If you ask Elizabeth Cutler about the secret sauce of SoulCycle, the company she founded in 2006 with partner Julie Rice, her answer isn’t what you think.
It wasn’t the music, the badass teaching staff, or even the intense workout. Instead, says Cutler, “what people were getting in those rooms was a dose of humanity.” And that, she says, has health benefits as important as any hour of cardio.
Behind the sweaty, bass-pumping facade of a SoulCycle workout was the opportunity to look across the room and connect with another person, to have a shared experience, and maybe walk away with a little less armor, a bit more vulnerable and open. It’s the shift from cortisol to dopamine. The abandonment of flight or flight, in favor of acceptance and ease.
That through line, say Cutler and Rice, is an untapped, powerful way to increase health and well-being. It’s also at the core of the pair’s latest launch: Peoplehood.
On Feb. 22, Cutler and Rice will open the doors to a wellness studio that aims to help its clients strengthen their relationships and build soft skills such as active listening and empathy.
“We are now trained to take care of our bodies,” says Rice. “We understand green vegetables and hydration. But we think our relationships will just work out. We become parents and our instincts will just kick in. We get married and that will just work out. The number one thing to think about is who you love and who loves you. But we spend zero time on understanding how to be in relationships.”
Peoplehood isn’t therapy or a deep dive on childhood trauma. It’s an invitation to show up for yourself and others, to boost what Rice and Cutler are calling “relational fitness.” “We hope people will come and find joy and catharsis in connection,” says Rice. “It’s a greatest hits of modern tools and ancient traditions.”
Based in New York City, the studio offers 60-minute sessions, or “gathers,” led by trained “guides” who walk participants through exercises in breathwork, sharing, and listening. Each gather (which runs parallel to a great playlist) has a specific structure, carefully curated after three years of research and consultation with pros who are well-versed in holding space for others—AA leaders, psychotherapists, life coaches, academics, yogis, even kindergarten teachers.
The classes aim to complete circles being drawn by traditional forms of fitness (yoga, Pilates, cross-training, strength, cycling, running) that increasingly rub up against the notion that a good sweat is as much a head-clearing, emotional reset as any authentic peer-to-peer connection or session with your therapist. And as the world levels up its reliance on technology, social media, and remote work, loneliness and isolation are on the rise. (The COVID pandemic, of course, exacerbated an already dire situation.)
Combating a crisis of loneliness
Milena Batanova, Ph.D., is director of research and evaluation at the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Making Caring Common project. She says Peoplehood could be a balm for what’s behind the statistics her team has collected through years of study on the topic: 36% of adults report suffering loneliness frequently or almost all the time, with 61% of 18- to 25-year-olds reporting serious loneliness.
Batanova is clear that creating ways to move away from transaction and toward connection seems ever more critical. “In the general lonely sample, a third said no one took the time to really check in on them,” she says. “Even worse, about half of young people said they wished someone would ask how they are doing. It’s pretty telling.”
Chrissy Carter teaches yoga in Connecticut and New York in studios for private clients and at large corporations. She says she’s similarly noticing an overall willingness among her students to go deeper, connecting the dots between a movement or wellness practice and everyday life.
“As a society, we struggle to bear witness and instead find ourselves controlled by reactivity,” says Carter. “Connection can foster intentional responsiveness by helping us sit with the urge to fix, blame, or avoid. It gives us the tools to redirect our attention back to the moment.”
Michael Ventura, author of the book Applied Empathy, has spent more than 20 years helping businesses and individuals leverage empathy to work through transition and change. He’s taught the subject at West Point and Princeton University, in MBA programs and at major corporations. “A lot of people assume empathy is synonymous with compassion or sympathy,” he says. “When we explore empathy, we are trying to understand without our own perspective or bias coloring that understanding. That’s when we are able to connect meaningfully with each other.”
The thing is, he says, this is hard work. There’s no one and done approach. Developing these skills is a constant effort, much like building muscle or marathon training. “A lot of the time it will be uncomfortable,” says Ventura. “But, if you do it every day, that muscle becomes more toned, and eventually it becomes somaticized and second nature.”
Rather than a fee per class, Peoplehood offers monthly memberships starting from $95 to $145, with introductory packages starting at $55 to $85. Rice and Cutler are betting the membership model will encourage clients to show up more often, though they believe even a weekly stop at the studio can move the needle.
How Peoplehood works
A gather (offered both online and in person) at Peoplehood begins with breathwork and music. Then the guide will introduce a theme—something in the zeitgeist or maybe a personal experience that’s relatable to the group—it could be as broad a topic as uncertainty or conflict.
Next comes group sharing, a 30-second opportunity to talk about yourself, followed by breakout sessions with three minutes of one-to-one listening and sharing. There’s no commentary; no conversation or advice given; and participants agree to keep everything shared in strict confidence. These 30-second to six-minute segments are about showing up and being present.
Listening for 30 seconds or three minutes feels very manageable and counters the general assumption that connection takes too much time. “I have an exercise I do with my clients,” Ventura says. “In eight minutes, they’re having a one-on-one conversation. It’s with someone they don’t work with every day. Often people are brought to tears in those eight minutes. It’s literally just creating the space where people can feel comfortable and slow down for human-to-human interaction.”
Cutler agrees, noting the physiological shift in the brain can truly change not only our experience, but our well-being. What’s actually happening in our bodies when we feel heard is a shift from cortisol to dopamine, she says. Physical fitness is wonderful, but it’s just one part of the whole. “We are category-creating,” says Rice, noting that Couplehood and Peoplehood@Work are on the way.
“No one wants your advice or opinion. You don’t need to always say yes. Just, ‘I see you, and I hear what you’re saying, and I will take time to consider that, really.’ That’s what our kids want, our partners; they just want us to be there. And being there is very difficult. It’s equity of time, and it’s an amazing gift.”
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