An Upended Fitness Industry Sweats Over Black Lives Matter

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Before the pandemic changed the way we work out, possibly forever, Sarah Levey was among the boutique fitness industry’s fastest-rising stars. She and her husband, Mason Levey, are the founders of Y7, a yoga company with 14 studio locations in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, with classes costing $25 each, taking place in candlelit rooms with the heat and hip-hop playlists on full blast.

By 2017, Y7 had raised nearly $7 million from private equity backers. Ms. Levey appeared on the September 2018 cover of Inc. magazine as “yoga’s newest mogul.” A few months later, she told Forbes that her company’s success is built on “setting a vibe.”

This vibe included a heavy reliance on Black culture, starting with a Y7 branding tagline, “A Tribe Called Sweat,” prominently featured on walls and merchandise: a play on A Tribe Called Quest, the hip-hop group. Hip-hop music has been a big part of the company’s image, and its draw to yogis.

In 2018, the company hired a diversity, equity and inclusion consultant, Ms. Levey, who is Asian-American, said in an interview. Among the recommendations was that Y7 stop branding itself as “hip-hop yoga.”

But as recently as May 25, Y7’s Instagram feed featured a black square with the name of the hip-hop artist Young M.A. in white letters at its center, with the caption, “SAVAGE MODE ? Join our 30-minute themed flow on IG Live this week ft. @youngma #HipHopWednesdays.”

At the bottom right of the black square was one of Y7’s hallmarks: a three-line block of text mimicking the recognizable three line text-block used as a parental advisory label on music with explicit lyrics, reading, “Y7 Studios, Hip Hop Yoga, We Flow Hard.”

As civil rights protests grew in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd, many companies vowed to revise their marketing and business practices to recognize racial injustice. Y7, which has laid off 340 workers and is down to 10 full-time and three part-time employees, is among them.

“What came out of a deep appreciation for the music became an appropriation that went on too long and was unaddressed as we expanded,” Ms. Levey said.

The company is now working with a Black-owned marketing firm to “freshen” Y7’s brand. It is doing away with #hiphopwednesday and #hiphopsunday classes, as well as the “tribe called sweat” line, and promising more scholarships for teacher training programs. The company also said it is refocusing efforts on programs that bring yoga to young people in underserved communities and other philanthropic activities when studios open again.

ImageY7’s tagline, a play on the hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest, will soon be obsolete.
Credit…via Y7

The American fitness industry has frequently profited from trends made popular by Black dancers, choreographers and music creators. Now it is being forced to address inequality at a time when studios and gyms around the country have been closed for months. This has resulted in layoffs of thousands of fitness workers, many of them Black and paid hourly, without benefits.

Peloton, the at-home fitness company, has thrived during lockdown.

In early June, as protesters marched in cities and towns around the world, Tunde Oyeneyin, a Black Peloton instructor, woke in the middle of the night and began to jot down thoughts about how to amplify their message on a bedside notepad.

In the morning, Ms. Oyeneyin received an email from Jen Cotter, the chief content officer of Peloton, asking if she would be interested in creating a spin class with a meditation, led by Chelsea Jackson Roberts, a yoga instructor, that would capture the importance of the moment.

Ms. Oyeneyin spent the next three days interviewing Black colleagues at Peloton, preparing an inspiring, provocative monologue quoting them and a playlist including songs like Nipsey Hussle’s “Right Hand 2 God,” “Patience” by Nas, featuring Damian Marley, and James Blake’s “Radio Silence,” which she would use to invoke the killing of Mr. Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and “countless others.”

The result was “Speak Up,” a 30-minute class that has since been streamed more than 110,000 times.

In an interview, Ms. Oyeneyin said her goal was to combine the physical intensity of a tough workout with the emotional intensity of addressing how Black people can feel in predominantly white spaces, like fitness studios.

“I wanted to be able to elevate those Black voices, and I have this platform,” she said. “For 34 years, I have tiptoed around, trying not to make people uncomfortable at the expense of my own comfort.”

Ms. Oyeneyin’s class was like a prepared piece of performance art with an endorphin-doused audience. But a class led by one of Peloton’s longtime instructors, Alex Toussaint, was an improvised emotional address from a Black man who was, as he explained it, trying to reconcile the racism he has experienced throughout his personal life with the professional success and renown he has earned in the white world of corporate boutique fitness.

“I understand for some of y’all, I’m the one person from the African-American community in your household,” Mr. Toussaint told his riders. “I understand that. My responsibility is to let you know there’s other individuals like me, who talk like me, who walk like me, who provide light to this world, man.”

He told his riders of his mother’s inability to sleep at night until she gets a text from him letting her know that he is home safely, and urged riders to extend their concern beyond posting on Instagram: “Less caption and more action,” he said.

The class has been streamed more than 65,000 times.

Credit…Simbarashe Cha for The New York Times

In an interview, Mr. Toussaint said that his father sent him to military school to help him avoid jail or worse, and that he has been pulled out of his car at gunpoint by police “because they are afraid of the color of my skin.”

He hoped to awaken students oblivious to such realities. “I’m a young Black male on a platform with two million people,” Mr. Toussaint said. “I’m out there to rep for my people, myself and my last name.”

Ms. Cotter, the Peloton executive, said the company applauded Ms. Oyeneyin and Mr. Toussaint’s self-expression. “We’re always considering it as part of our content strategy to create conversations,” she said. Instructors are generally expected to avoid political topics while teaching their classes, but the Black Lives Matter movement is different, she said. “We see this as a human rights issue. Those are not the same for us, politics and civil rights.”

The popular chain SoulCycle had marked Black History Month in February by sharing images and stories from Black studio managers and instructors. A few days after Mr. Floyd was killed, the company, like so many others, posted acknowledgment of anguish around the country, concluding, “#BlackLivesMatter today, every day, always.”

But to some customers, such messaging from the company, which has nearly 100 studios in three countries (but has lagged behind Peloton in marketing a home bike), rang hollow. Many were outraged last summer when Stephen Ross, the chairman of the Related Companies, whose principals own majority stakes in SoulCycle and the fitness club chain Equinox, hosted a high-priced fund-raiser for President Trump, whose administration ordered the tear-gassing of protesters, at Mr. Ross’s home in Southampton, N.Y. One typical comment on the Black Lives Matter post read: “SOULCYCLE IS PART OF THE PROBLEM STOP FUNDING TRUMP.”

The company, which in March introduced an at-home bike for riders that costs $2,500, also organized a series of free Zoom workouts, requesting that attendees donate to various charities combating racial inequality.

This irked some who wondered why the company wasn’t publicly donating its own money rather than soliciting from riders.

In response to SoulCycle marking the completion of the day’s classes with a “Thank You, Soul Fam” Instagram post, Zoe Galloway, a SoulCycle customer of 10 years, commented, “Putting your Black instructors on a podium (literally and figuratively) and having them perform to show that SoulCycle is inclusive is not how this is done.”

Earlier this month, fliers promoting SoulCycle’s Sirius XM channel were distributed at an outdoor ride in the Hamptons, raising eyebrows of some present because of its photograph of homogeneous white women.

But SoulCycle’s casting of Black instructors in other marketing materials has rankled employees who perceive it as tokenism, given the overwhelming whiteness in the executive ranks.

Then last week, Soeuraya Wilson, a popular instructor who was one of the faces of the SoulCycle at-home app, quit. She posted on Instagram that she did not want her image and body to be “used” by a company that, in her view, performs activism “when it is convenient for their bottom line or their seasonal campaign,” and stands with “investors and individuals who continue to support racism and bigotry without true compassion for the health and wellness of the employees and riders.”

A marketing photograph of Ms. Wilson on the new at-home bike was taken down this week and has been replaced with a shot of an empty bike.

On Wednesday, four more instructors at SoulCycle announced their resignation on Instagram. “Those that know me well, know that I advocate for authenticity in every aspect of life and with the times we are living in I must stand in truth,” wrote Tina Jackson, a Black instructor who had been with the company for seven years and whose image is used on SoulCycle’s Sirius XM’s marketing materials. “Who would I be as your teacher if I didn’t walk in my own words? If I didn’t stand up for what I believe?”

On Wednesday evening, SoulCycle posted on Instagram a lengthy letter from its interim chief executive, Sunder Reddy, promising to honor the company’s commitment to the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change. “Since March we have had to navigate unimaginably difficult economic, social and emotional situations,” he wrote, adding that “our ability to make meaningful financial contributions to outside organizations is limited today.”

Lockdown measures have been cataclysmic for the boutique fitness industry, which was built on packed, pricey indoor sessions, and some instructors feel too uncertain about their futures to quit. Rique Uresti, a SoulCycle senior master instructor since 2010 who was furloughed last week, said he agreed with much of what Ms. Wilson wrote in her post.

Mr. Uresti worries that instructors who haven’t followed Ms. Wilson out the door are assumed to support the company’s culture. “At what point do I draw the line of having an employer who, given what is going on, won’t meaningfully address it?” he said. “As a parent, can I cut off my bread and butter?”

Away from these big brands, Shaun Patrick Tubbs is a Black fitness instructor piecing together different gigs into a career with possibility. A manager and teacher at Harlem Cycle, he’s also leading spin classes for Myx Fitness, a new at-home equipment and streaming content company. He’s a coach for CityRow, which offers online training through CityRowGo, and working as a running motivational coach for CardioCast, an audio fitness content company.

Virtual fitness, when a student has a screen right in front of their face in the intimacy of their home, can sometimes seem more personal than being one of 30 in a packed studio.

“I know I am often the only Black person who the members have had in the living room, and there is pressure around that,” Mr. Tubbs said. “Pressure to be nonthreatening, pressure to be opening their minds and pressure to perhaps encourage them to have a conversation with others too.”

He said working in boutique fitness makes him a respected and admired figure in spaces dominated by white people. “But I’ll leave the studio in a hoodie and stand next to a client at the bus stop and say hi, and they can’t put it together that it’s me,” he said. “I don’t want to just be accepted as an instructor. I want to be accepted as a person.”

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