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Christine LenahanNovember 22, 2023
The reflection space at Peoplehood. Photo via Peoplehood.com

I drink water from my Stanley Tumbler, have willingly submitted to the cottage cheese comeback and use cream makeup in my daily routine. Yes, I am on TikTok and briefly had a stint as a VSCO girl when, well, that was a thing. I love a trend. I am fascinated by how they take form in the lexicon of culture and how they evolve into new trends or, if the trend be so lucky, become a social norm.

And on Wednesday, Nov. 8, I paid $35 to share my feelings with a room full of strangers because, well, now that’s a thing.

“Would you like a matcha?” asks the beautiful middle-aged woman signing me into my first Peoplehood class. Peoplehood, the brainchild of the founders of SoulCycle, is an emerging wellness studio following the current “wellness gathering” trend. Unlike SoulCycle, a high-intensity cycling workout, Peoplehood is a gym for your feelings.

I accept what I (foolishly) believe to be a free matcha latte, only later to find a $6 charge added to my account. I quickly analyze what is happening in the space around me. Where am I? 

A gather, which is Peoplehood-speak for a reflection session, is a 60-minute exercise in practicing empathy and “active listening.” A workout for the soul, if you will.

Arriving at the flagship studio in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York, I find myself inside a sanctuary. Within the mushroom-toned walls of the studio (the $140 hoodies in the gift shop are the same color, natch), I watch as several good-looking people mill about the waiting room, exchanging pleasantries and tempering the eager energy before our “gather.” 

A gather, which is Peoplehood-speak for a reflection session, is a 60-minute exercise in practicing empathy and “active listening.” A workout for the soul, if you will. 

In 2016, I eagerly bought into the SoulCycle trend. SoulCycle, the 2006 product of Elizabeth Cutler and Julie Rice, is an indoor cycling studio that spearheaded the boutique fitness phenomenon. In a 2020 episode of “Jesuitical,” guest Tara Isabella Burton named SoulCycle one of America’s new religions. 

Beyond the addictive high of a sweaty workout (or is that just the high of the grapefruit candles burning in every studio?) SoulCycle is a status symbol for riders who can afford the $34 class, the cycling shoes, the chilled bottles of Smartwater and the Lululemon uniform embossed with the company logo. 

By using my student discount and reusable water bottle, I found my place in my local SoulCycle studio during my undergrad years. The power of a SoulCycle ride is found in the sweaty high-fives and encouraging glances that become the currency of human connection. SoulCycle knows what they are selling. In 2023, Cutler and Rice said they found that SoulCycle’s success depended upon the “people [who] came for the workout, but stayed for the connections they created in the studios.” 

Haven’t any of my fellow attendees (my Peoplehomies?) been on a retreat before? This is the exact same thing.

Thus, Peoplehood. Peoplehood aims to help its members strengthen their relationship skills, focusing on what Culter and Rice are calling “relational fitness.” While much of their language seems a little woo-woo, if you’ve ever been in a reflection group or part of a retreat community, you’re familiar with phrases like “intentional sharing” and “active listening.”

And so when I signed up for the last available slot for a Wednesday night gather, I couldn’t help but think: Haven’t any of my fellow attendees (my Peoplehomies?) been on a retreat before? This is the exact same thing.

Illuminated by several herbal candles strategically placed throughout the room, our reflection space was that of an ashram in the high mountains of the Himalayas placed in the heart of a bustling city. Light classical tunes cut the awkward rustling of jackets placed over chairs and the peeling of masking-tape name tags that we then affixed to our clothing. 

Peoplehood may have had synodality in mind, I thought as I joined six strangers in a circular formation of wooden ergonomic chairs. It looked like a scene from the Paul VI Aula at the Vatican if the Aula were designed by wellness gurus with expansive Pinterest boards about “room synergy.” Replace the clergymen with questions about the church with Lululemon-wearing lay folks with relationship gripes and you get the picture. 

I decided that for as much as I wanted to dismiss Peoplehood as a sham, I already kind of loved it. From friendly greetings at the door to smiles shared among fellow attendees, there was a sense of budding community.

As I settled into the space for the next hour and sipped my mediocre matcha latte, I decided that for as much as I wanted to dismiss Peoplehood as a sham, I already kind of loved it. From friendly greetings at the door to smiles shared among fellow attendees, there was a sense of budding community.

I could appreciate the novelty of such an experience for some members. They eagerly watched Julianna, our guide, demonstrate “active listening gestures” such as placing hands over your heart when something someone has shared resonates with you, or snapping your fingers in affirmation. But I grew up in campus ministry circles in college and high school; I snap more than I clap.

While I did find myself in a few moments of panic (wait, are we about to take ayahuasca tea or begin a seance?), I grew more comfortable as we began with some breathing exercises and Julianna introduced today’s gather theme: love.

Whether it is handling conflict, burnout, or topics like racism or homophobia, the class theme is a touchstone for the questions asked by the class guide. According to the Peoplehood website, these guides are “storytellers, super connectors, DJs and empaths with big hearts and even bigger smiles.” The guides help to direct conversations and, most importantly, are not trained therapists. While they undergo Peoplehood training, the guides aren’t looking to rehash childhood traumas in a room full of strangers.

Questions like “How are you doing, really?” and “One thing that’s true for me today is ___?” start both the partner sharing and group sharing. As I began sharing with my partner for my allotted three minutes of uninterrupted reflection, I had to explain that I work in Catholic media and that the “something that I love” is “combining my work and my faith.” I kept it vague so as to not blow my cover as a secret operative doing my fieldwork, while also trying to match her effortless and mysteriously cool response of unironically being an “industry creative.”

Could my style of reflection, one that is rooted in Ignatian discernment, be as trendy as my partner’s mantra repeating meditation? Could my Catholicism be cool?

But then an interruption—which breaks the cardinal rule plastered in big font on the Peoplehood lobby walls! “Oh, so you’re Catholic?” she asks. Immediately, I pause. Could my style of reflection, one that is rooted in Ignatian discernment, be as trendy as my partner’s mantra repeating meditation? Could my Catholicism be cool?

“Yeah, but not like that,” I say, trying in earnest to match her kale-and-juice-cleanse attitude. I explain that yes, while Catholicism has a history of abuse and discrimination, I have found a faith community rooted in inclusion and reform. Perhaps somewhat impressed with my answer, she remarked that she thought it was “so awesome” that I believed in something not nothing. We moved on to the next question. 

While Peoplehood preaches a culture of cultivating deep relationships for overall well-being, it can seem like it is capitalizing on the loneliness epidemic in the United States. I must admit that, at first, the whole idea of paying up to $165 a month to experience this artificially prompted social connection freaked me out. “Peoplehood is like the Splenda of human connection,” writes the Refinery29 review, “not as good as the real stuff.”

Having now attended a gather, I realize that the conversations and controversies about social connection in the wellness industry are just the result of a new and ever-evolving market, one that has developed with a religion-like spirituality in mind. In 2023, Mindbody, a software company, predicted that“consumers will continue to look to fitness, beauty, and wellness businesses as a source of community.” Community building in the gym, on the Pilates reformer machine, or now at Peoplehood, is here to stay.

Indeed, the Gospel of Wellness sells; it has become an annual $4 trillion industry. But as a Catholic, it can be hard to buy into it.

Indeed, the Gospel of Wellness sells; it has become an annual $4 trillion industry. But as a Catholic, it can be hard to buy into it. Having been in spaces of connection guided by faith, experiences like Peoplehood can seem artificially created for a community of nonbelievers. It can be easy to feel like an old pro at discernment and sharing among people who see emotional vulnerability in a reflective space as unconventional.

Still, I find there is something about communal vulnerability among strangers with a variety of stories and beliefs that opens hearts to authentic sharing. Among my six gather members, many of whose names I do not remember, I shared my version of faith: one that is uniquely Catholic and grounded in agapic love. A yogi from Indonesia, an atheist from Brooklyn, and I, a cradle Catholic from Pennsylvania, engaged in real conversations about love in our lives—something that we all believe in—and that means something, even if that something is what we paid for. 

And maybe I’ll be back. If not for a class, then to at least smell the expensive candles.

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