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SoulCycle: The wheel deal

Those flocking to New York's SoulCycle classes don't just go to get fit – they're looking for a spiritual experience. Will its self-help schtick catch on here? Kaite Welsh joins the faithful

It's 8.30am and a tiny candlelit room in midtown New York is filled with exercise bikes. On the podium, an instructor is queuing up his carefully curated playlist, and on one wall is a manifesto that wouldn't look out of place in a yoga retreat. "We aspire to inspire. We inhale intention and exhale expectation. We commit to our climbs and find reflection in our sprints."

Although it may look like your average spinning class, it's really so much more. Or so SoulCycle, the company behind the New York fitness craze plotting its British invasion, would have you believe. People don't just come to its studios – 11 in New York, three in LA – to get fit. They come to have a spiritual experience.

"We always ride with intention," explains Nicholas Pratley, an instructor at the Soho studio. "Ride for something, a wish, a dream. Ride without intention, you have no power. Ride with intention, everything changes."

Self-help schtick aside, there's no denying the health benefits. Halfway into the first song I'm sweating so hard that it must be doing me good and "exhaling expectation" so hard that I sound like Darth Vader having an asthma attack. Possibly sensing the struggling Brit at the back, Rique exhorts us to find our own mantra. I find myself panting the only thing that I know will get me through, the same words that get me through writer's block, not being a size zero and scathing internet comments. If Lena Dunham can do this, so can I.

It's the prospect of a sweaty celebrity encounter that draws a lot of beginners, although a quick scan of the names on the sign-in sheet before my session doesn't yield anyone A-list. It was the brush with fame that drew Lily, an editor now based in LA, to the classes. "Even from year one, there were always articles about Chelsea Clinton or Kelly Ripa working out there," she says, before dismissing classmate Lady Gaga as "a nice girl, horrible form". But at SoulCycle, the instructors are the stars. Although some come from a more conventional fitness/personal trainer background, many of them have come from the world of musical theatre or dance, or have risen through the SoulCycle ranks from receptionist to guru. They are encouraged to incorporate performance into their sessions, with riders attempting dance moves or yoga stretches on the bike, and even a Valentine's Day live enactment of Moulin Rouge complete with opera singers. They are all, needless to say, nauseatingly good-looking.

With its growing popularity, SoulCycle's classes are notoriously hard to book. "The scene is insane," Lily tells me. "You need to sign up at noon on the dot, not even 10 seconds late, to get to get a bike." Unlucky would-be riders take to Twitter, begging a hashtag deity known only as #soulfairy, actually just a cleverly marketed way of getting on the waiting list should a coveted spot open up, while reminding the uninitiated just how exclusive these classes are.

Part of the appeal is to see and be seen – preferably in the company of your new famous BFF – but it's the motivational spiel that hooks first-timers, making it more of a lifestyle than an exercise. One New Yorker who has seen her friends sign up – and sign away their personalities – agrees. "Everyone I know who tries it goes from 0 to 60 immediately. You can't just take a class once in a while – you have to become a crazy SoulCycle zombie who recruits all your friends. I think it's more of a pyramid scheme than an exercise programme." Newcomer Drew certainly bears this out – "I find myself thinking about it when I'm not in class. And even talking about it right now makes me wish I could be riding." You don't sign up to an exercise class, you sign up to a way of life, with all the community, in-jokes and uniform that implies. Several of the SoulCyclists I watched in sweaty, aching envy were clad in depressingly perspiration-free T-shirts proudly proclaiming themselves to be "Athlete. Legend. Warrior. Renegade. Rockstar".

There didn't seem to be space to add "branding junkie", but if SoulCycle manages to find a way to put a glossy, hipper-than-thou spin on it, it's only a matter of time. There's even a SoulCycle nail polish available, in on-brand lemon yellow, yours for only $18 – and since you're not going anywhere (or at least, only in a metaphorical sense), you don't even have to worry about it chipping.

Back in the studio, I'm so hot and dehydrated – the complimentary, SoulCycle-branded water gulped down during the warm-up exercises I'd foolishly mistaken for the entire class – that I'd happily drink the Kool-Aid. Rique has moved on from mantras to reminding us that "Nothing happens at zero!" and that we should turn the dial up, way up. I can't find a dial on my bike. I think it might be metaphorical.

When I finally stagger off the bike I'm so exhausted that instead of unclipping my rented bike shoes from the pedal I just leave them there and weave unsteadily across the studio in my socks. And yet I feel exhilarated – whether from the exercise or the fact that it's finally over and no one is shouting at me to climb my own personal mountain any more, I'm too tired to care. Rique asks if I'm coming back and I repress a sigh of relief when I tell him I leave the country in two days. A perky and not at all red-faced fellow cyclist tells me I should come back just for the class.

Will it work when the London studio opens in 2014? I'm not sure. The branding and celebrity connections will mean everyone is going to want to try it, but I'm not convinced that we're a nation who can inhale intent easily. Then again, if cynical New York can take SoulCycle's personal brand of self-help to heart, the Shoreditch crowd will be cycling through their spiritual journey in no time.