In 2010, Ellen Latham co-founded an exercise studio in Ft. Lauderdale called Orangetheory. What began as one small business in 2010 is now a movement with 1,200 studios in 22 countries, more than 800,000 members and over $1 billion in sales. I recently came across an article explaining the philosophy and science behind this popular trend.
Unlike most other exercise classes, the workout is not the same for everyone in the class and the participants are not competing against anyone but themselves. Each member wears a heart monitor to capture how hard their body is working and does a workout based on several factors including age and other variables.
The founders of the company place an emphasis on creating a sense of community. Their goal is to have members feel part of a group that push one another, celebrate each other’s victories and support one another in their struggles. They also designed the franchise to have consistency: members can show up at any Orangetheory location in the country and know how the Orangetheory will look, what will happen in the class, and every part of the workout experience.
When reading the article, it occurred to me that this is exactly what Jewish communal life is meant to be for exercising our souls. We, too, are encouraged not to measure ourselves, the quality of our davening, the breadth of our learning, or the capacity of our giving, against anyone else. Our mission is to be driven to realize our best selves, to push ourselves to realize our fullest potential, and not anyone else’s.
Obviously, central to Jewish life is fostering a sense of community. We are best positioned for success in working out our neshamas when we plug into community and find encouragement, support, and structure. Our studios for the soul also provide a sense of consistency: we can walk into any shul in the country with an expectation, more or less, of what we will find in davening, at a Daf Yomi shiur, etc.
But it was something else in the article, another feature of Orangetheory, that caught my eye and that I think we can learn from in growing our studios for the soul. Orangetheory’s success is largely due to the format of their classes. The training is designed as HIIT workouts, an acronym for High Intensity Interval Training. In a typical HIIT workout, participants repeat short spurts of high-intensity exercise, intermingled within longer stretches of lower intensity activity designed for active recovery. Within a 60 minute workout, the goal is to keep the heart rate raised to the “orange” level for only about 12 minutes.
There is fascinating wisdom behind the benefits of a HIIT workout, including the fact that the high intensity portion stimulates the body to continue to burn calories, even when in recovery mode. But what struck me was not the science, rather the psychology behind it. Essentially, if you are told to begin a challenging workout that will keep your heart rate level high throughout and maintain the level of difficulty, many or most will not even start. However, if you know that recovery is built in and that you will only be pushed to your max for short spurts, you are much more likely to not only begin the workout, but to complete it and gain the benefits.
Our Jewish calendar functions in some ways as a HIIT workout. We are challenged to push ourselves in spurts spiritually, tap into different themes or energies based on holidays, and take the experience back into the “recovery” period where it continues to enrich us.
Elul is the ultimate intense interval in a HIIT spiritual workout. It is not disingenuous or inauthentic to push ourselves for a short spurt even if we know that the intensity will not necessarily last. The Shulchan Aruch (o.c. 603) records a practice from the Yerushalmi that even those who aren’t strict to only eat pas yisrael (bread products baked by a Jew) the entire year should be strict during Aseres Yimei Teshuva, the ten days from Rosh Hashana through Yom Kippur. Why? Whom are we fooling by being on our best behavior for ten days knowing we will revert back as soon as Yom Kippur is over?
The answer is that we are not trying to fool anyone. This time of year we are experiencing the height of an intense interval of our spiritual cycle. We are going to soon introduce the daily recitation of Selichos into our schedule. We will extend davening, feel encouraged to add more learning, take on positive practices, and generally push ourselves a little harder. Knowing the intensity will subside and we will return to a recovery period doesn’t make us fake, it makes us motivated.
Rise to the occasion and challenge yourself these next weeks. Push to be better and to do more, knowing the intense interval will soon be replaced with a recovery period in which our souls will still be benefiting from the hard work we will have done.