As most of you know, I love to find intersections between the head and the heart, the moment and the infinite, the spiritual and the secular. The sacred is everywhere if we allow the possibility and so today, I offer you “The Spirituality of Spin.”
“Pain is inevitable; suffering is a choice.”
These are words of wisdom a friend shared with me recently when I was in a lot of pain. At the time, I wanted to haul off and hit him, but he was just out of reach and I was locked into my pedals anyway. The pain was real and physical, but he also was the one putting me through it. His name is Rich and he is my spin instructor, but I secretly think he was a Zen master in a former life. You’ve got to love a guy who can seamlessly bring Buddhist philosophy, 50s doo-wop music and prodigious amounts of sweat into the same moment.
For many years, I avoided the spin room at my local YMCA. People who “spun” were intense. Whenever I walked by, the lights were dim; the music was pumping; the instructor was yelling, and the cyclists were staring at a glowing LED-display, mounted between their handlebars. They appeared transfixed, as if on ecstasy in a techno-fueled nightclub. Not my scene, thank you very much. I also happened to cherish sitting normally after a work out. Spin will never win, I thought smugly.
But about a year ago, one of my good friends defected to the dark side of the gym. She didn’t become an addict exactly, but two days a week, I’d see her in there, huffing and puffing and pedaling away. She invited me to come with her; I demurred. She told me what a good work out it was; I scoffed. She promised me my butt would adapt; I doubted it. But I couldn’t completely dismiss her perspective; I trust her. She’s a fit, successful, serene, 50-year-old woman who would never tolerate bad music, or macho bullshit. If she chose to spend an hour in a spin class, there must be something to it after all.
So I gave it a try and after a couple misses with bad music (the dreaded techno music) and worse instructors (pompous donkeys who sat up on their bikes and played air guitar while talking about how high a gear they were pushing), I finally made it to Steph’s cherished, Friday morning class and found my “spin” home.
Like any new exercise routine, or spiritual practice, spinning felt a little awkward at first. It was Catholic calisthenics all over again. We sat; we stood; we did a strange hover over the seat for 20 seconds at a time. I was always looking at my neighbor to gauge my posture and proficiency. I couldn’t tell if I was trying too hard, or not hard enough. I couldn’t seem to find the rhythm, when everyone else moved like an old pro. But the instructor Rich began that first class, and every class since with a gentle reminder: For the next sixty minutes, we simply need to be present to ourselves, to acknowledge what we feel and do what we can do. For the next hour, there are no problems to solve, or people to fix, so we can focus on why we are there: to transform our bodies and our selves. His stated goal as our teacher is to push us beyond our comfort zones, which is where all genuine improvement lies.
Though my ego and body didn’t love my first spin class with Rich, my soul immediately responded to his coaching style: creative and engaging, humble, but tough. It took only a few classes for me to begin to see how I could take his words into my spiritual life. Can you imagine a priest, pastor, or rabbi beginning every service that way? Asking us to breathe deeply, to center ourselves and let go of outside concerns? To be fully present to the Presence within us and open to the (sometimes painful) transformation that can take place if we allow it? Though they don’t usually ask, since I began spinning, I try to do it anyway.
Rich reminds us that if we wanted easy, we would be on a treadmill next door and I often think of that as I walk, sometimes reluctantly, into church. If I wanted easy, I’d be back in bed, munching on a donut and sipping my latte. I’m at church for a reason. Walking through life at a comfortable pace isn’t going to change me.
When our lungs and legs are burning, Rich calls out, “This is the feeling of improvement!” In all my years, during the many times I have been on my knees in prayer, in frustration, in desperation for things to be different, I had never thought of it that way. Our hearts and souls are no different than our bodies. Positive change never comes easily. Each step is just beyond our reach and the only way to get there is to do the very thing we don’t think we can do. In those moments in the classroom, Rich reminds us, “Somewhere inside of you is the person who can do this hard thing.” I want to believe he’s right, so I keep pedaling and push on, whether I’m on a bike, or in the midst of my life.
Finishing up a tough hill, Rich asks us to imagine our 80-year-old selves, thanking us for what we are doing right now at the age of 30, 40, or 50 and as I hold Tim’s hand at night, apologize for an unkind word, or let go of a petty grudge, I imagine the same thing. I am doing it for us now, but I’m also doing it for our 80-year-old selves. We plan to be together for another forty years at least, but that’s not going to happen if I don’t take care of business today.
One day when the hills were extra long and the incline steep, it seemed like the hour would never end. No matter how good the music, or how fine the company, I just didn’t have it in me to finish hard. I wanted to back off and quit, but sensing the mood of the room, Rich tried another tactic. He made sure we knew we were in this together. “Every one is feeling what you are feeling,” he likes to say and you can tell by the effort in his voice that he is no exception. He reminded me that solidarity is the key to enduring any difficult experience. Knowing we are not alone in our pain allows us to transform it. Great leaders, spiritual or otherwise, embrace the trials of their people and the burdens of their community. A great Leader is with you on your journey, in your effort and pain. She isn’t standing in the Promised Land, waiting for you to hurry up and get there. He doesn’t pretend that the journey didn’t cost him something as well.
Great leaders aren’t impatient. They don’t shame and blame, judge, compare and compete. They meet people where they are. They care and then they cure. I don’t know if Rich does all that in two, sixty-minute spin classes each week, but I do know I leave there better prepared to face my day, more sound in body and mind.
The most Zen of Rich’s words are where I began. Though they were spoken in the sanctuary of the spin class, they have resonated with me every day since. When I encounter frustrations, big, or small, I am reminded that the choice is mine. The pain may be inevitable, but the suffering is not. I still choose to suffer more than I’d like, but because I signed up for improvement, I’m willing to work on it. I breathe deeply, relax my hands, and drop my shoulders. I feel what I am feeling and then I move on. I know I will be glad I did it today and perhaps even more grateful down the road. And ultimately and perhaps most importantly, I know I’m not alone. I have a great Leader.