I Tried Peoplehood, ‘a Workout for Your Relationships’

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Getty Images

The Peoplehood studio in Chelsea looks familiar: clean white walls, decorative bowls of lemons, and a merch shop; it’s a SoulCycle without the bikes. There is even an entire wall of lockers, which no one is using because this isn’t a gym, though its founders call Peoplehood “a workout for your relationships.”

This is SoulCycle’s Julie Rice and Elizabeth Cutler, who stepped down from the fitness empire in 2016, each $90 million richer, to “pursue new projects.” When the two announced Peoplehood — “a first-of-its-kind practice” — in the spring of 2022, the press had trouble understanding what they were selling. Was this a secular church group for lapsed Christian millennials? An AA-style support group? A social club minus the shared interests?

The company facilitates “Gather” sessions. These are “60-minute guided group conversations” in which participants are invited to “SPEAK FREELY and LISTEN DEEPLY,” says the website. The idea, Rice and Cutler explain, is to teach people listening skills that will ultimately improve their relationships. “Most conversations,” they insist, “are not actually dialogues but two monologues.”

I don’t totally know what to expect. Still, I want to improve my relationships and think the people behind SoulCycle, affectionately referred to as a cult, probably know something about connection that I don’t. At $165 a month, Peoplehood costs more than my inflammatory-bowel-disease support group ($0) and therapy with my insurance ($40) but way less than 25 classes at SoulCycle ($1,828.75).

The first thing you see walking into Peoplehood Chelsea, the company’s first and only physical location, is a wall of merch. There are “PPLHD” hoodies ($140) and hats ($52) and a variety of tiny bottles that are full of colored liquid and labeled with phrases such as Judgment Dissolver, Mixed Messages, and Unsolicited Advice. They cost $15 each.

“They’re so cool, right?” says an employee. Can I eat it? “Oh, no,” she says. “I don’t think so.”

In the Gather Room, the aesthetic is West Elm séance: dimly lit, floor covered by a jute rug, the world’s biggest candle burning a little too close to the world’s biggest paper lamp. A dozen chairs are arranged in a circle. Someone starts to play Coldplay. We’re led through a bit of deep breathing, and it begins.

The session is led by one of SoulCycle’s extremely charismatic fitness instructors. They have been “rigorously” retrained to lead Peoplehood sessions, according to the founders, but still use SoulCycle language including finding your tribe, spiritual room, and checking yourself. A big part of their job seems to be sharing their own personal problems to encourage group members to do the same, and I wonder how my guide feels about that. She’s a great sport but seems exhausted — actually, she says she’s exhausted — but she is still super-nice and smiling and I want to be friends with her.

In fact, I want to be friends with everyone, to ask them about their problems and reassure them when they apologize for oversharing, but this is difficult because there is no conversation allowed in class. You can only respond by snapping your fingers or patting your heart or, if you’re really feeling it, both.

The session starts with some group-sharing and then moves into breakouts. Each section is timed, and at each stage we’re told to respond to different prompts. These are questions like “What is something that is true for you today?,” “How are you really feeling?,” and “What is a story you tell yourself that isn’t serving you?” The prompts are corny, but I don’t mind — maybe they’ll open up the floor for deeper conversations?

But they don’t really. Most of what is said in this and subsequent sessions feels pretty vague — like we’re all just talking about vibes. I guess when you have 30 seconds to share with a group of strangers and fitness instructors, how deep are you really going to go? The few times people approach heavier issues — grief over a family death, an eating disorder — the group seems surprised. Meanwhile, there are lots of snaps for the guy who says he has been in a funk since Saturn left Aquarius.

When I tell my therapist, Tom, about Peoplehood, he’s also confused. “So it’s a situation where a group of people just go around and state an issue and don’t get any feedback or nothing really happens in terms of interaction?” he asks.

Sort of, I say, reminding him about the snapping. He frowns, then explains that the idea with group-sharing is that you have multiple sessions with the same group of people and, over time, trust, intimacy, and “a therapeutic environment” develop. “It’s a laboratory for people to share, learn about themselves and others, and, eventually — with feedback from other group members and the group leader — change.”

I tell him, reading from my interview with the founders, that Peoplehood is “NOT group therapy.” It is, rather, “a practice” that involves “higher listening,” which means “listening without interrupting, offering advice, or giving an opinion.”

“So it’s just like sitting around and having a coffee with strangers?” says Tom.

Sort of, I say again. No coffee, though.

After my first Gather, I attended two more, both virtually. By my third, I still wasn’t sure what I was doing. I wasn’t making friends. I was sharing with strangers but only problems that I felt were palatable. At this stage, I don’t think Peoplehood is equipped for much more than that. In that first session, when I went deeper, even teared up a little, I felt exposed, like I’d just done something absurd. My breakout-session partner looked totally bewildered. I didn’t blame her — what was she supposed to do? On my way out of the studio, I was confronted by the merch shop and all of its ornamental, expensive, useless bottles of colored liquid. I considered buying one as a souvenir.

I Tried Peoplehood, ‘a Workout for Your Relationships’