(RNS) — SoulCycle, the relentlessly vibes-driven indoor cycling class peddling positivity at $40 a class, has often been described as a cult. Now, the company’s founders, Elizabeth Cutler and Julie Rice, are taking SoulCycle’s spiritual underpinnings and rendering them at last explicit.
Peoplehood, the duo’s latest venture, doesn’t claim to burn calories or tone thighs. Instead, participants pay to attend 55-minute “gathers”: leader-facilitated conversations about emotionally and spiritually intense subjects between strangers. Attendees are provided with conversation prompts, predetermined gestural scripts for listening and expressing support and encouraged to pair off to discuss their anxieties and dreams with strangers.
According to Katherine Rosman’s New York Times coverage of the new company (in which I am quoted), the founders envision Peoplehood as SoulCycle for the, well, soul: an extension of their discovery that the spin class provided devotees not just with a more aesthetically pleasing appearance but a chance to work on their inner selves.
It is tempting to dismiss what goes on in Peoplehood’s classes as spiritualized charlatanism at best — and dangerous pseudoscience at worst: Rosman’s article quotes one concerned psychiatrist, who tells Rosman that having techniques drawn from group therapy could risk participants’ mental health. The Washington Post’s Christine Emba argued convincingly that the “guided spirituality” for sale at Peoplehood’s seminars represents a facile replication of religious life: one that replaces the dedication and moral rigor required in belonging to an actual community with a mere hourlong simulacrum of intimacy.
But if Peoplehood is indeed simply a chance to exchange $40 or more for an opportunity to feel — rather than actually be — spiritually challenged, it may well be filling a need. After all, it’s not as if its target audience is swimming in connection. More and more people in urban areas where SoulCycle thrives find themselves alienated from more traditional and institutional forms of community, whether religious or secular or familial.
Peoplehood can’t be faulted for offering some kind of solution. In an era where almost two-thirds of young adults say they’re experiencing loneliness after two years of pandemic-enforced isolation, paying $40 or more (Peoplehood still has not released the cost of its seminars, which remain in beta) for a chance at emotional intimacy may seem perfectly worthwhile.
As one of the founders told Rosman, “We are modern medicine for the loneliness epidemic.”
At its best, Peoplehood might been seen as a speed-dating event, with intense discussion aiming to put people on a fast-track only to emotional, not physical, intimacy. Sometimes it can be easier to foster such connections with strangers than with those who know us in the “real world” — as the many long-distance friends I met as a teenager on online blogging networks like LiveJournal can attest. The idea of paying for access to a space where people are encouraged to get to know one another and discuss difficult or thought-provoking topics has the potential to be fruitful.
What we object to is the idea of providing connection as a product. For Peoplehood to succeed financially, it has to do what SoulCycle did: keep people coming back weekly, or even daily. And putting a price tag on human connection doesn’t only consumerize friendship; it limits the community to those who have the spare cash to spend on a 55-minute “gather” in the first place.
One thing Peoplehood doesn’t offer is a common purpose — a project — around which its participants can foster and sustain a relationship: one that would allow them to form not just individual emotional bonds, but communal ones. Peoplehood doesn’t foster friendship through sports or (my preferred teenage method) theater; it isn’t a choir or a volunteer group. It isn’t even SoulCycle — a highly individualistic form of exercise, but one in which participants are working alongside one another, at least ostensibly, on the goal of collective skill improvement.
Emotionally intense conversations might be immediately rewarding as a form of self-unburdening, but Peoplehood doesn’t sound like it’s asking the question of what such conversations are ultimately for, or what the ultimate purpose of intimacy or intensity really is. Without the building blocks of more stable friendship, Peoplehood risks becoming a kind of gig-economy crowdsourced version of therapy, where amateurs take turns treating one another on the (very expensive) couch.