“Any recommendations for a grief ride?” I typed into a Facebook subgroup for Peloton users. Reeling from the news of my grandmother’s death, I knew the right spin class could cut through my fog of grief. Soon I was halfway through Kendall Toole’s “Mental Health Awareness Day” ride and sobbing so loudly I was afraid my neighbors would hear me. It wasn’t the first time I’d cried during a ride, but it was the first time I’d turned to the bike for the specific purpose of moving (literally) through my emotions.
For most of my life, I brought all of my emotions to church. Growing up in a Pentecostal denomination, I attended Sunday services where women kicked off their pumps and danced in the aisles. Church was the place to come together and sing, dance, laugh, or weep. I had my own personal rituals, too, for spiritual connection and emotional release. All it took was my Bible, my journal, and a worship playlist, preferably in a quiet space in nature. But life as a busy working parent made such a time-expensive practice a luxury, and during the pandemic, in-person church was out of the question for me.
Enter the ritual and release of the Peloton bike. First, I gather my towel and water, pop in my AirPods, and enter my “sanctuary”––our office/home gym. I clip into the bike and I’m transported to another world. When I need a good cry or emotional release on the bike, I select a “Sad” class from Peloton’s “Mood Collection.” I let the music swell in my chest, pushing tears up to my eyes and letting them flow. If I’m ragey, I choose an EDM ride, cranking up the resistance and stomping down on the pedals as I imagine myself scaling a massive mountain.
Sometimes I’m not sure what I’m feeling until I’m on the bike. Recently a wad of unnamed emotions felt stuck in my body for days. I chose Emma Lovewell’s “Sad Ride” and 20 minutes later I was crying to Coldplay’s “Fix You,” feeling basic but also relieved that the movement, the music, and Lovewell’s commentary brought what I was really feeling to the surface: grief over all the losses, big and small, I’d experienced in the past two years.
I know I’m not the only one having a spiritual experience on the bike. A Washington Post article noted that Peloton is “prime testing ground for certain questions: ‘How does a modern-day meaning-making community work? And is there room for old-school religion?’” The article quoted Casper ter Kuile about the trend of “unbundling” religion, where people access elements of the traditional religious experience in various, non-religious places. I’m certainly one of them. However, I see my rides as a complement to, rather than a replacement for, my lifelong faith and its accompanying practices. Peloton helps me find an embodied spiritual connection that doesn’t require a congregation or a quiet meadow. The Holy Spirit is just as likely to speak to me, giving me insights or consolation, while I’m on a ride as when I’m having a more typical devotional time.
Numerous studies have shown that singing, clapping, or moving in sync with other humans evokes a sense of well-being. Just as singing and swaying at church services have brought me catharsis and deep joy, moving in unison with a Peloton instructor on the screen in front of me has done the same. So when Ally Love finishes a ride by overhead clapping along to Kygo’s “Higher Love,” I join her. And when Hannah Corbin encourages me to do tapbacks, I mirror her movements, and almost laugh out loud for joy.
When I first subscribed to Peloton I chose a username that sounded tough; I wanted to rage on the bike and become the strongest version of myself. But recently I changed my name to JoyBomb. It’s a nod to the fact that physical exercise is not the only reason I ride several times a week (though my legs have never been stronger). My Peloton habit became a gateway to a meaningful ritual because, once I channel any emotion into my legs and follow the instructor’s guidance, it always leads to a flood of joy and deep gratitude. And if that’s not a spiritual practice, I don’t know what is.
Joy Netanya Thompson is a writer and editor based in Los Angeles. She is the author of the monthly-ish newsletter Midweek Joy (tinyletter.com/joynetanyathompson).