Left: Courtesy of Gabby Reece; Right: Debby Hymowitz
I STARTED GOING to SoulCycle about four years ago, beaten up and kind of broken by my first NYC Marathon. Unable to run, having finished with a stress fracture in my femur, I was looking for a replacement to give me those running endorphins and keep my marathon physique. I’d heard the buzz about SoulCycle, but really the only thing I cared about in a spinning class was good music played loud–which was surprisingly hard to find in NYC. Give me that and I could pedal forever.
Conveniently, SoulCycle had just opened on the Upper East Side in Manhattan near my house and so off I went to my first class. What I found was much more than I expected. It had the hip vibe of a cool club, but one where everybody was welcome. The whole look of the place– the candles burning in the spinning rooms, inspirational graphics on the wall, the cheerful albeit insanely crowded waiting area–drew me in. The teacher, who didn’t even know me, called out my name in class, and I instantly felt like a regular. Yes, there was great music, but there was other motivation too. There was a roomful of people having fun, and I was hooked.
It wasn’t until about a year ago that everything really started to change. Stacey Griffth, one of the founding SoulCycle instructors, began teaching a regular 7:30 am class, a perfect time for my schedule. Beaten up by my second NYC Marathon, and again desperate to keep that runners high and body, I started going about three times a week. I knew of Stacey’s cult-like following, and her classes were legendary. Getting in was tough. Class sign-up for the week opened Monday at noon, and her classes were usually sold out by 12:01.
“MANY OF YOU HAVE BEEN COMING HERE RIDING THE BIKE WEEK IN AND WEEK OUT. MAYBE YOU HAVE STARTED TO PLATEAU AND ARE NOT SEEING THE CHANGES THAT YOU ONCE DID. YOU CAN GET BACK TO THAT PLACE BUT YOU’RE GOING TO HAVE TO PUSH YOURSELVES BEYOND YOUR LIMITS. AS YOUR COACH, THAT’S WHAT I WANT FOR YOU TODAY. I’M NOT IN HERE FOR ME. I’M HERE FOR YOU. THAT’S WHY I’M ON THE FLOOR TEACHING CLASS AND NOT UP THERE ON THE BIKE GETTING PAID TO WORK OUT.”
–Stacey Griffith, SoulCycle Master Instructor
Stacey took me to a whole new level of SoulCycle and fitness. First there was her full-on jam session. As a DJ, she played remixes of songs I loved and other songs I didn’t know but ended up buying on iTunes after class. Then there were these crazy moves like “Deep Single Up” “Quick Fire Right Side” and “Drop That Double,” done while sprinting both in and out of the saddle, which she cued us to perform like a conductor leading an orchestra.
I have started noticing definition I never had in my body, my abs in particular. There is a hint of what I call “The David” muscle–as in Michelangelo’s iconic sculpture–that little sculpted ridge just above hip. My stomach is weirdly defined with all sorts ridges going up and down and my arms are kind of cut. I keep doing double takes when I catch a glimpse in the mirror. My pants fit differently, and whereas once my jeans dug into a slightly squishy midsection, there is now open space between my waist and my pants.
I have always been athletic. I worked out, watched what I ate, and ran two marathons. But my body has completely and unexpectedly changed. I didn’t even realize it until friends started asking what I was doing to get so lean. My diet hasn’t changed, so the only explanation I can offer is, “I’ve been taking this one teacher Stacey Griffith’s class at SoulCycle, and I guess the hard work has paid off.” The funny thing is, it hasn’t really been hard because I’ve been having a blast doing it.
The other funny thing is I have become a better runner through all of this. Being lighter makes you run faster and I shaved 20 minutes of my half-marathon time. So “best shape of my life”? I guess I’d have to say… yeah.
“WHAT YOU CAN DO IS ONLY LIMITED BY WHAT YOU CAN IMAGINE. SO FOR EACH OF US REALITY IS AS WIDE OPEN AS OUR IMAGINATION WILL ALLOW IT TO BE.
I HAVE KNOWN Gabrielle Reece for about 15 years. We first met in the mid 1990s, when I was the Visual Features Director at Women’s Sports & Fitness Magazine. She was a contributing columnist, and my job, among other things, was to art direct her photo shoots. As a lifelong athlete, I was pretty thrilled to meet this volleyball superstar and supermodel. When you do meet Gabby the first time, her 6’3’’stature and stunning beauty is something to behold. The thing that really strikes you, however, more than her physical stature, is her incredible warmth and the way she engages everyone around her. On our first shoot together, I threw volleyballs into the sand for a half hour so she could “dig” them for the shot. It was a lot more fun for me than it was for her, but we have been friends ever since.
Gabby was in town a few weeks ago, and I knew I had to bring her to Stacey’s class. Gabby has always shared her cool workouts with me whenever I have visited her in California or Hawaii, and let me tell you, going to lift at Gold’s Gym in Venice with Gabby Reece makes you feel like a rock star. I was pretty excited knowing that I was going to be sharing one of my workouts with her. Gabby met me at the Upper East Side SoulCycle, and by the time I arrived she had already befriended the staff, gotten us two bikes together and was chatting with a pregnant woman about shared pre-natal workout experiences. What happened to me showing her around?
So 45 sweat-drenched minutes later we emerged and Gab confirmed the class lived up to my billing. I introduced the two of them to each other and I could see Stacey’s eyes light up meeting one of her sport heroes. We all went next door for the prescribed green juice to hang out and chat for a bit. I asked Gab later if she would interview Stacey for SPORTOLOGY and being the good friend that she is, she agreed to continue their conversation further…
GABBY REECE: I have taken a lot of classes and been around a lot of people. As I go through this path of discussing–I don’t want to say “health and fitness,” let’s say “wellness”–and trying to help people figure out how to take care of themselves, I’m always looking for that trigger that finally makes people change. You have people that need to be pushed, people that need to be nurtured…. How do you know what gear to pick?
STACEY GRIFFITH: I think the gift I was given is I understand people and I understand many different walks of life. I cater to every age group… 13.. 70s… 40s.. 50s. I am trying to get the class to really feel the music in the center of their bodies and allow it to express itself out through their own natural- born athleticism. I think everyone is born with it, and it’s just a matter of nurturing it at the right moment. I really believe everybody has an athlete inside of them. I want to tap into the spirit of the athlete, and that’s where I am trying to get everybody to train from. Everyone can feel the athletic spirit because if they’re not the athlete, they are the person sitting in the stands watching and cheering.
GR: When I went to your class I thought it was interesting. Because lets face it, New York has all walks of life, and there is, I don’t want to say toughness to that group, but how do you break through the ice? You have to be a little bit like, “Hey you’re gonna get sweaty, you’re makeup’s going to be gross,” but they have to put it down because it is your class. You said you don’t really know the women personally. Do you think that is an important part of keeping that dynamic going where you can push them more and force that out of their comfort zone?
SG: There is definitely an invisible boundary between us. But because my own presentation, my own beat, is very casual, they know they can come as they are and it’s a totally chill environment. I don’t really wear makeup; I’m pretty much a California surfer female with a lot of male energy, and I think they feel comfortable with me. Then you put my stand-up comedy, my acting, my DJ’ing, my spiritual quests and now they have not just the coach, but the “EnterTrainer”. They are having fun, they are laughing, they’re feeling my spiritual journey to India, my DJ’ing trips to Ibiza and they’re getting all that in one 45 minute class. Its one 45 minute section of their day and its so doable for someone to push for 45 minutes. And everybody gets their own seat in the house. They can go at their own pace so that if someone who is 72 wants to chill its ok and if someone who is 13 wants to go crazy and get out their ADD its ok too. We’re all in the room together. That really is the magic carpet ride right there.
Left: Debby Hymowitz; Right: Courtesy of Gabby Reece
GR: You said an important word to me which is “coaching”. I think that all the best people we learn from… they’re more like coaches. I think the modern depiction of the trainer is almost more like a drill sergeant than a coach and a coach is so much more psychologically in tune.
SG: Yes… agreed. I don’t bark orders. Even though I don’t know everyone personally, I do try to connect and make eye contact with every person in the room. The class becomes personal because I do teach on the floor. I’m not in there for myself. I can tell from being a coach, being a basketball coach, what someone’s physical issues are and from being an athlete myself, it gives me a magnifying glass.
GR: I know you have done a lot of different things and I would like to hear, the path that got you here, the path that got you to teaching.
SG: I was a competitive athlete. My mom was a working mom. My parents were divorced and we couldn’t really afford childcare. The only thing we could afford was for me to play after school sports. I played club soccer and club volleyball and club basketball on top of school sports so I was programmed from 2pm in the afternoon until 8pm at night. That’s why I can teach 20 classes a week–my body is conditioned to just not stop.
GR: Did you have a favorite sport?
SG: Basketball. But you know I really loved two man volleyball and I played a lot of grass tournaments back then with my girlfriend. That was such a crazy time for me. I was in high school and I was out. I came out as lesbian when I was 16 and it was really awful being gay in high school in the 80s because we got bullied a lot. People would try to pick fights with us, they’d get mad if we touched them while we were playing… it was really awkward and really hard. I got out of high school early because I tore my ACL and I just didn’t want to go back to school because it was so awful.
“YOU GOTTA REALLY GET INTO IT. YOU HAVE TO TRAIN FROM EXCITEMENT. THAT’S HOW YOUR BODY CHANGES… WHEN ITS EXCITED, NOT BORED. IT WONT CHANGE WHEN YOU’RE BORED.”
–SG, Wednesday 9:30 class
I started playing volleyball. My girlfriend was on the Cal Poly San Luis Obispo team and they won nationals that year. All of my friends were trying to go pro volleyball and played on the beach tour. I lived in the dorms but I wasn’t in college. It was kind of weird but I worked at a sports camp and I still felt like I was having the college experience. I went to everyone’s classes when they were away playing volleyball and took notes for them… (laughing) it was really strange. Everyone was kind of doing their thing but I didn’t really even care. I just wanted to be around sports or be teaching. That’s been my career path my entire life.
GR: Some people fall into things and other people have this idea that they are always going to do what they end up doing. For me, volleyball was my way out. That was the thing that created all these opportunities. It was never just about winning or losing. It was really something so much bigger.
SG: Sports really saved my life at that time. I was only 18, 19, 20 and getting into teaching. I started teaching abs at the Y and then I was running a sports camp. Then I trickled my way down the coast of California and finally got to Newport Beach where I worked at a Family Fitness center.
GR: (laughing) A Family Fitness Center?
SG: Yeah, remember those? I have been literally teaching since 1989.
GR: Tell me about becoming a DJ.
SG: When I was teaching, one of my students was obsessed with my music and she said, “Would it be crazy to ask you to DJ my wedding?” So I did one wedding and then I did another and then somebody wanted me to do a nightclub night and then it just snowballed from there. I started doing gay cruises (laughs).
GR: Its always that stuff that comes together to make that perfect storm… you know? I was talking to a friend and I said, do you know anyone that is living in harmony? And she asked, “with nature?” And I said, “Forget nature, how about with yourself?” I feel like at this point I’m supposed to live in harmony with myself, and I do pretty well, but it should be easier, and I should be there more. The moment I feel I’m kind of balanced, I’m already left or right. The thing is, the more holistic you try to get—clean living, in a way—you become kind of boring. I think you have an interesting mix. You have your music and I think in that balance and release, there is fun.
“BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU TEXT AFTER CLASS BECAUSE YOU’RE GOING TO HAVE A LOT OF ADRENALINE AND YOU’RE GOING TO SAY SOME THINGS THAT YOU MIGHT NOT NORMALLY SAY BECAUSE OF THIS RUSH OF POSITIVITY. YOU’RE GOING TO HAVE A LOT OF SELF CONFIDENCE. SO WATCH WHAT YOU DO WITH IT BECAUSE ITS VERY SEXY TO OTHER PEOPLE”
–SG, Saturday 6pm class
SG: Yeah. I mean, I don’t drink or smoke or do drugs. That room to me is my ultimate fun spot. That is really where I get it all out. That is where I soak it all in. That to me is my old clubbing days. That room is everything to me, so I think that’s why it allows me to let other people feel good. I’ve just figured out how to channel positive energy. And it did take me a really long time to get to that place. When I was teaching in my 20’s, I was totally fucked up. I was coming in with a hangover, I probably still had cocaine in my system from the night before, and it was really dangerous. I don’t really know how I survived my 30s. It was so crazy, but it didn’t ever affect me showing up for my classes, and thank god from the time I started teaching, my classes were always very important to me. So I think, in a way, the bike kind of saved my life.
GR: I grew up in the Caribbean, and I think because I had a little bit freer adults in my life I went the straight-line kind of way. But I think that people who are more high-octane, ramped-up, and creative and sensitive are more vulnerable to being addicts because they feel everything around them so much more. I would say I’m way too insensitive to be an addict. I just kind of plod through things and say, Okay, it is what it is. But people who are really sensitive and artistic beings, and especially people with high energy–where is it going to go? I mean, I’m a certain kind of athlete, but Laird [Hamilton, her husband] is completely different. He always says if he didn’t have the ocean he’d probably be dead or in jail.
SG: That makes total sense. That’s how I feel about both sports and teaching. Some people put me on this pedestal: “Oh she doesn’t drink, she doesn’t smoke.” But they don’t know what I came through to get to this point. I went through an intense personal experience with my roommate who committed suicide. When that happened all hell broke loose in my life. He was my rock. We lived together, traveled together. He was my muse but he was 16 years my senior. He was an attorney and extremely grounded, or so I thought. He offered a lot of insight about life and love. He had been married three times to women and then fell in love with a man. When he met me he kind of liked that that I was gay but I was a woman; he liked having that female companionship. We were best friend for years, and he was the one who introduced me to ecstasy, crystal meth, cocaine, and all those crazy drugs that made my brain feel normal. The amphetamines for whatever reason gave my ADD a place to go so I could actually focus and finish things and create things. So I felt like I had finally found something that made me happy. I felt extremely happy. I was still able to teach my classes, to function, to train my clients, to socialize. I didn’t see anything wrong with it at the time. It was eight years of delusion.
When my roommate committed suicide, I just remember being on my bedroom floor crying. I’m a very spiritual person, and I sat myself in a circle with all my things from India around me, balling my eyes out saying, Please, please, I don’t know who is listening but whoever you are if you get me out of here I will never do drugs again. I just want to get off drugs. It was the most bizarre sensation when I realized I was at the bottom. It sounds so clichéd, but that was it.
Having sobriety makes you have to be honest. I’ve been sober for six years no drinking, almost eight years no drugs. It makes you live so true and so clear and present. I have owned every single thing I ever did. If I hadn’t gone through all that I wouldn’t be able to help the three girls that take my class every Monday night that are in rehab. I wouldn’t be able to help them because I wouldn’t have known and they wouldn’t have told me.
“WHAT YOU’RE GOING TO EXPERIENCE TODAY WITH YOUR BODY IS NOT GOING TO BE TYPICAL. YOU’RE GOING TO GO THROUGH A SERIES OF EMOTIONS WITH YOURSELF AS YOU CHALLENGE THE MACHINE AND THE MIND TOGETHER. AND I KNOW YOU CAN GET THROUGH IT BECAUSE IM GOING TO WATCH YOU DO IT. IM GOING TO WATCH YOU GET STRONGER AND YOURE GOING TO FEEL YOU’RE BODY GETTING STRONGER. ITS HAPPENING RIGHT NOW. 60 OTHER ENERGIES ARE WITH YOU IN THIS ROOM TO CARRY YOU THROUGH. SO MAKE SURE WHILE YOU STAY ON THIS RHYTHM THAT YOU FEEL THE POWER OF THIS ROOM SURROUND YOU AND HOLD YOU LIKE A BLANKET”
–SG, Thursday 10:30am
GR: Do you think that “tribe” aspect– you have created is really the biggest part of the success?
SG: For sure that’s our biggest accomplishment as a company what I call the “tribe hub”. As the company grows, its really important to me that we don’t lose that.
GR: And don’t they say you have 75% more likelihood for success if you’re doing this with somebody? And then I think how do we get other people to create as you say their “tribe hub”? I do think we have to figure this out, even if it’s at the local YMCA, and how make it affordable and doable for everyone.
SG: Well we’re now on a mission to try to get everybody to feel better
GR: Well there’s no option anymore.
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