--“I look handsome, I look smart, I am a walking work of art” --Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.
--“Be not lifted up because of thy strength or beauty of body, for with only a slight sickness it will fail and wither away.” --Thomas à Kempis (15th century)
My “Night Vision” post contrasted a wall of distrust with an open door of welcome, and falling alone with being helped up by others. The night I finished writing it, I fell asleep with the radio on. I awoke to a 2 a.m. recast of On Point’s Boutique Fitness Craze, discussing the “extreme, expensive studio exercise that focuses on very specific methods from Pilates-influenced ballet…to stationary-bike dance with a lot of soul talk along for the ride.”
In his introduction, moderator Tom Ashbrook referred to this movement as “almost a religion” and religious notions were used to describe it throughout the program. The aromatic candles of SoulCycle suggest the candles and incense of traditional liturgies and chapels; its pounding music helps its cyclists to “reach a higher plane” like highly repetitive worship songs of nondenominational churches or Taizé. “People at the front desk [who] know your name” are like the ushers who smile and shake your hand as you walk into church. High-fives and whoops after a workout substitute for the holy embrace accompanied by “The peace of the Lord be with you.” A workout that “hurts like hell!” and in which “you almost black out it’s so intense” incarnates the churchgoer’s thoughts of “suffering for the gospel.” Charisma is as important for the coach as it is for the preacher in building up a following. Sceptics ridicule the “silliness” of people swindled into believing that they are “cycling their way to immortality” just as the scoffers scorn those who delight in the Torah.
Ashbrook’s last guest was Harvard Divinity School student Angie Thurston. She studies an American cultural shift evident in her generation of Millennials (born in the last two decades of the 20th century), who are “looking for spirituality and community in combination” but not in “institution[s} with religious creed as the threshold.” Membership in traditional faith communities is decreasing; membership in clubs and organizations offering communal identity is increasing.
Toward the end of the program, Ashbrook questioned the relationship between fitness clubs and religion since “we associate religion with… a moral vision... with some kind of a transcendence.” But “some kind of transcendence” was at play throughout the program. Transcending physical barriers was linked to the transcendence of psychological barriers. The fitness director of Shape magazine said that there is "an evolution in the way that people are exercising. You are working out at such a higher level than you might otherwise… You break boundaries every day… All that superficial stuff doesn’t matter in that moment." The founder of Soulcycle says that after "getting through" obstacles on the bike "I can go out into my own life and operate on a higher plane that’s super powerful and very valuable."
Social barriers, in an age where “people are more digitally connected but more locally isolated” (Thurston), are transcended by the sense of community nurtured in boutique programs. “You feel this support for one another… proud of one another,” a guest said. A caller referred to his gym as a “safe place” where “I can bring my whole self to the gym” and be respected by others regardless of physical and social differences. The movement is “transcending culture and…national boundaries,” says one of CrossFit’s cofounders, referring to the growth of its affiliates throughout the world.
Receiving much less attention than “some kind of transcendence” was the question of “moral vision” that Ashbrook referred to. Thurston touched on this, referring to a paper in which she compared contemporary fitness clubs with ancient philosophical schools: they are similar in linking physical exercise to community but the ancient clubs gave much more attention to the link between physical and moral development. Thurston says there is some movement in this direction now, giving as an example a program started by Rick Warren, author of the Purpose-Driven Life: Christians with CrossFit Faith “offers spiritual Workouts of the Day alongside the usual daily regimen of weights and burpees.” With similar concerns, an On Point caller told of opening a CrossFit gym for ex-military and others involved in dangerous and stressful work to facilitate discussion of the challenges they meet outside of the gym as well as to work out together.
I am as grateful as a boutique member for my experiences of transcendence related to physical exercise. But I also wonder if the blurred vision during my recent ultra-run might be a metaphor for blurred moral vision: excessive attention to my own progress along a side-trail may blur my vision of those thrashing through entangled paths or fallen on the main trail. I guess some of my concerns might be expressed in a recast of the ancient parable of the loving neighbor:
A man was walking on a city side street, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a SoulCycle instructor was going down that road to lead a group of professionals to a higher plane; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a CrossFit coach, heading for the gym to train people “not only for the unknown, but for the unknowable,” saw the man and passed by on the other side. Then an overweight guy out to have a smoke came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, carried him to his car, brought him to a hospital, assured that he was given good care, and promised to cover all expenses. Which of these three, do you think, truly had soul? Which was truly fit?
Trails we follow,