Healthy bodies for a sick world…

“Physical culture is in the air just now,” reflected P. G. Wodehouse in an article forVanity Fair published a year before the “gentleman’s gentleman” entered the literary canon.

The essay described how the “average man” of post-Edwardian England “now postpones his onslaught on the boiled egg for a matter of fifteen minutes,” time devoted to a “series of bendings and stretchings which in the course of time are guaranteed to turn him into a demi-god.”

A century later and physical culture once again pervades. Earlier this week, a colleague in London penned an article highlighting the growth in female sports as symbolic of a wider trend towards health and fitness in the U.K.

The U.S. is similarly bending and stretching under the spell, with traditional gyms augmented by boutique fitness centers and juice shops in the country’s great metropolises.

My colleague cited figures on the mushrooming market for women’s sporting clothes to emphasize the refocus towards personal wellbeing, while noting the community aspect of modern fitness fueled by the carbs of “celebrity and media.”

She is certainly right on the community aspect, with a strong argument that gatherings around fitness have superseded the church and synagogue — brick victims of secularism’s powerful strides. As such, health could simply be the latest expression of the human need to experience transcendental emotion beyond the individual.

The fitness center is, after all, the modern incarnation of a religious cult, one that leans back beyond Wodehouse, even beyond the “muscular Christianity” of the Victorians and into antiquity with the Romans and ancient Greeks using exercise as a preparation for war.

Yet the current flowering may have more immediate psychological drivers too. Wodehouse wrote about the push towards “physical culture” in 1914, a year bandaged by the tumult of war wrought on both citizenry and soldiery.

Likewise, the 2008 financial crash (and its economic and political aftermath) blanketed the hitherto comfortable West in doubt, insecurity and a profound sense of unease.

Whereas Europe and America’s portly middle classes once relied on a career delivering sufficient recompense to raise a family, buy a house, enjoy vacations, and save for a comfortable retirement, the 2008 meltdown broke the illusion.

Banks crumbled, interest rates plummeted, employment fell and wages stagnated. Meanwhile, restrictions on lending created a generation for whom homeownership — the most basic emblem of long-term security — was denied.

Meanwhile, the rise of the Islamic State abroad was paralleled by anti-immigrant sentiment at home, the rats of the far-right resurfacing from the pipes and sewers to once again spread the bacilli of intolerance and hate.

For a generation, the system’s upheaval highlighted a lack of control in the world, a psychological blow that led many to turn inwards, attempting to regain control via dominance over their own bodies.

In a society unrestrained and a future unknown, perhaps exercise regimes, healthy eating and mindfulness offered a return to the illusion or at least a way to cope with the stress therein.

Writing the year the Great War was unleashed, Wodehouse scoffed at how “the advertisement pages of the magazines are congested with portraits of stern-looking, semi-nude individuals with bulging muscles and fifty-inch chests.”

The author lived to be 93, having practiced his own daily exercise regime for more than 50 years. Were he alive today, he may well have noted the plates of healthy food, yoga poses and shirtless pull-ups similarly congesting Instagram.

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post. The original article can be found here.

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Pews give way to the saddle

The congregation stands at the door of the chapel, hands clenched around bottles of water, feet balancing on horseshoe clips soon to mount pedals.

“Is it like spinning?” a woman behind me asks her uninitiated companion. “No,” she replies. “This is Soul Cycle.”

The priest, a young man with a tailored beard and a defined physique, beckons the worshippers in. The pews are freshly wiped; white towels decorate the handlebars. Each bike is occupied; hopefuls on the waiting list are turned away.

The priest sits by the altar choosing a hymnal from a computer perched on a table protruding from the wall. Under the music, the noise of locking machinery vies with chatter.

Riders select their bike before the class ensuring a demarcation of devotion — skeptics at the rear, fanatics at the front. The bikes immediately facing the priest are reserved by the most loyal — booked in the hope of receiving a look of favor or a nod of recognition from the leader. Some congregants attend church daily, some more than once a day.

It’s a ’90s nightclub, an ’80s aerobics video, a self-help convention and a liturgy. It’s a mass of steam pipe-sweaty believers all moving in primal groupishness — forward, back, left, right, always on the beat, always on the beat, always on the beat.

The riders mirror the movements of the priest at the altar, each motion choreographed immaculately with the music.

Across the notes, the priest shouts mantras of mindfulness, mutterings shorn from self-help cards and as opaque as the horoscope: “We ride, we struggle, we change, we grow, we conquer.”

The message condensed is that fitness means confidence and confidence means happiness, all delivered in fortune cookie prose: “Ride from the soul and find the happiest, fittest, most confident you in every aspect of your life.”

Through moving as one, individuals experience “self-transcendent emotions,” feelings of something greater than themselves; tribal and uplifting, the same euphoria derived from amphetamines and EDM or singing in a choir.

The priest finally reveals why we are all there: “Together we will escape the difficulties of our lives and become a part of something bigger than ourselves.”

It’s an easy sell. In a world in which corporations reduce individuals to a daily function, the church provides more. It says you are greater than your role, more than a number on a spreadsheet vying for a few additional dollars at the end of the year, more than a hungry dog snarling over scraps at the corporate feeding bowl.

You are more than a reluctant psychopath, forced to compete for approval from above whilst treading on those below lest they move ahead at your expense. You are a human. You are more.

Candles surround the priest like Anglican evensong while scripture ornaments the wall — “Athlete, Legend, Warrior, Renegade, Rockstar.”

Throughout the service God is praised, praised by the priest in branded shorts, the human God, you, the rider, all the riders, the congregation and the collective endeavor it submits — all praised by the priest in branded shorts.

The service ends and the pews empty. The congregants leave weary, fitter and closer to happiness. “Tough class” a man says to a woman removing her shoes. “Yes, he really pushed us today,” she replies. “It was like a different world in there.”

The hope is that conviction bleeds from ritual into the real world. Riders just have to keep coming back. Founding a church, it seems, is as easy as riding a bike.

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post. The original article can be found here.