Higher Calling: When Your Exercise Regime Becomes Your New Religion

In a time when fitness instructors inspire cult followers, and penance-like juice fasts are de rigueur, Tatiana Boncampagni finds that women across the nation are embracing wellness with a near-religious fervor.

Any given Sunday, rain or shine, Kara Smith, 33, an interior designer based in L.A., leaves her family and troubles behind and drives to a place she credits for giving her "more mental clarity, a better perspective, and more energy." Her destination? A Pilates studio in Santa Barbara—aptly named Fit Buddha—which Smith has come to rely on for so much more than her hot bikini bod. "I never grew up going to church. My family wasn't very religious," she says. As far as spirituality goes, "this is definitely my source."

Meet the wellness worshippers, a growing class of women devoting their lives to the pursuit of health and fitness, swapping cigarettes for smoothies, benders for CrossFit. To beat stress, they're more likely to meet a friend for yoga than for a round of happy-hour Cosmos. (So two-thousand-and-late, to borrow a lyric from Fergie Ferguson—a fitness fanatic herself.) Eating right and exercising regularly are as much a part of the cultural zeitgeist as tweeting and buying local. Think about it: For every paparazzi pic of a hard-partying It girl, there are a dozen more depicting sweaty, spent celebrities emerging from Barry's Bootcamp or walking down the street, green juice in one hand, yoga mat in the other. Perhaps there's no better sign of the times than David Barton Gym's recent takeover of the famous former Limelight club in NYC: Originally an Episcopal church, the Gothic revival building is now a fitness mecca.

According to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association, the number of fitness facilities in the U.S. surpassed 32,000 last year, while the fresh-pressed juice and smoothie bar industry grew to $2 billion, as reported by research firm IBISWorld. Consumption of organic products has also increased—up 22 percent in 2013 from 2012—and more than half of all Millennials, 63 percent, claim that they are taking better care of their health, says James Russo, a senior vice president of global consumer insights at Nielsen. "As Americans, we're recalibrating what's important in our lives," says Russo. What's losing ground? Religion. According to a 2012 report from the Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C., the number of adults in the United States who claim to have no religious affiliation jumped from 15 percent to just under 20 percent in five years, representing roughly 33 million "religiously unaffiliated" people and 13 million atheists and agnostics. So if health is the new religion, then is the gym replacing the church?

The spiritual practice of yoga—once associated with hippies and counterculture gurus—has gone mainstream, and each style (hatha, Ashtanga, etc.) boasts a flock of disciples utterly devoted to their individual sects. For example, at Bikram studios across the country, hot-yoga acolytes recite the same script, also known as "The Dialogue," word for word, as ordained by the practice's controversial founder, Bikram Choudhury, who has likened himself to none other than Jesus Christ. (Instructors who veer off script may face ex-communication by Choudhury himself. Seriously.) And is there anything more pious-sounding than the word cleanse, which calls to mind images of medieval nuns starving themselves in the name of God? If today's detox pulpiteers are paying penance for anything, they're atoning for too many glasses of Viognier and fried-oyster sliders.

Thinking of your body as a temple is nothing new—the popular fitness-industry tag line was first a biblical verse—but how about your gym? At SoulCycle, the cultish cycling phenom that just opened its 30th location nationwide in Washington, D.C., rooms are dark and lit with candles, creating a somewhat holy environment where some riders report having breakthroughs that go beyond the physical. Lisa Leshne, 46, a Manhattan-based literary agent who never thought of herself as a "class person" before SoulCycle converted her, says she's witnessed friends having "cathartic" releases on the bike. "Part of what makes it so special is this almost-spiritual aspect to the class. And there is a wonderful sense of community," she raves.

Indeed, for some, joining a particular sweat-a-gogue is less about the inner journey and more about feeling the kind of fellowship religious institutions have traditionally provided. At The Studio (MDR), a Pilates-slash-strength-training fitness boutique in Marina del Rey, California, members have formed their own version of the church potluck: a biweekly "Cook Club" featuring überhealthy recipes like cauliflower fried rice and spaghetti-squash lasagna. "They bring me the leftovers," says The Studio's founder, Lisa Hirsch. Nixing any sign of a "negative cliquey vibe" has helped Anna Kaiser, founder of AKT inMotion, a dance-cardio studio on New York's Upper East Side, build a legion of followers—20 students regularly congregate for dinner outside of class. Encouraging clients to think of AKT as a "lifestyle" rather than a workout also helps, adds Kaiser.

Fitness devotees aren't just drinking the holy water—they're guzzling it. Christina Coviello, a 34-year-old financial aid counselor, says she's come to rely on her Boston Sports Club instructors and workout partners for both emotional support and the motivation to eat better and get more sleep. D.C.-based stylist and blogger Naina Singla says she looks forward to her local Spinning and barre classes for the personal interaction she might not get working from home. "Meeting with friends to work out and doing something of value together" contributes to Singla's sense of well-being, she says. "It's good for the soul."

"Years ago, fitness was about women trying to be skinny; now it's about empowerment," says Lauren Brenner, the founder of Pure Power Boot Camp, a fitness center in midtown Manhattan. Every class ends with reciting a mantra of the 11 core values written on the wall—the list includes integrity, courage, and honor—and a trip around a Marine-inspired obstacle course. "Exercise, literally climbing over walls, is very symbolic of things women need to do in real life, outside of the gym, to give themselves courage and self-worth. What we do here transcends into the personal," says Brenner. Amen, sister.


Photo via Matthew Brookes/Trunk Archive