The Consumerist Church of Fitness Classes

Dec 12, 2017, 07:00 PM

You pay a regular tithe to support the community. In public, you wear symbols that identify you as one of the faithful. When you gather with other adherents, it’s often in small, close rooms. Breathing gets heavy; bodies sweat. If anyone speaks, it is to moan, or occasionally to shout in triumph. Exercise classes often function just as much like a church as they do like a gym: They gather people into a community, and give them a ritual to perform. The comfort of clipping your shoes into a beloved SoulCycle bike or landing the first blow on your favorite heavy bag at a boxing gym is not so far off from the reassurance of arriving at temple on a Friday. You know who will be leading the evening; you can anticipate the general contours of its energy. You know you will recognize familiar faces among the participating crowd. As more Americans have moved away from organized religion (a 2015 Pew Center study found that 23 percent of the adult population identified as “religiously unaffiliated,” up from 16 percent in 2007) they have also moved toward new forms of community building, as well as new ways to seek mental clarity and spiritual experiences. The gym is a popular avenue for this kind of searching, in part because it mimics the form of traditional religious services. First of all, it creates community for us: a place where we can congregate to actively socialize. “I think I’ve figured out what [people are] really drawn to, and that’s the community aspect of it,” says Sam Rypinski, who owns an LA gym called Everybody, which aims to be diverse and inclusive. “We’re living in dark times; we’re very segregated and separated from each other. We’re cut off by technology. We don’t connect with our bodies; we don’t connect with each other. So if there’s a space that encourages that on any level, people are so happy to be there.” As Rypinski notes, beyond helping us meet like-minded people, exercise helps us ground ourselves in our bodies the same way that religious ritual can (with movements like crossing ourselves, or bowing and kneeling). Many middle- and upper-class people spend most of their days ignoring their physical selves in favor of mentally tasking work; exercise helps one become reembodied. But it also creates space apart from those busy brains. Exercise offers the opportunity to unplug from the flow of external data, as well as the chatter of our own relentless minds. Exertion is one of the easiest ways to short that particular circuit, and so gym and studio classes trend toward intensity, a grueling insistence that leaves no room to form thoughts more complicated than do not stop. And then, at some point, a little bit of alchemy happens. Exhaustion combines with the well-worn familiarity of routine to form the zone that athletes often speak of. The zone is when it all starts flowing. It’s a psychic space in which you feel at once deeply within and also somehow outside of yourself. In this way, exercise routines can be a relatively straightforward path to something that resembles a religious ecstatic state. Sometimes classes create this state in order to facilitate a specific spiritual practice. Modern yoga and its concept of “moving meditation” is an early 20th-century creation, an amalgamation of Western physical-fitness culture and centuries-old Indian religious traditions. It’s designed to use “the zone” as an introduction to the mental clarity that is sought through meditation. Starting in the physical realm can be helpful for people who are intimidated or turned off by the idea of religion or spirituality: “There’s nothing more immediate, there’s nothing more present-moment than your physical sensations,” says Caleb Aschkynazo, who has been teaching yoga in Los Angeles for 30 years. “There’s nothing less religious, there’s nothing less conceptual.” Yoga and related practices can teach you to listen to yourself, first and foremost—which, Aschkynazo points out, puts you onto the path of tuning out “the endless caco...