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SoulCycle: Hell on Wheels?

12/06/2012 10:48 am ET | Updated Feb 05, 2013

My teenage daughter, home from school for Thanksgiving break, booked reservations for us at SoulCycle Brentwood (Los Angeles) to celebrate her first day of vacation.

"Mom, everyone loves SoulCycle! It will be so much fun!"

I knew about SoulCycle thanks to extensive promotion rivaling that of Kardashian clan. I even knew that Lena Dunham, the incredibly cool creator of one of my favorite shows, HBO's Girls, celebrated her 26th birthday at SoulCycle in NYC, wearing a tiara, to sweat with a full class of fitness masochists. I was intrigued, and frankly willing to try anything that promises "By the sprints ... you've actually shaken the cellulite off your thighs." (Time Out New York, quoted on SoulCycle Website.)

For those of you who have missed the hype, SoulCycle is an exercise trend originating in NYC that arrived in LA this year with messianic promise for fitness devotees. Combining spinning on stationary bicycles (shoes attached to pedals to prevent escape), New Age empowerment jargon, and the throb of loud club music in a dimly-lit room, SoulCycle is intended to make working out more like going out on the town, except you don't have to dress up, and you lose calories instead of consuming them. After my first class, I concluded that Dante's Inferno has nothing on SoulCycle.

In The Inferno, when Dante, the author and narrator, loses his way on the allegorical path of righteousness, he gets lost in the deep woods where "the sun is silent." Likewise, even though it was 9 a.m. and Southern California bright both outside and inside the white and yellow lobby of SoulCycle in Brentwood, the exercise room itself was dark, and my eyes had to adjust as a SoulCycle employee helped adjust my cycle to accommodate my height and the distance from my elbow to finger tips. When she attached my shoes to the pedals, I knew I was there for the full 45 minutes whether I liked it or not. My daughter, right next to me, was beaming with joyful anticipation.

When the Roman poet Virgil rescues Dante in the darkness, he takes him on a journey through the nine concentric circles of hell so that he can recognize and reject the nine sins, with their associated suffering, and thus reach salvation. As I looked at the wall near me, I noticed, even in the dim light, that the wall was covered with slogans meant to inspire persistence and confidence. "You are a rock star!" Later, I would create my own list of unprintable slogans more representative of my own experience, starting with the infamous words on the gate to Hell in The Inferno, "Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch'intrate," or "Abandon all hope, ye who enter here."

Our instructor, an energizer bunny on steroids, our Virgil on this tour of the Cycles of Hell, was mic'd to speak above the pounding music. The music was a combo of nondescript techno dance music and bad songs from the '80s that have not improved over the past three decades. "Who remembers this one?" I refused to participate in this ageist game, although if I could be heard, I fantasized about shouting, "And in the same years, people with taste were listening to Elvis Costello, The Clash and The Smiths..."

Alternately shouting out encouragement and demands, our spandex-clad Virgil demonstrated the requisite moves on her bike, facing us as she waved her arms in the air as if she were at a rave. Suddenly, she was directly in front of my bike, squirting me with a water bottle. Perhaps she intuited that I was about the throw up. My nausea, may it be known, had nothing to do with the intensity of the workout, as I am in pretty good shape and was cheating on the resistance level. My problem was that I was entering full-on migraine territory thanks to the periodic strobe lights and the extremely loud pulsing music. The water spray helped, but not enough. I was praying to survive the 45 minutes and wondering if the darkness was intended to keep us from seeing the time. How much longer? I repent!

Since I was strapped in by my feet, I had to resist the urge to flee toward the light. This gave me plenty of time to examine the other sweaty souls in my midst. The lady in front of me was hardcore: Flat belly bared, she never failed to keep up and seemed to relish the torture. She was wearing a SoulCycle T-shirt that read "Obsessed" and pants emblazoned with the SoulCycle name and a small skull and crossbones. What's she in for? I wondered. Since she reminded me of entitled Westside ladies in big Land Rovers who curse, honk and cut me off in my Prius, I decided she represented anger, the fifth circle, or cycle, of Hell. There were a few older men with guts who probably were in for gluttony (third cycle). Since we were in Brentwood, it was easy to pick out the souls in for greed (fourth cycle: extensive expensive jewelry worn while exercising), fraud (eighth cycle: fake breasts and faces) and lust (second cycle: nearly naked, probably keeping in shape for an affair with her weight trainer). Luckily, the class was over before I recognized violence or treachery, but I'm pretty sure the woman wearing a yoga shirt represented "heresy," as SoulCycle promotion refers to yoga as "so 2002." I myself felt that the only sin I could be tagged with was being in limbo (first cycle) as I refused to accept the baptism of SoulCycle, even through I had been sprayed. I started off agnostic and by the end of the class, I had fully rejected the whole program.

I had no idea how to release myself from my cycle, so I unstrapped my shoes and just left them attached to the bike. I hobbled toward the light. I had to navigate my way down a long bright corridor lined with lockers and bent sweaty souls retrieving their own shoes while a new crowd of dry souls pushed against us toward the dark chamber for the next class. My daughter caught up to me. She was smiling and saying something, but I could not hear her at all.

"I'm deaf!" I explained. "I feel like I was pressed against a speaker at a concert for two hours. I can't hear a thing!"

My daughter laughed, "Why didn't you take the ear plugs at the desk? Get them next time..." At least that's what I think she said. All I knew was that I would never be back.

My daughter, home for the entire week, booked SoulCycle classes for each of her days home. Wearing a SoulCycle "Cardio Party" T-shirt, she begged me to try Michael's class in Brentwood and to check out the West Hollywood location with her.

"Mom, Michael's class has great music; he even plays your favorite, The White Stripes! And there are candles instead of strobe lights!" I feel my resistance weakening... damn it! Anything for my daughter and toned thighs.

My second class was indeed much better. I was even able to chat with the teacher afterward and could hear him. He came to L.A. six weeks ago from NYC SoulCycle. He told me that he altered his NYC class to suit the more "laid-back California vibe."

Note to self: Stay in California, especially if planning to take another class at SoulCycle. Was it a heavenly experience for me? No, but it was a hell of a workout.

For more by Lisa Kaas Boyle, click here.

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