On Sunday afternoons, thousands of people come together to worship and focus on their spiritual development. Their preacher talks to them about virtue: about temperance, about pride, and about love. Their goal, she says, is about “getting us spiritually grounded” and focusing on the virtues. Like many church services, Christian music punctuates the experience and whips up excitement among congregants. Unlike more traditional religious rituals, however, people are sweating, because they aren’t in a church: they are participants in the Peloton class “Sundays with Love” run by celebrity fitness instructor and adidas global ambassador Ally Love.
Of course, the class isn’t advertised as or conceived of as a church service. Peloton is a for-profit fitness company that was floated on the New York Stock Exchange just under a month ago and was started by Harvard MBA and former IAC executive John Foley (full disclosure: The Daily Beast is owned by IAC). When people have described the at-home spin class phenomenon as a “company-slash-cult” the analysis was a tongue-in-cheek reference to Peloton’s popularity.
But Ms. Love’s new Sunday class is different. Each class is built around a particular virtue that serves as the theme for the day during which the participants are addressed as “saints” and inspired with music that intersperses “Superman” with hymns to the Trinity. On the Facebook page dedicated to the class, the already popular Ms. Love describes her role as that of a “vessel.” She wants, she says, for “God to use me.” Add to this the ritual body movements and testimonials and anyone could be forgiven for thinking that they are in some kind of church.
The idea of achieving “sainthood” through bodily suffering and mortification is nothing new. It’s an almost 2,000-year-old idea that, while it has parallels in ancient Greek and Roman discipline and in the lives of biblical prophets, really finds its feet in late antique Christianity. The first and, arguably, best examples of Christians embracing suffering for spiritual gain are the early Christian martyrs. But after Constantine the Great became emperor at the beginning of the fourth century and Christianity went mainstream it was difficult for Christians to find hardship and adversity in their ordinary lives.
The solution, for some, was to go out to the deserts to live in caves as hermits and practice asceticism. And, thus, the phenomenon we know better as monasticism was born. The purpose of asceticism, Marquette Assistant Professor of Theology Jeanne-Nicole Mellon Saint-Laurent told the Daily Beast, was “to train the body through physical deprivations so that a person’s soul can govern the body.” Some ascetic practices, such as prostrating oneself on the ground, have a deeply physical component to them. Saint-Laurent told me that “even today in a monastery in Tur Abdin [there is] a tiny cell just narrow enough for a monk to be inside it.... in these narrow standing places [ascetics] could stand all night long or suspend themselves on ropes under their armpits to hold themselves up.”
The focus on physical discomfort, hunger, and battling one’s demons seems, metaphorically at least, not so far from the regime of the average wealthy New York housewife. And, interestingly, asceticism appealed to wealthy women in antiquity as well.
Maria Doerfler, assistant professor of late antiquity at Yale University, told me: “Why exactly individuals with the fiscal and societal status of a Paris Hilton, ca. 2002, were drawn to practices like fasting, extended prayer, abstaining from sex and/or marriage, dressing ‘down,’ even taking up manual labor, is a difficult question... But part of it seems to have been an appropriation of a new kind of agency.” The opportunity to transcend the role of mother, daughter, or wife, was appealing. Saint-Laurent added that “ancient people found asceticism compelling the way we moderns find super athletes compelling. When one watches Simone Biles on the floor, for example, there is a sense of hope that comes... through discipline, practice, focus, and indeed sacrifice, they accomplish beautiful things... that seem to transcend human limitations.” The same might be said of Ally Love: she is a beautiful, toned, and enlightened embodiment of what Peloton users might hope to accomplish.
When I asked Doerfler if “Sundays with Love” qualifies as a kind of spiritual practice, she told me, “There are really two aspects that I find striking: the ascetic and the ritual. On the one hand, being led through a series of movements en masse while being encouraged, instructed, surrounded by music, are a big part of how Christian communities—but also many other religions—structure their gatherings.” At the same time the “shared, bodily response that reinforces… one's being part of the bigger whole… happens in other Sunday services as well: believers stand, sit, kneel, prostrate themselves, come forward, dance, both in response to the message being conveyed and as a way of internalizing that message through their bodies.” Doerfler notes that, “the real change the class is supposed to effect is not in the body but in the mind…[And] that's a deeply ascetic message, even if it is a very time-limited one: after all, Peloton users typically do not devote more than 60 minutes a day to their personal asceticism.”
In some ways the fact that Love endows her classes with religious meaning is expected. In an interview earlier this year with The New York Times, Love cited famous New York minister and bestselling author Timothy Keller as an important influence. It might be easy to dismiss the religious orientation of one of her classes as a one-off, but Peloton is not the only exercise that is taking a spiritual turn. For the past decade running has been reshaped as a kind of spiritual discipline. In 2006 Runner’s World magazine ran a piece in which Dr. George Sheehan, a famous “running philosopher,” said that running is “a retreat, a place to commune with God and yourself, a place for psychological and spiritual renewal.” The magazine added that “many runners consider the roads and trails as places of worship, where they reflect, dream, and give thanks.” Running has even featured in the pages of religious publications. The Jesuit magazine America recently ran a piece that explicitly described running as a form of asceticism. Brian Holdsworth, a Canadian runner, told them “As a Christian, mortification and the redemptive qualities of suffering are a perfect fit with how I treat running.”
There’s an interesting contrast between the recasting of running and spin class as ascetic practices, on the one hand, and the de-spiritualizing of yoga by 20th century Americans. While most people accept and treat yoga as a spiritual as well as physical practice; it is rarely explicitly tied to Hinduism. Perhaps the willingness to spiritualize exercise in a Christian way, while blandly recasting yoga as brand-less spirituality reveals some deep-seated colonial anxieties about the limits of enchantment with ‘exotic’ religions. Perhaps yoga does not provoke enough suffering to register as a form of asceticism. Or, perhaps we are seeing the birth of new religious practices that straddle the line between the religious and the non-religious (think Kanye West’s Sunday Service).
Certainly, fidelity to traditional religiosity does not seem to be a central element of these new spiritual exercises. The kind of person that spiritual exercise wants to produce is not at all the same kind of person that ancient asceticism tried to shape. The most recent “Sundays with Love” workout focused on the “virtue” of “pride.” Pride here is defined as “the feeling of self satisfaction derived from one's own achievements.” Ally asks, “Who's working on being more proud?” Given that pride is traditionally one of the seven deadly vices and something with which ancient monks struggled, it’s unusual to see pride promoted as a virtue that one should “work on.” Its inclusion is evidence of the ways in which religious practices are transformed by their reuse and reapplication. While psychiatry and self-help might encourage us to know our worth, work on our self-esteem, and be more confident, ancient ascetics would bristle at the idea of pride as positive. The joining together of female empowerment and spirituality is part of a new hybrid trend that takes seriously the connection between physical pain and personal spiritual growth even as it reconfigures what the content of that growth should be.