When reading about Chelsea Clinton's recent efforts to raise money for Haiti, I came across the SoulCycle phenomenon. "SoulCycle?" What a name! I was instantly compelled. Within a few clicks I had discovered a SoulCycle studio a block from my home. Why had I never seen it before? Intensely averse to exercise, practically phobic, I found myself booking a class. I wondered if I would actually show.
Congenitally unathletic, with memories of British winters when I would much rather be inside a cozy classroom conjugating Latin than playing lumpy tennis with wooden rackets, my early childhood failures had left me with an ingrained belief about the severely limited capabilities of my body. This belief, embedded deep within me while my mind was still young, has stayed with me life-long.
In my late twenties, I transiently burst through my lack of confidence and, for inexplicable reasons relating to a broken heart, I began to ride horses, finding within myself a surprising degree of skill. Riding 'English' (as they say here in America) made me feel strong, powerful and connected to my body in new ways.
In fact, it became a passion I took from Brookville, New York all the way to the heart of Saudi Arabia where riding in desert starlit nights assumed a special magic all of its own. That, unfortunately, all came to an abrupt halt when I sustained two frightening falls, resulting in dislocations and broken bones. Fast forward next to a harried West London life. Here, I hire a personal trainer who whipped me into shape for a handsome sum, three times a week. Somehow, I could never muster up the motivation to exercise for myself. I didn't feel capable of doing it on my own. I looked strong, but I felt weak.
Now, years later, I have a gym both steps from where I live and where I practice medicine. I haven't stepped into either. Everyday, I recommend exercise to my patients, while never doing any and feel the cumulative guilt. As I enter my forties, I have accepted that I will never recover my once lithe figure. Deep inside, I wonder if I am slowly weakening, is this the slow, erosive tide of aging and how it feels? I have watched from the side lines as my friends age. They have long locked horns with the beast, pursuing more exercise than ever. I listen to their boasting of bellies of steel and iron, of their power and prowess and, until now, I observe them with smug contempt: my friends are engaged in an inexorable and ultimately futile war that can never be won.
So, unsurprisingly, it was a long time since I had entered an exercise environment, almost half a decade. Entering the SoulCycle studio reminds me of an Apple Store, the same cool-white lighting, which leaves nothing to the imagination and makes the over twenty-two look old. Inspirational quotes cover one wall. I read the words, jaded, unmoved. Manhattanites scramble to get ready for the class. No one greets anyone. Not even the veneer of etiquette. We remain blinkered and focused. No one dawdles or chit-chats; time is simply too much money in this town.
I examine the special shoes in which I will shortly SoulCycle. They have clips on their sole and skeptically, I start putting them on my feet. I walk around awkwardly, unsure of my step and, in my gawky clumsiness, am immediately transported to the age of 12, clumping about in ice cold changing rooms before playing a miserable game of hockey on frozen English fields. Could that be truly 28 years ago? I look at my legs and marvel at the distance they have carried me since then. I feel an abrupt fondness for my trusty knees.
Entering the studio, the room flickers with candlelight. How New York, I think, unphased. Every wall is mirrored. I turn to face a battalion of bikes. I feel intimidated: the bikes so tall, me so small. Women are already pedaling maniacally. Thin women. Women who look like they have been cycling there all my life. I signal for help and a SoulCycle person comes to help me mount the machine, machine number 25, the machine which will take me on a pivotal, momentous ride.
Perched on the seat, I feel unsure. They say one never forgets how to ride a bike, but I notice my poor balance, my hopeless coordination. Gosh, this bookworm is so out of her depth embarking on something physical not mental, I think to myself, wobbling a little. I start to find an ancient rhythm. Music begins to purr from the iPod system and, just like that, I notice the teacher enters.
Her name is Christine. Christine D'Ercole.
Pirate-like, a navy bandanna covers her head. She wears knee-high doc-martens, strutting into the room, pure punk panache. Rings piece her ears, glinting, tiny lights, they decorate the gladiator as she moves through her arena. Her muscles are miraculous. She exudes power, force, strength. Her face is finely etched with a clear beauty, in her brows, her eyes, her wide American smile; hers is a beauty which comes from fathoming the dark, uncharted depths of one's vast inner strength.
The Pirate pulls up the anchor. She cycles on a pedestal, facing us. She is the mast. We are the deck. To a techno drumbeat, she begins to lead us out into the high, wild seas of our self-discovery. We have already set sail.
We meet her gaze from our whirring steel mounts. We are on a road. We are rounding a hill. We cruise to a valley. We lean. We lunge. We stretch. We curl. We climb. We overcome. We surge. We race. We compete, always with ourselves. Already, ten minutes in, we battle, we wage. This is War. We win. We cannot lose. We never stop. We dig. We dig deeper. We find more. We push on. We recover.
Along the way, our course is mapped with Eminem, with Bono, with Rihanna, with Lady Gaga. The pirate navigates us through seas of pain and fatigue, through oceanic walls we cannot overcome yet somehow, we defy ourselves, and we do. We press through crescendos of euphoria and coast on swells of energy, the current is strong here, deep. I am filled with endorphins and the pain begins to fade as I give into the shocking riptide of power surging within me. My weak self dissolves into a woman who is strong, stronger than she knows. I look to the right. I look to the left. I look ahead. I look below. I am become a piston in this engine. Seamless. Flawless. Onward. Onward. Upward. Faster. Harder. Deeper. Around me legs pedaling, muscled backs leaning into the imagined hill, shoulders pumping, glistening, bellies pulled in tight towards our powerful, bladed spines. We are a school of dolphins, a pack of racers, a flock of eagles, a herd of zebras. We are motion.
In short minutes we have united. We are a pack. We are one.
I look up at the mirror. I spy my reflection. Is this mirage or magic? She looks back, younger, flushed, vibrant, this avatar of mine. I see her working, straining, breathing, nostrils flaring, pushing, moving. The avatar feels no pain. The avatar is flying. The avatar soars. I look away from the mirror and return to where I am. I see only my limbs. I am only my limbs. Soon, I am only my legs. I am systole. I am diastole. Systole. Diastole. I am machine. I am the piston. I am nothing else. I am
"You are stronger than you think!" calls the Pirate over the sea made stormy, wild, surfed into foam by the seismic forces our pack now emanates. I barely hear her over the pulse of life beating in my head. I hear only my heart, my breath, my intention, my flesh.
And I think, maybe, I AM...
I look up for my avatar.
The mirrors are steamed with the fuel we burn. The avatar is gone. Instead my avatar and I are one. I have entered her and she enters me. I feel nothing. I move, flying. I curl towards the beating quads which can't possibly be mine but somehow are. On the crest of this ride, for lucid, rare moments I am transported to a cantering thoroughbred from a decade ago. I jump my beloved Raeef, and in the NOW, feel the butterflies spiral, corkscrew upwards inside me.
The ride is real.
The ride is surreal.
I breathe. I believe.
Still, the Pirate pushes the galleon forward, ever forward.
"Listen to the tempo. There are no words in this song. No words to distract you. Just think.
"I CAN. I WILL. I AM. I DO," her voice booms at the top of her breath. She roars across an ocean. We lean forward, like galley slaves, we beat to a massive drum. The mantra begins spinning in my head.
"I can. I will. I am. I do."
I hear my breath whooshing out, sucking in. My lungs stretch to full capacity. My mouth torn open, hungers for air. My legs are leaden, long anaerobic. I feel the lactate, acrid, paralyzing, like rust in an engine. Yet, I CAN. I WILL. I AM. I DO. Somehow, I gather more power to push on. My heart is bursting out of my chest, battering against my bony sternum but it feels strong, vital, alive, I can barely contain it.
The Pirate roars, screaming into our headwind.
"I want you to think of a goal. One goal, ONE goal, that you are chasing! Chase it. Chase it. There is nothing standing between you and your goal. One goal."
I see my goal.
I see it. I sense it. I smell it. I touch it. I am it. Quadrangles stroked by a leafy breeze. Church bells toll. The lazy flow of an English river carries a gliding punt. A scholar's gown sweeps against red brick. Early morning revelers, tuxedos askew, return from a dazzling ball. I inhale the smell of English grass after summer rain. I open the door to my future one Cambridge afternoon. I push the pedals, and reach this goal. I want it. I get it. I protect it. I push the pedals and cross the Atlantic. I push the pedals and demolish my competitors. I push the pedals and snatch what is mine. I push the pedals and seize the fellowship.
I push the pedals, I feel alive. I push the pedals and find I, and my avatar, have long since exited my body. Instead we soar, flying somewhere high, high in the palace of my mind.
In the steamed mirrors of the wall, the Pirate writes.
"If you really had to, you could."
She commands her troops:
"You are stronger than you think. If you really had to carry your child, at SEVENTY, you could. If you really had to run 100 blocks barefoot, you could. If you really had to lift a car off that person. You could."
Deranged by adrenalin, I believe. I breathe. I believe. I breathe. I believe. I breathe.
We read her words and push higher, harder, more, further. Stinging sweat blinds. In my darkness I sense the class has fused. Our legs are one, our minds are one, our limits are none.
I am balanced on the brink of joy and the edge of tears. Something has stirred within, it surges, it bubbles. A cauldron of power has just been uncovered and the fire within has started to blaze. I am a stranger to my power, my treasure, the power to which this Pirate is drawn. As she takes from it, it grows and gleams and multiplies. I am full of riches and yet there is more.
I am strong.
My soul is cycling, cascading, cart wheeling, capering, flying.
This is SoulCycle.
The pack begins to slow. The class is ending. Forty-five minutes warps into moments. Time stretches back toward reality. We disengage, from our machines and our minds. We spill out into Manhattan, automatons newly in possession of hidden, latent powers.
I don't feel foolish. I feel bold. I don't feel clumsy. I feel sure. I don't feel weak. I feel strong. I don't feel old. I feel alive. I don't feel stuck. I feel dynamic.
I am. I can. I will. I do.
I am stronger than I think.
Days later, on the other side of town, I am engaged in my weekly psychotherapy with my special, rare guide. We talk about SoulCycle. I say to her, my other, mysterious navigator,
"Joan, I am stronger than I think."
I smile, and see in my mind the powerful Pirate with whom I SoulCycle.
We will sail again.
Follow Qanta Ahmed, MD on Twitter: www.twitter.com/MissDiagnosis