding abyss.
I strain my eyes and scan the room through the darkness in an attempt to determine whether or not I am in the midst of an ayahuasca hallucination. The music is still pulsating at a volume high enough to rattle my epidermis, and I remain unsure if my perception is distorted. I begin to pedal, and before I make it through my fifth full rotation, a set of spotlights are triggered, illuminating an elevated stage in the front of the room. I wonder if I somehow accidentally walked into a broadway rendition of a TRON/Hunger Games hybrid. Atop the stage is a single stationary bike and a figure I quickly identify as Blossym. She, too, has performed a wardrobe change since our interaction at the front desk, and although her teal and white patterned yoga pants say “I’m spunky and fun,” her demeanor says “I am about to destroy you.” She dons an over-the-ear microphone that’s akin to the style used by revered motivational speaker Tony Robbins during his soul-searching seminars. After fluffing her shoulder-length blonde hair, she mounts her stage-top steed. From my position in the third row, I contemplate if I have ever been more terrified in my entire life.
I’m still trying to figure out exactly where I am when Blossym officially begins our Soul Session by introducing herself and asking if there are any first-timers among us. Before I process her question, I find myself wondering if she has a subtle lisp, or if her microphone is simply of inferior quality. (Note: my curiosity on the aforementioned matter is not quelled for the entirety of the Soul Session.) Two or three hands sheepishly raise to confirm their amateur status before I decide to join them. Blossym gathers all of our names — I try to shout “Ryan” above a booming remix of some P!nk song and am subsequently referred as Christopher for the remainder of the Session. Blossym doesn’t seem to have much time or energy for newcomers — she quickly moves on to discuss SoulCycle’s mission, the appropriate Soul Session mindset, and Soul Sanctuary etiquette.
First: “We believe in the power of positivity and encouragement!” she preaches. I find myself wishing someone could tweak the levels on her microphone.
Next: “If you’re new to SoulCycle, we move to the beat of the music!” I focus on the song that’s currently blaring throughout the cavernous space, but it sounds like four different songs of various genres layered on top of one another, and I become increasingly fearful that I will not be able to find “the beat.”
And finally: “It’s Saturday…it’s one o’clock…I’m still fucking hungover…but I’m here…and so are you…so…LET’S. GET. THOSE. ASSES. MOVING!”
And with that command, the group segues into an abrupt transition. Suddenly, everyone is pedaling very rigorously, Blossym is barking motivational quips from her rostrum, and the more experienced among us (a faction to which I very clearly do not belong) begin performing some sort of interpretive dance in unison like undead extras from Thriller. We are no more than 30 seconds into our spirited trot/gyration sequence when my water bottle dramatically falls to the ground and rolls out of reach. I am already short of breath and beginning to perspire uncontrollably, and the magnitude of this hydration catastrophe registers at once.
Somewhere in the vicinity of this moment, no more than a few minutes into our Soul Session, I begin to float in and out of consciousness. I focus entirely on taking deep breaths in my nose and out of my mouth, hoping that if I can just remember to inhale and exhale, the human body’s fight-or-flight response will take care of the rest. I hear Blossym in the distance — the echo of her voice somehow sounds lightyears away now as she instructs us to increase our bike’s resistance, then to decrease it, then to take a water break, which I nonchalantly shrug off as unnecessary — instead, I press my tongue to the roof of my mouth in an attempt to fend off an embarrassing mid-Session vomiting episode. I am wheezing like a donkey with mesothelioma, which makes it especially difficult to hear Blossym’s uplifting monologues and pivotal directions. Everyone else is somehow galloping along like motherfucking Smarty Jones, and I briefly suspect that I must have missed the pre-Session cocaine buffet in the Soul Standby. I extend my hand towards the ground in the direction of my water, fail to grasp the liquid salvation, and reach a new level of despondence.
I feel so cold — I wish a Soulstress would enter the Sanctuary and cover my dainty, failing body with one of those tin foil blankets they give marathon runners after they cross the finish line. Blossym encourages us to high five our neighbors after a particularly soul-crushing progression, but all of the riders in my vicinity think better of it, keeping their fingers wrapped tightly around their handlebars and their gaze locked dead ahead. I spend a few moments trying to figure out whether or not the liquid pouring down my cheeks is mucus, sweat, or tears. I abandon that internal debate, concluding that it is all three. I close my eyes and let them roll to the back of my head as Blossym breaks into another inspirational sermon: “Let life get complicated! Let life get messy!” she cheers as she stands on her pedals and begins to aggressively headbang like a veteran Juggalo. I reconsider whether a mid-Session vomiting episode would be embarrassing or celebrated.
Later, after the Soul Session concludes, I will question if it is normal for one to immediately forget nearly all of the details of a life-altering event, or if I have simply experienced a lack of oxygen flowing to my brain that will result in permanent neurological damage.
For the remainder of the Session, I no longer feel the music rattling my epidermis. I no longer question which fluids my body is emitting. And I no longer hear Blossym’s maybe-lisp. Instead, I feel my soul escape my body and begin to perform consecutive cartwheels through the Andromeda Galaxy. I wonder if my prefrontal cortex has sensed my impending death and released a large quantity of soothing chemicals to carry me through the transition.
Before my out of body experience can fully take hold, I am brought back to earth when the soundtrack — heretofore composed of thunderous track after thunderous track — transitions into a calm, peaceful melody. The nausea-inducing laser lightshow concludes, and the house lights are powered on. Blossym’s forceful tone fades into a soft, sensual whisper as we follow her lead through a bike-top stretching regiment. Some of us (read: me) are audibly weeping. Our Soul Session has reached completion.
Afterwards, back in the luminous Soul Standby, a fresh batch of masochists are waiting to pour into the Sanctuary for the impending 2:00 Session. As for myself, I am having a difficult time adjusting to life off of the bike. I stumble around crosseyed and dazed, much like a losing prizefighter after a 12 round slobberknocker. I look into the faces of several of my fellow Sessioners to see if they, too, are on the verge of premature death. They all look surprisingly healthy and spry, but return concerned glances in my direction. I tell myself that I must really look as bad as I feel before realizing that their cockeyed gazes are probably just due to the fact I have a two inch booger nestled in my mustache. I wipe it away with my sweat-saturated towel, take a seat on one of the Standby benches, and attempt to regain a normal resting heart rate.
By the time a standard BPM has been achieved, I am the only remaining human in sight aside from the two Soulstresses at the front desk, both of whom seem to be growing mildly concerned with my continued presence. I retreat down a narrow hallway towards the showers and very quickly learn that they are stocked with a plethora of high-end bathing goods and accessories. I strip out of my clothing, turn on two of the two shower heads, point one at my genitals and the other at my face, and let the warm water flow over my war-torn body. I sample egregious amounts of all of the aforementioned products, dry myself, take a series of deep breaths, and return to my haggard streetwear. Finally, after polishing every square inch of my body with designer lotion, I emerge from the washroom.
As I stroll towards the exit of the the now-empty Soul Standby, I have a new sense of purpose, and the ship that is my life has altered its course entirely. I feel a pang in my heart and a lump in my throat as I wave goodbye to the Soulstresses and reacquaint myself with the outside world. I question whether or not I will ever be the same, but deep down, I already know the answer is a resounding “no.” I drift through the ethos for the remainder of the afternoon and into the evening, walking with an awkward limp and wondering when, if ever, Blossym and I will reunite to pedal through the cold dark void together.
I don’t quite know when, but I am confident that someday, when the moon is round and full, I shall ride again. Night after night, my dreams take me back to the Sanctuary. Day after day, I bask in my newfound bliss, building my courage and strength. Until my moment of redemption comes, I remain lost in an orgasmic trance, constantly chasing the unmatchable high of my very first Session.
Ryan Overhiser is a San Francisco-based freelance writer. Find him on Instagram and Twitter at @ryeino.