Joining the Cult: An Exercise Novice Tries 3 of Philly’s Cult-Followed Fitness Studios

“I’m given a bull’s-eye sticker for the head of my mat, to signal to my instructor that I’m new.”

Illustration by James Boyle

In the exercise realm, there’s lots of talk about the need for variety. But a certain sector of fitness studios seems to transcend this want, inspiring such commitment — allegiance, even — that attendees return day after day, week after week. These studios boast clever hashtags, cute branded apparel, and supportive, tribe-like communities. It’s all quite alluring. But can I, an exercise novice, keep up in the devotion-spurring, slightly intimidating world of boutique exercise classes? There’s just one way to find out.

My first stop is Rittenhouse’s CorePower Yoga, a studio regularly touted for its ability to convert even the most sloth-like into full-fledged yogis. I opt for its signature CorePower 2, an intermediate class held in a heated room pumped with humidity. The goal: “Turn stress into sweat.” I’m given a bull’s-eye sticker for the head of my mat, to signal to my instructor that I’m new. As we line up, sardine-like, in the dim studio, I’m met with graciousness by my classmates, whose polite mat scooting and hushed greetings show they’ve clearly made this part of their daily ritual. And when our instructor coos, “Everything you need is on the mat,” I genuinely believe it. I emerge detoxified, noticeably calmer, and in need of a shower.

A few days later, my Zen-like state persists, for which I’m thankful as I nervously visit SoulCycle’s Rittenhouse location. An NYC indoor-cycling import (there’s also an Ardmore outpost), it boasts the most fervent followers of the trio of studios I’ve been tasked with trying. When I whisper to the desk attendant that I’m new, he quells my anxieties with an excited spiel: Spin shoe rentals are free for first-timers, the luxe locker rooms are upstairs, and a staffer will ensure that I’m comfortably on my bike before class starts. Inside the studio, the music is loud and the moves are quick, timed to the pace of Rihanna tunes and the like. Though I’m initially concerned that my lack of rhythm will ruin everyone’s experience, I soon realize that SoulCycle is so intense, such a sensory immersion, that no one is paying much attention to me. I spin on, liberated.

After two intense classes, my years-long exercise hiatus is obvious. I’m pooped. But I have a Saturday-morning reservation at Sansom Street’s Barre3. The mirrors lining two sides of the studio make me feel extra-vulnerable as we bounce to music, squatting low and “pulsing,” as they say.  How do they know to wedge that rubber ball underneath their backs? I wonder with fleeting panic as we descend onto our mats. No matter — the moves are repetitive, and I quickly catch on. So quickly, in fact, that when I return just 48 hours later — my assignment already complete — I wedge that rubber ball underneath my back with the confidence of a regular. I’ll admit: I’m hooked. Hey, maybe an exercise routine isn’t that far-fetched after all.

This was originally published in the 2017 print issue of Be Well Philly. Make sure to snag your free copy here!

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