Home Gain Muscle “CrossFit is my church”

“CrossFit is my church”

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A 2012 Pew study tracked the rise of a new religious group: the “nones,” or the religiously unaffiliated. One-fifth of Americans — and a full third of adults under 30 — say they belong to no religion at all.

The study found that many of these “nones” aren’t actively searching for a religion or faith; many report disillusionment with internal church politicking, restrictive dogma, or institutional hypocrisy.

Yet, argues Casper ter Kuile, a researcher at Harvard Divinity School who focuses on religious identity in a secular age, this group — overwhelmingly young, progressive, and spiritually open — is still looking for elements of religious experience. In his 2015 study “How We Gather” (co-authored with Angie Thurston), ter Kuile explores ways modern millennials seek out meaning, community, and ritual in the absence of organized religion.

The study started by profiling about 100 organizations where millennials gathered for meaningful experiences, before winnowing down — through extended discussions with members and organizers, as well as the authors’ own experiences in these classes — to profiles of 10 organizations they deemed particularly formative in the lives of their students.

One of the most striking spaces? Fitness classes. Institutions like CrossFit and SoulCycle are offering their students more than just a chance to lose weight or tone up. They function, ter Kuile argues, like religions.

“People come because they want to lose weight or gain muscle strength, but they stay for the community,” he said. “It’s really the relationships that keep them coming back.”

Of course, these spaces are themselves defined not just by their spiritual role but by their economic one. At up to $40 a class, places like SoulCycle and CrossFit often cater to a particular demographic: urban millennials with high-paying jobs and disposable incomes, the same group that tends to identify as religiously unaffiliated.

Vox’s Tara Isabella Burton got on the phone with ter Kuile to learn more. Their conversation has been edited and condensed.

Tara Isabella Burton

Your study, “How We Gather,” explores the many ways people are finding religious meaning in secular or nonspecifically theistic communities. But some of the ones I find most surprising are fitness-centered. Your study includes profiles of both CrossFit and SoulCycle as examples of ways millennials are finding meaning and community in secular spaces. How did you come to those conclusions? Were you expecting fitness groups to be this significant to your study?

Casper ter Kuile

It was not what we expected. It was very much from the stories people told us, from the data. We heard people say, “Well, CrossFit is my church,” or, “SoulCycle is like my cult.” In a good way. Once that religious perspective had been opened in our eyes, so many things came out. Whether it’s the flag [on display] in every CrossFit [gym]; the names of different workouts that are given to honor fallen servicemen and women, either in the police in the military; the way that the space is set up; or how you could follow a kind of liturgy in a SoulCycle class, especially through their use of light and sound.

Tara Isabella Burton

CrossFit and SoulCycle, on the surface, offer very tangible benefits: They change your body in X or Y way. But it sounds like the benefits are far greater and more expansive than just, say, losing weight or building muscle tone. What kinds of things did your study participants get out of these groups?

Casper ter Kuile

SoulCycle talks about how people “come for the body but stay for the breakthrough.” It’s a good workout, but that’s only the beginning. Really what people experience is a sense of release of stress or a new insight and clarity about what’s important to them or a renewed commitment to the goals in their life or an experience of sanctuary, amid anxiety and pressure from their job. So it’s really an emotional and spiritual experience as well as a physical one.

It’s interesting to see how SoulCycle has changed the way they talk about what they’re offering. When we first reached out about four years ago and told SoulCycle, “We’re from Harvard Divinity School,” they were very wary of us. Now its leadership really embraces the spiritual element as that becomes more mainstream and less scary, as more and more people talk about their experience of crying [on difficult songs] or eulogizing their father-in-law from the front of the room. A trainer played a James Taylor song and talked about her father-in-law who’d just died, and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. More and more of that religious behavior is becoming explicit.

The same is true with CrossFit. People come because they want to lose weight or gain muscle strength, but they stay for the community. It’s really the relationships that keep them coming back.

That need for community was something that was so strong in our research. People were longing for relationships that have meaning and the experience of belonging rather than just surface-level relationships. Going through an experience that tests you to your limits, especially if you’re doing partner or team-based fitness routines, there’s an inevitable bonding that comes from experiencing hardship together.

Tara Isabella Burton

So let’s talk about demographics. Who is choosing to seek out these groups, and for whom do they become formative or significant, rather than merely part of personal maintenance? Who is the target audience here?

Casper ter Kuile

The Pew study really revealed that there was a growing number of people who don’t fit into a religious box. Plus, you have people, even if they might say, “I’m Catholic,” or, “I’m Jewish,” their institutions that are set up to serve them — the Catholic Church or a synagogue or a Jewish community center — no longer have the same resonance in what they’re offering to a lot of people.

What both CrossFit and especially SoulCycle do well is that you get to make your own journey. You’re receiving the physical intensity. You’re in charge of the resistance on your bike; there’s no preset settings. You have a lot of control over your experience. If you pray to Jesus, you can do that on your bike. But maybe somebody else just wants to soak up the good energy in the room, or focus on breathing. All of those things are possible. These spaces give you as a participant the freedom to integrate and select what you want to do. The theology isn’t pushed into your face.

Tara Isabella Burton

Something I’m curious about is how fitness instructors take on this kind of pastoral role, for which they aren’t necessarily trained. In your study, did you find that particular figures — beloved instructors, say — took on an outsize role in their students’ lives?

Casper ter Kuile

The SoulCycle recruitment process in itself is fascinating. They don’t actually recruit from trainers. They recruit from dancers, actors, Broadway people, people who know how to move an audience. People who are good at emoting. Often they’re very relational, very savvy. You see they cultivate an online persona on Instagram and give their own flavor.

In terms of pastoral roles, there’s a real negotiation of boundaries. Clients will text them — we have a number of examples of this — at 4 pm on a Sunday asking, “Should I divorce my husband?” Suddenly they’re playing a therapeutic or pastoral life. They’re integrated into the life of their riders that makes it hard to know when that role begins or ends.

In CrossFit, there’s plenty of examples [in our study] of trainers sleeping with their students, which of course is the biggest no-no in a pastoral relationship. Because CrossFit is so libertarian, there’s no [formal] guidance against that. But it can cause real significant relational challenges.

Tara Isabella Burton

It also sounds like there’s something very meaningful about the experience of community: working on something with other people. I’m struck that, particularly in urban millennial demographics, it seems like we’ve lost more intuitive sources of community (a church, say, or a wider extended family). How do these kinds of intense fitness classes foster community?

Casper ter Kuile

There’s one really simple thing: You can’t look at your phone when you’re on a bike or lifting weights. Simply by exercising, you’re physically and mentally present in a way that you can’t be if you have in a phone in your hand. The second thing is that in our culture, especially among high-achieving, Type A people who are in these classes, there’s a pressure to perform, to meet a standard — what you look like, who you’re hanging out with. And by getting ugly sweaty and being pushed through those limits of physical comfort, some of those barriers are broken down and you’re left in this raw and vulnerable experience together.

In SoulCycle, it’s we’re riding as a pack. Or in CrossFit, the workout doesn’t finish until the last person is finished, and everyone will stand around and clap for you until you’ve done the right amount of reps. So it’s an inversion of normal human behaviors of leaving people on their own or shying away when it gets hard. You have to really lean into that.

And finally, I’d say the physical space of both pushes people toward connection. In SoulCycle, it’s the darkness and the loudness of the music — you’re overwhelmed by it, and the world gets very small; it’s just that room you’re in. And in CrossFit, they often adopt an ugly, parking lot kind of background. It allows pretense to be stripped away — it’s just you and the barbell.

Tara Isabella Burton

Let’s talk more broadly about wellness and wellness culture and its connections to ritual. Whether it’s Alex Jones or Goop or the popularity of K-beauty routines, it seems that increasingly, the idea of wellness is connected to a kind of ritualistic practice: do X, Y, Z, thing and then attain a higher and more meaningful way of living. How does that sense of ritual, and the kind of structure it provides, dovetail with some of your study participants’ experiences in these spaces?

Casper ter Kuile

Ritual is so much about intention and attention and repetition. One of my favorite things to think about with CrossFit is — Christian congregations will say the Lord’s Prayer at the same time every week. And here you have these workouts of the day named “the Angie,” or whatever it is, and you have communities all over the world, thousands and thousands of people, doing that same ritual motion.

Ritual is this really helpful way of making people think of something greater. It’s a connective tissue tool. I think it also is something you can submit to in a certain way. It de-centers the individual and centers the collective in a way that I think is healthy. Ritual de-centers our immediate priorities and re-centers something else.

Ritual gives us a rhythm in a world where we’ve lost so many of the traditional markers of time. We no longer have a harvest calendar. A “9 to 5” [job] no longer really exists. So much of our life is completely independent of the natural world around us, and ritual is about bringing part of that rhythm [back].

Tara Isabella Burton

In many religious traditions, transformation of, or even mortification of, the body is part of the experience. For example, medieval Catholic monks wore hair shirts to mortify the flesh; fasting is common in many cultures. What does the spiritual popularity of CrossFit and SoulCycle tell us about how we, as a culture, exist in dialogue with our bodies today?

Casper ter Kuile

So much of our culture is so rational about how to think about every area of our life — the “death of God” movement has made it very difficult to engage belief for a lot of people. And the body feels like one of the last vestiges of how we can actually access spirituality. It’s beyond language. There’s nothing we can react to, like, “I don’t like this ‘God’ word” or “this word is oppressive” or “this word is traumatic.” When we’re in our bodies, it feels like the most direct line to our spiritual experience.

Tara Isabella Burton

Finally, what can we expect going forward? As more and more millennials disaffiliate with organized religion, it seems that, to be crude, there’s a “gap in the market” for spaces that fill certain needs. Do you anticipate that brands will work to fill this niche? What kind of organizations can we anticipate?

Casper ter Kuile

We keep saying, “Meaning-making is a growth industry,” especially as we see more automation and robots and AI and VR and all that stuff. Brands that can offer meaningful experiences of belonging and becoming are going to keep growing.

How do I feel in a world of isolation? How do I feel truly connected to myself, to people around me, and how do I become the person that I feel called to be? Brands that can help people do those two things are going to see huge success. That might be through transformational experiences. That might be through reflection exercises. That might be through communities that offer support and commitment.

It’s not that religion is dying; it’s just changing. Who are going to be the providers of content and wisdom and community that’s going to help people belong and become? That [need] is not going to change.

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