Ryan Lewis: Keeping things moving, on and off the bike

Ryan Lewis: Keeping things moving, on and off the bike

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As many of you know, I hate working out. Fortunately, I’ve been pretty lucky in the gene pool and it hasn’t taken much to keep me looking like I’m in shape without actually doing a sit-up or donning something made from Lycra. Unfortunately, age is starting to trump genetics and I may have to break down and do something more strenuous than lifting the remote. If anyone could inspire me to do it, it may be this week’s profile.

Ryan Lewis is a trainer at the brand-new SoulCycle facility in Rittenhouse Square. If you’re not familiar with SoulCycle, it’s billed as a combination of music, exercise and a little spirituality if you like. The classes are held on specialized yellow stationary bikes equipped with three-tiered handlebars. Everyone rides to the music as a high-energy instructor puts the group through its paces. The exercise program focuses on rhythm and the “energy of the pack,” which creates a strong bond between riders. The instructors, who are inspirational coaches, push riders to do their best on and off the bike.

SoulCycle is intended to invoke a self-cleansing quality, much like yoga.

PGN: What does the “soul” in SoulCycle mean to you?

RL: To me, it means the space and how it’s presented in terms of the physical nature of it. It starts with the ambience we set with the lights, either dim or off, with everything lit by candlelight, and the music blasting super loud. It creates a space where you can just lose yourself, immerse yourself and take yourself away from whatever is going on in your life outside. That’s where the physical combines with the mental and becomes a little more spiritual.

PGN: Exercising by candlelight is certainly something I haven’t heard of before. Explain the difference between your class and me sitting on a stationary bike at home.

RL: At the core of this, it’s an indoor cycling class, but the way I describe it is that this is a workout that has a lot of emotion and a lot of power to it. There’s a certain ownership that I think you’ll find here coming from the instructors that you won’t find anywhere else. It’s something I found both as a rider and as an instructor. There’s something authentic that you feel from the instructors and the people around you in the room. There is a communal energy. We ride to the rhythm of the music together, so everything we do, we do together. I find people come out of here with friendships they didn’t expect. When you push your limits there is a certain endorphin high that you get and you want to share it and talk about it so you might be a little more outgoing than normal. You’ve just done something you didn’t think you could and you want to share it.

PGN: So speaking of sharing, tell me your story.

RL: I grew up in Montgomery County but I attended St. Joe’s Prep in the city. I had a traditional upbringing: mom, dad and little brother. I went to Catholic school all my life but we weren’t raised in a very religious household. Growing up, I tried to do what all the other guys were doing — going out for sports and all that stuff. My parents never forced me but they were both all-star athletes and just assumed those genes would be passed down. Unfortunately not; I have zero eye-hand coordination, I was always the first one cut or the last one picked. I was the kid who would get up to the plate in kickball and everyone would come in. I was mortified but I tried. It just didn’t work out. And then I tried out for my first musical; it was the local community production of “Annie.” There weren’t many guys participating so I ended up playing several roles. That was the first time I felt like I was doing something that I was meant to do, something that I was good at.

PGN: Favorite role and worst mishap?

RL: Favorite? Jean Valjean in “Les Misérables” in the summer between my junior and senior years in high school. The worst was when I was in “The Sound of Music.” I played the youngest von Trapp child and at the end of the “So Long, Farewell” song, I was supposed to hit this long, high note. I was in the eighth grade and right before we were ready to open my voice started to change. We ended up actually having the girl who played Gretl sing the note and I would just open my mouth and lip sync. No one had any idea it wasn’t me.

PGN: What other clubs were you involved with in high school?

RL: My freshman year I was on the crew team. It was my first foray into sports and they were a no-cut team so they had no choice but to put me on. I actually did well, but they were too serious for me. I was also the editor-in-chief of our yearbook and I did some local theater.

PGN: When did you come out?

RL: I came out to a close group of friends between my junior and senior year. We were on a summer retreat and I was a team leader. We were supposed to make a speech so I made my theme about coming out and shared my story. It was just a small group of my classmates but as soon as we got back, the story spread like wildfire. I was scared but I wanted it to happen. St. Joe’s is a very academic- and sports-oriented school. I’d been afraid to come out because I thought I was surrounded by meat-headed jocks but once I came out, I realized it wasn’t true at all. Everyone was so supportive. It was one of the best years of my life. I hold it dear.

PGN: Did you tell your parents before your retreat speech?

RL: No, I was “friends first, family second.” But I told my mom towards the end of my senior year and my father a little bit later. We’ve been through a lot, but I’m happy to say I don’t think there’s a stronger family unit than mine. With everything we’ve been through, there’s nothing we can’t talk about.

PGN: Let’s talk about that. So what happened when a small-town guy from Gwynedd Valley hit the Big Apple?

RL: Since I was in fifth grade, I’d always wanted to go to school at New York University. In high school, we would take field trips to Philadelphia and I got a taste of city life but I wanted to immerse myself in it. There’s no campus like NYU; I say that as a former tour guide at the university. When I went, I set some ground rules for myself because I knew I was going to get exposed to a lot. New York has the best of everything, including the best of the worst, and I definitely took a walk on the dark side. The limits I set were to not inject anything and to not stick anything up my nose. Luckily, the injections never happened, but by October of my freshman year, I was snorting cocaine. It was social at first but it pretty quickly became more and more of a solitary endeavor. Drugs are very expensive and on a student budget I didn’t want to share — that, and the fact that I was ashamed of what I was doing. It continued until I was 23 but I’m happy to say that come April 27 of this year I will have maintained three years of complete sobriety.

PGN: Was there something in your personality that pushed you beyond just social use?

RL: I think at the core, I was striving to figure out who I was. I was in two relationships during the five years I was using, which was from 18-23 — pretty formative years as you’re trying to decide what to do with your life and are being exposed to certain freedoms for the first time. I was living according to other people and not according to me. I would get high to feel good about myself and the more I did, the better I felt. I figured, why not? I was young and that’s the time to be stupid and wild but then it got out of control. I tried to get clean on my own and maintained it for about 120 days until that little voice said, “You should be able to have just one drink. You’re 23, you can handle it, just know that when it gets to a certain point, when you want to introduce the other things, you can’t let that happen.” And the first night I had a drink it happened, everything came back. When I took that first sip, I immediately knew I was going to go back to using. And I was back on that train for five months until it all caught up with me again. That’s when I learned that what is true for many people was true for me: One is too many and 1,000 is not enough. I knew that I had to cut out everything, that even a glass of wine at dinner would send me down the wrong path.

PGN: I read that your mother came to the rescue.

RL: Yes, she took me rehab shopping and got me into an outpatient facility. My parents do the snowbird thing and spend most of the winter in Florida but she usually comes back around my sobriety anniversary and it feels safe. Kind of like when she flew up here that first time without a return ticket and didn’t leave until she found help for me.

PGN: What was the silliest thing you lied about during the time you were using?

RL: My mother’s dentist was in New York so when she came up to see him we went out to dinner. [Laughs] When you’re in college you don’t turn down a free meal. I was drinking at dinner and then I would sneak away to do drugs in the bathroom. In the beginning, when you’re using drugs, you’re very careful about hiding it but by this time I was starting to get sloppy. I apparently went to the bathroom a lot that night, to the point that my mother asked if I was OK— she had an idea of what was going on — but I chalked it up to a small bladder. I appreciated the fact that my parents didn’t constantly call me on it because, as I know now, that doesn’t really help anything. People don’t change or get clean until they’re ready to. Another silly thing I did was to change my major just to hide my drug use from my dad. I was going out every single night partying and he called me to see how I was doing. I was afraid he knew what was up so I thought, What can I do to get on his good side and make him proud? I know, I’ll become a business major! He never went to college but he was a businessman and I knew he would be pleased, so I ended up graduating NYU with a degree from the world-renowned Stern School of Business just to cover up my drug use!

PGN: And now you’ve quit your job in marketing to teach SoulCycling.

RL: Yes! My mother took me to my first indoor cycling class when I was 13. I wasn’t very sports-oriented but I was very active and she thought I would like it. With spin class, all you had to do was strap in and move your legs! You didn’t need any coordination. I fell in love immediately and would spin weekly all throughout high school. When I went to college, I’d heard about SoulCycle but avoided it because I didn’t have the budget to join; any money I had was going to support my habit. I have a very addictive personality and knew that once I started, I would want to do it all the time. It combined two things I loved: music and indoor cycling. Once I got a full-time job at the end of my senior year I figured I could afford the drugs and the classes. I started going nine times a week.

PGN: I understand the classes are kind of like choreographed dance on a bike. My first thought was, I don’t want to be the knucklehead lagging behind the rest of the class.

RL: First of all, there is no such person as the knucklehead lagging behind. To ensure that, we go over everything at the beginning of each class just so you know what to expect. I ride the entire class with you so visually you know, not where you should be, but where you can be. Where you should be is wherever you feel good. Even if that’s just staying seated. As instructors, we have modifications to give people so that everyone can participate, whether it’s someone who’s a beginner or someone just coming off of an injury. Because it’s low impact, it’s often the first thing doctors will let someone do after an injury. It’s one of the reasons I love it; whether you’re a three-time Olympian or someone who hasn’t gotten off the couch since last June, you can participate.

PGN: Last July.

RL: [Laughs] OK. Either way, we’re all in this together and we will all cross the finish line together.

PGN: What does it take to become an instructor?

RL: You have to audition first and then if you’re hired you train four hours a day, four days per week for six weeks in New York City. You have to have what they call a “rock-star” quality, a certain energy or power that you bring to class that affects the people around you.

PGN: Have you ever been harassed for being gay?

RL: Yes. I was with my boyfriend at the time at a McDonald’s in Union Square, downtown New York City where you couldn’t throw a stone and not find a gay person. We were in line waiting to place our order and I leaned over and gave him a kiss. Seconds later, I felt a splat on my face and looked over and realized some guy had just spit on me. Then he started yelling homophobic slurs. It was apparent he wasn’t all the way there mentally, but then he hocked up another one and it landed on my boyfriend. As he turned to walk away, he told us he was going to wait for us outside to beat the shit out of us. It was one of those cases where you didn’t know what to do, because he was obviously unstable. I looked behind us and he was peering in the window. He came back in and started to hock up another mouthful of spit, which luckily we avoided, and he finally walked out and left. It was just shocking to realize it can happen anywhere, even in the most liberal of places. So sad and tragic to realize that that kind of hate is still happening everywhere.

PGN: A song that feels like it was actually written for you …

RL: That’s easy, it’s called “Do or Die” by Thirty Seconds to Mars. I’d been going to meetings and when I got to 90 days of sobriety the second time, it was the first big milestone. I thought, Why is 90 days so important? Am I going to wake up and see Jesus in my bedroom telling me, “You did it!” But it was just a normal day until I put on my headphones and hit shuffle and that song came on. It’s a very anthemic song and the message of do or die cut through to me and I had a 90-day cloud-parting moment.

PGN: Any tattoos?

RL: Oh yeah, I got my first one when I was 18. It’s on my hip below my underwear line because I had to hide it from my parents. It has the number 23 in Roman numerals because that’s my birthday. One of my favorites is a circle that says “Keep moving,” which is for my dad even though he hates the tattoos. They both do. But there were three things my dad taught me: Don’t do drugs, don’t get a tattoo and a moving target is hard to hit so keep it moving. So I listened to one out of three lessons. I always keep things moving. I’m never satisfied, which can be good and bad, but it’s gotten me to where I am today.

For more information on SoulCycle, visit www.soul-cycle.com.

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