The first time I tried a spin class at YEG Cycle it was a religious experience. People congregated in the Whyte Ave studio in a ritual-like process. I signed in, changed into weird spaceman-like cycling shoes, and waited patiently by the closed door of the class in progress. When the door finally opened, I got a blast of wet heat across my face and was greeted by a mob of sweaty people who looked elated. I walked into the room, grabbed a set of weights, a towel, and spent 10 minutes trying to figure out how to clip the space shoes into the bike pedals before I sucked it up and asked the instructor for help.

For 50 minutes, I pedalled hard to thumping club music. The instructor told us frequently to add tension. So I did, turning the bike’s little red tension knob to the right, but apparently much too far. It felt like pedalling through mud, but not wanting to look weak, I grinded through the discomfort. Most watched the instructor intently. At different points, he would tell us to yell, or to high five the people beside us, or to close our eyes while we pedalled and thought about why we came here. His bike was on a raised platform at the front of the class, his face and body illuminated by miniature spotlights below him. Behind him, the entire wall was a mirror which reflected the giant words plastered on the back wall: “happiness,” “passion,” “cycle.”

As I left the class, what I thought to be a workout tailored for middle-age moms
seemed more like a metaphorical battle between flesh and a tension adding red knob. For 50 minutes I felt like I was doing something oddly important. What in the world did I just experience?

***

If you’re a student, you probably have intentions of hitting the gym or getting some sort of physical activity during the school year (and no, running to catch the bus does not count as a form of physical activity). However, maintaining a fitness regimen, especially as a student, is a surprisingly tough thing to do. Blitz Conditioning’s Erika Barootes agrees.

“The heart of fitness is being okay with the regimen not panning out. Life happens. You can shift it around,” she says.

Outside of her desk job, and in-between running marathons, the energetic redhead has been teaching fitness classes for the past eight years, and currently teaches spin at Blitz Conditioning. Though the downtown studio is small, its sense of community is not. Blitz offers a variety of services like spin and personal training, but also includes HITT (High Intensity Interval Training) class.

Blitz is part of Edmonton’s booming fitness industry. New studios are rapidly opening their doors, making activities like spin, rowing, crossfit, powerlifting, yoga, barre, and HIIT classes more accessible to the general public. YEG cycle, Hive Fit Co, Blitz Conditioning, Barre Body Studio, and Rock Jungle’s downtown location are some of the newer fitness studios Edmonton has to offer.

“You find a studio or community that aligns with your intentions and it’s an unstoppable environment,” Barootes says. “I like the people who come to Blitz and have a desire to die for 55 minutes and be happy about it.”

Thanks to the fitness boom, once underground sports like powerlifting are also experiencing a popularity surge.

“In the crossfit gyms, for example, five years ago there were one or two gyms, now it’s kind of exploded to somewhere around 10,” says MacEwan kinesiology student, Artem Biziaev.

Biziaev has a passion for fitness and a love for eclectic ‘80s and ‘90s athletic apparel. He’s an avid powerlifter, which he coaches, and has spent the past five years working as a personal trainer. Though there’s an equally passionate community within crossfit, Biziaev explains that the attitudes can be more aggressive, leading to competition within and between different gyms.

“Sometimes people will kind of turn back to their ape instincts and trash talk each other. It’s not even specific to crossfit, it’s an aspect of ourselves,” he says.

Biziaev believes it’s difficult to frame the exclusion as a completely negative aspect. People want to work out with their friends, their in-group. In some cases, building differences between others helps strengthen their in-group. Being part of an exclusive group can be highly desirable.

***

The last 10 years has witnessed an unprecedented change in how we interact socially with the emergence of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat. With a substantial amount of our daily social interaction now happening online, we’re the first generation with this equally astounding and dangerous ability to filter how people perceive us. This has created a generation of young adults who are exceedingly focused on online personas, and how they are perceived.

In the online world, the fitness industry has become extremely visible. Popular social media fitness accounts have followers that range in the hundreds of thousands to millions. Currently the hashtag “fitfam” has been used on nearly 80 million posts on Instagram. Celebrities like Drake, Margot Robbie, and Kylie Jenner receive waves of comments about how hot they are whenever they post a selfie at the gym. Both Biziaev and Barootes agree that social media has had a huge impact on how we think about fitness.

“Social media is key for smaller studios’ survival,” Barootes says.

Some studios are focusing on the authenticity of their community and clientele rather than showcasing the most “fit” people. Focusing less on the perfect body or physique, and more on enjoying realistic levels of fitness.

“They’re showing people hanging out, petting dogs, people out at a community event motivating and training new team members, or profiling their team or clients,” Barootes says.

While social media is huge for marketing small studios, Biziaev says it can be a key venue for those who struggle socially in person but still wish to broadcast and speak about their accomplishments to a broader community. Although social media can be a helpful avenue for people to look to, unrealistic expectations can be created from following the wrong accounts or wrong people.

“The effect social media can have on people can vary on a spectrum from oppressive to inspirational,” Biziaev says.

Some accounts can present unrealistic fitness methods, progress, and body standards, while others can advertise gimmicky health products. For Biziaev, these accounts are “toxic to the healthy development of society.” Luckily, some people in the industry are trying to expose the toxicity of these accounts. Brittany Olsen (@miss_olsen87), is an Instagram personality who puts out a gold list of accounts to follow, and a black list of accounts that are toxic influences. For example, Olsen blacklists fitness accounts that try to sell “fit tea.”

“You would hope that the general population would understand that ‘fit tea’ and putting Saran Wrap on your belly is bullshit,” Biziaev says. “People have stated that money in the fitness industry is made off of newbs.”

With experience, people eventually learn how to separate the fake from the real. Getting educated on the passions you’re pursuing and having the right role models is key.

“You change your role models, you find people that are smarter, more realistic, honest,” Biziaev says.

***

Though Barootes and Biziaev have different workout styles and regimens, the benefits from being physically active are similar.

“I like to work out in the mornings. It heightens my positivity and feels like I’ve done something for myself at the beginning of the day,” says Barootes. “I go on being more positive, awake, alert.”

“On my day-to-day if I stop moving my hip starts hurting. I have to keep moving because powerlifting ages you very quickly,” says Biziaev. “I love the sport, I think it’s important for people to do what they love. I consider myself quite mentally healthy because of it.”

For both instructors, the benefits reaped from their commitment are direct results of how they conduct themselves in the gym. Intentions vary from person to person. Some people show up and push themselves to the point where they almost puke, while some don’t take it as seriously.

“My biggest pet peeve is people who show up and are just physically there, but they’re not there to give it their all,” says Barootes. “I don’t show up unless I’m going to give 110 per cent.”

“I compete in powerlifting myself, but it’s been real choppy,” says Biziaev, who’s been plagued with numerous injuries. “Once you start taking any sport seriously, it’s not good for you anymore.”

Barootes and Biziaev are among the many who sweat, burn, and push their bodies in order to achieve a certain level of fulfillment. Whether training individually or in group classes, working your bodies at a high intensity equates to a high physiological payoff.

Professor Stephen Kent currently teaches sociology of religion and sociology of cults and sects at the University of Alberta. In Kent’s career, he’s done extensive research on controversial cults, sects, and alternative religion. He explains that the payoff experienced from those physically pushing their bodies is similar to the physiological payoff from numerous religious traditions.

“A lot of religious tradition is hard on the body. Spiritual advancement comes through physical exertion, physical punishment really,” Kent says. “Pain and suffering is at the centre of Christianity.”

Christianity operates under the assumption that the Christian messiah Jesus Christ died a painful death for the sins of humanity. Because of this, Kent explains, Catholic traditions, such as the mortification of flesh, exist to experience pain that’s in some way similar to what Jesus experienced. Traditions include fasting for a period of time, and the wearing of cilices, loincloth-like undergarments that can be made from coarse materials such as wires or twigs.

Punishing the body for spiritual advancement isn’t exclusive to Christianity. Similar traditions exist in the Islamic faith. Shi’a Muslims commemorate the death of Muhammad’s grandson Hussein during the festival of Ashura. Though less common today, some groups self-flagellate, cutting their backs with knives and chains.

“The pain is supposed to help you burn off your sins and advance you spiritually,” Kent says. “It’s that old phrase about ‘no pain, no gain.’”

***

Canada as a whole has witnessed another unprecedented change: over the past few decades, religion has faced a decline.

Reginald Bibby is the Board of Governors Research Chair in the Department of Sociology at the University of Lethbridge. In his 2011 book Beyond the Gods and Back, Bibby presents evidence where church attendance, religious identification, and religious belief are all on the decline for Canadian adults, and especially Canadian teenagers.

The fall of religion in Canada is likely influenced by numerous factors, and is an extremely complex and complicated topic. But what are people turning to instead of religion?

Neither Barootes or Biziaev say they’re religious in the traditional sense; however, Barootes believes fitness has a greater meaning than simply getting sweaty for an hour.

“People want to believe in something and fitness — because of the wellness component, the healthy, active lifestyle — that in today’s society is at the forefront,” she says. “Indoor, outdoor. There’s people doing fitness everywhere you look and half the time it’s minus 40 and they’re still doing it.”

“Fitness has become religious to people,” Barootes says.

From Kent’s understanding of how a traditional spin class operates, “people are getting buzzed, (they’re) having physiological reactions in an increasingly stylized and exclusive group setting, with somewhat repetitive, ritualistic-like behaviours, under the direction of a charismatic leader.”

“You can make the case it’s a functional religion,” Kent says.

Definitions of functional religions vary across academia. Some argue functional definitions are too inclusive, making it impossible to tell a true religion from something like a political affiliation. Others say the inclusivity is essential to the nature of a functional approach to society — how else would you describe a society where no system of religion appears to be present?

Kent’s take? Think how your average religion functions and remove the supernatural elements. What’s left is a system, anything really, that “provides meaning and order to people’s lives, especially in a relatively comprehensive manner.”

“Other definitions advance that it encapsulates people’s lives. It fills people’s lives to which they give tremendous meaning or importance,” Kent says.

A biker gang like the Hells Angels is another subculture that could fit the criteria of a “functional religion.” Though there aren’t supernatural elements in biker-gangs, the all-encompassing way in which the biker subculture encapsulates people’s lives makes it like a religion in a functional sense.

“(Biker subculture) functions like a religion, even to the extent of biker weddings and biker funerals,” says Kent.

Though the decline of religion in Canada could be theoretically in part attributed to people’s commitment to subcultures like ice hockey, personal fitness, and biker-gangs, Kent says there’s reason to be cautious of our contemporary era, and the newfound focus on the “self.”

“New Age religions place a lot of emphasis on the importance of self. ‘One makes one’s own world,’ ‘one is responsible for one’s own circumstances and success,’” Kent says. “There’s very little stress put on socioeconomic, political forces playing on people’s lives. It’s the ‘me, me, me’ focus.”

The ‘me’ focus that Kent speaks of can mean a lost sense of accountability for anything outside the immediate self.

“During the ‘me’ decade, people gave up trying to change the world and focused on trying to change themselves,” Kent says. “Look at the mess of the world now.”

If subcultures like fitness hold true to acting as a substitute for traditional religion, we can have fun and bizarre theoretical discussions. For example, if people are getting the endorphin rush, the buzz, the greater spiritual meaning that was once associated with traditional religious practices but from fitness instead, are people attributing that greater meaning to their charismatic instructors? The buildings they train in? Themselves?

And what about social media? If working out is the new “mortification of the flesh,” are people broadcasting their pain and self-sacrifice through Instagram posts? Who or what are people making these sacrifices for? Their own vanity? The greater community? Are getting likes and comments fuelling the selfish ego, or are people simply supporting their hobbies?

These are critical questions for our increasingly technological society.

Since a significant portion of the fitness industry’s money comes from “new people,” as Biziaev has explained, people need to research and consider which brands to support. Some fitness studios can be connected to larger lifestyle companies as well, companies with financial intentions.

Local, notorious spiritual teacher John de Ruiter is a yoga practitioner. His website states his meetings include “silence,” and “connection by eye contact.” These meetings were referred to as, “three-hour staring sessions” in recent coverage by VICE. Kent urges to use caution and think critically about followings such as de Ruiter’s.

“What people don’t realize, if you stare at somebody long enough, you start to hallucinate,” Kent says.

In his sociology of religion class, while students begin to pack up in the last few seconds of class, Kent often leaves students with the same closing message for consideration.

“It’s a dangerous world. Be careful out there.”

Image courtesy of Alex Patterson
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