Inside Aarmy, the Next Great Group Fitness Cult

Britta Lokting

If you’ve got $40 or so to spend on a fitness class, you’re not hurting for options in Manhattan’s tiny NoHo neighborhood. There’s SoulCycle, of course, or Mile High Run Club if you prefer the treadmill. There’s Barry’s Bootcamp and Bar Method and Work Train Fight. If you want to box, there’s Overthrow Boxing Club, Rumble, and Bia Force. If you’d rather bang out some sun salutations, there’s a Yoga Vida. If you simply cannot decide between yoga and boxing, there’s Box and Flow, which combines the two. It might be the greatest concentration of upscale fitness studios in the world.

But none of these studios have Akin Akman. He’s a co-founder and the “chief fitness officer” of Aarmy, the newest arrival to the neighborhood. He’s a trainer, sure, but to many people, he is also a spiritual leader and a guru and a guiding light. I first heard about him on a blind date with a guy who works at Nike, who told me over beers about a famous SoulCycle instructor, one whose followers call themselves Akin’s Army. I looked him up after and discovered that he had recently left SoulCycle to co-found a cycling slash bootcamp pop-up “training facility” with Angela Davis, an inspirational speaker and fellow former SoulCycle instructor, a favorite of Oprah and Beyoncé, along with Trey Laird, the founder of the creative agency Laird+Partners. Already, Aarmy inductees include Usher and Janelle Monáe (there is also an Aarmy pop-up in L.A.).

So I signed up for one of the 40 practices (classes) that Akman coaches (teaches) a week. Up until my visit to Aarmy, I had managed to go through life without ever having taken a spin class. Almost everyone I spoke with used the word “energy” to describe why they prefer Akman’s style and ethos, but it is precisely the “energy” of spin that scares me. The whooping, the lights. All the beautiful people.

At first, Akman’s class seemed no different. As two employees helped buckle in my shoes, the riders all around me whipped their towels in the air like Petey Pablo. But it didn’t take long for me to be won over, to let go and appreciate Akman’s philosophy: he wants to pull out my greatness. He wants to speak to my mind and my heart and get to the bottom of who I am and what makes me tick. He believes I am an athlete even though I can barely run a mile or do five push-ups and sometimes get winded walking up the stairs to my apartment. It was clear the rest of the group had already bought in: in between hills or sprints, when Akman delivered an “at ease, soldiers,” nobody rolled their eyes—they gave each other high-fives. Akman spoke to us about reaching our potential and finding our joy and being blessed to live our beautiful lives. An actual spotlight shined on him.

Afterwards, I sat down with Akman on the cycling stage, while the cleaning crew wiped down the bikes. He is possibly the only person I have met who looks better sweating than not. He told me the army began a decade ago, when he was teaching at a Crunch gym in New York. His classes were so well-liked that if he subbed out to take a modeling gig, chaos would ensue. So he started a Facebook page called Akin’s Army so his followers could be better informed of his schedule. Akman, now 32, got so into the idea that he even screen-printed tank tops at American Apparel for his soldiers. By the time he moved to SoulCycle in 2013, his classes booked in two minutes. He left this past summer because he didn’t see any upward mobility.

He had been watching my (incorrect) technique and offered some tips. As he spoke, he looked me right in the eye. I wasn’t expecting to be converted. I’m not the type of person to buy into daily affirmations. My eyes glaze over whenever I hear the word “community,” as I did several times when talking to people about Aarmy. I try to avoid anything hyped up on endorphins or pedaling contrived happiness: Disneyland or Bachelorette parties. But all of this makes me Aarmy's exact target novice. There are a lot of cynics in the world—Akman wants them to see the color in their lives.

As I was leaving, he slapped me on the back and welcomed me into the army. And in the following days, as the pain in my knees subsided, I found myself wanting to return. Yes, the class had been a great workout as everyone told me it would. But really, I just wanted Akman to pull out a little more greatness.

Originally Appeared on GQ