Spiritual Lessons from the Exercise Bicycle

Mar 13, 2019 by

Spiritual Lessons from the Exercise Bicycle
We’re not big romantics in our house, and in a good year, Valentine’s Day may consist of a card featuring golden retriever puppies and a vase filled with pink flowers. But a few weeks ago in honor of this Hallmark-generated holiday, my husband decided to help keep our middle-aged hearts healthy by investing in a home exercise bicycle. Unlike me, my husband is extremely disciplined in his diet and his commitment to physical fitness. I, however, was raised by a mom who believed that Jewish people should exercise their brains and leave cultivation of physical brawn to lesser minds. It’s hard to shake that kind of bias, even as an adult who understands the importance of maintaining a sound body. Of course I want to be in good working order, to be healthy and strong. I’m just not all that coordinated, and I have never been able to find a compelling exercise regimen. In honor of this pagan love festival, though, and for the sake of my heart, I relented and tried one of the streaming exercise classes that was an integral part of this biking experience.
Grudgingly, I approached the spinning bicycle. At first, I couldn’t even put the shoes on properly. Yes, I could handle the Velcro straps at the top of the shoes, but the bottom strap was a bit more complicated and required simultaneous tugging and pressing down on a lever. Clipping my fancy shoes into the pedals was tougher than tap dancing, but one of my sons managed to guide my feet into the correct spots until we heard the reassuring click.  Finally, I selected a class from a menu of incredibly fit instructors. Touted as a beginner’s class, the half hour would have resulted in a brain hemorrhage if I had not modified my input. Daunted, but not defeated, I promised myself that I would try again.
The next day, armed with a larger water bottle and a better attitude, I selected a different instructor. This class went much better, although I still needed to adjust my workout so that I didn’t feel light-headed. I found a computer generated “leader board” ranking my progress against 15,000 other riders to be a demoralizing nuisance, so I slid it off of the screen. This instructor spent time talking about how the bicycle worked, how to hold my back in a more comfortable posture, how to breathe. She told us to listen to our own breathing, push enough, but not hurt ourselves. I was tired and shaky after this ride, too, but I was willing to try again the next day.
As a newbie to the exercise bike, testing out the various instructors has been eye opening. Of course, being an instructor for Peloton, Soul Cycle, or Fly Wheel is not the same as being a rabbi. Yet, there are some fascinating lessons that I’ve learned in my brief foray into biking classes that relate to both leading an exercise class and religious services.
  1. Don’t judge an instructor by her outfit, and try not to judge a rabbi by the way she looks.  Initially, I wanted to reject every perky, Barbie doll looking instructor with the “I Dream of Jeannie” ponytails (okay, they all have those high, endlessly shiny hairdos). I just felt frumpy watching them and expected them to be ditzy. Some fulfilled my expectations and were, in fact, annoying. They posed for the camera, smiled like they were on a Disney kids’ show waiting for a canned laugh, and giggled through some of the class. Not my cup of tea. Yet, other instructors who looked equally beautiful had intelligent comments about breathing, stretching, and fitness in general.  As a female rabbi, I know that many of us, especially, are judged by our appearance. We’re told that our hair is too long or too short, too natural or too processed. We desperately need to wear some lipstick or wear way too much makeup. Our suits look boring, or our dresses are too distracting. Take a breath, and try not to let the appearance get in the way of what a rabbi (or an exercise instructor) is supposed to do.
  2. A rabbi cannot be all things to all people. Peloton would never hire just one instructor to teach all of its classes. One teacher is a biking expert, another has a background as a professional dancer. Some instructors tell you to sing along to the music, and other teachers tell you that if all you want to do is sing to take another class. One instructor shared a cute story about how her daughter helped pick the playlist for the class, and other instructors don’t seem particularly kid friendly. Rabbis are like this, as well. Some rabbis are more intellectual, others love to sing, and others are all about forming a community. We expect our rabbis to somehow fulfill the needs of every congregant simultaneously. There’s just no way this is a reasonable expectation.
  3. The exercise bike experience also taught me something important about leading services for congregants. As the person directing the pace of the prayers, we need to understand that some of the worshippers may be first-timers. They may not even know metaphorically how to clip in their shoes, and we expect them to keep up a ridiculously high speed when they are on the verge of passing out spiritually. Everyone comes to synagogue for her or his own reason. We can’t expect our congregants to engage fully if we are not engaging in the class right along with them. How can a biking instructor or a rabbi know if the resistance is too difficult if he or she is simply looking ahead to announce the next element of the class or service?
  4. So far, every instructor I’ve tuned in to has encouraged riders to “open your heart.” In exercise and in religion, this advice is pretty much on target. And the only leader board you need to worry about is the one in your own mind. I’ll keep up the beginner rides when my kids go back to school next week, but maybe someone out there could please help me get those shoes out of the pedals.

Rabbi Sharon Forman serves Westchester Reform Temple and was a contributor to CCAR Press’s The Sacred Encounter: Jewish Perspectives on Sexuality.

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