How a Soulcycle Rider Lost 110 Lbs—and Became an All-Star Instructor

Photos: Danita Banks; Graphics: Well+Good Creative
Denita Banks has heard the many preconceived ideas about the ubiquitous spinning studio with the yellow bikes:

"It's a cult."

"That place is only for skinny girls."

"SoulCycle? It's intense."

She even believed some of them. And a few years ago, she never would have guessed she'd become a regular rider, let alone an instructor. But a lot can change in a short amount of time.

Here, in her own words, Banks shares her journey of going from 260 pounds to 150—and in the process, from being a casual class-goer, to a part-time employee, to a full-time instructor.

Scroll down to see how a SoulCycle rider lost over 100 pounds and became an all-star instructor in the process.

the wakeup call

Where my weight-loss journey began

Growing up in Michigan, I had always been a little bigger. In college, I lost some weight, but it wasn't in a healthy way. I would always force myself to do workouts I hated. In my mind, working out was a punishment, and unless I hated it, it wasn't really working. My weight went back up again after I graduated and started working in the restaurant industry.

Then in 2013, my mother died. I fell into a deep depression that I didn't know how to get out of. It was a really dark time. One day, I was sitting on the couch feeling really, really sad. Something had to change. That's when I decided to focus on improving my health. I knew it could change so much for me, including my mood, self-esteem, and the way I felt. It was at least a starting point.

I heard Lena Dunham goes there. I can't have her looking at me.

I bought a scale and weighed myself. The scale read 260 pounds. That was my motivation. I started reading healthy websites, looking up at-home workouts on YouTube, and watching health documentaries on Netflix. Around this time, I decided to leave Michigan and move to New York City. I didn't have a job lined up, but since I worked in the restaurant industry, I figured I would find something—and I did. Within a week I had an apartment and a job managing a restaurant.

One of my friends from college told me I should go to a SoulCycle class with him. "No way," I told him. "I've heard things about SoulCycle. It's a cult. I'm too overweight to go there. And I heard Lena Dunham goes there. I can't have her looking at me." I was full of excuses. I canceled plans with my friend repeatedly. Then finally, I gave in and booked a class.

first soulcycle class

My first SoulCycle class—and how it inspired healthier habits

I listened to Britney Spears's "Work Bitch" on repeat the night before. Then, I woke up at 6 a.m. for my first-ever class. Walking into the studio, I was really overwhelmed and nervous. I was sweating before the class even started. Still, I climbed on a bike in the back row and waited for class to start. "Let's do this," I told myself.

The first song the instructor played was "Work Bitch." Good omen? Hey, I'll take it. I'm going to be honest, I didn't love it, but there were things I did like. I liked that it was dark, how intense it was, and that I wasn't being judged. No one was looking at me, yet it was something we were all doing together. Immediately after the class, I thought, "Well, I did it. But I don't think I'll do it again." But for some reason, I found myself on my computer a few hours later booking another class for later in the week.

Meanwhile, I was hating my job at the restaurant. I started channeling that energy into my workouts. I would go to SoulCycle about two days a week and when I couldn't get to a class, I would go to Planet Fitness—one of the few gyms that was open at 2 a.m. when I got out of work—instead. Soon, my coworkers started joining me at the gym. We'd work out and complain about work together. It was our collective outlet.

One of the instructors really became a mentor to me. After class, she would be really encouraging.

One of the instructors really became a mentor to me. I used to hide out in her class in the back row, but she encouraged me to move forward to the front. After class, she would be really encouraging. She was kind of like a mom to me, which meant a lot, since I had lost my mom.

As you can imagine, working at a restaurant, it wasn't always easy to eat healthy, but I tried to as much as I could. I started cooking more meals at home, scrolling Instagram for meal inspo. I started eating more greens, but didn't deprive myself. If I wanted a slice of pizza, I'd have it. If I wanted a burger, I'd have it with a salad on the side. It felt more attainable to me—something I could stick with long-term. 

working at soulcycle

Working my way up...

Everyone knows SoulCycle classes aren't cheap—no boutique fitness class is. I had to tweak my lifestyle to be able to afford classes, but it sort of happened naturally. In the past, I spent a lot of money on going out, alcohol, and cabs. I had to drink to relax or feel good. But my workouts were starting to make me feel good in a different way, so I stopped going out as much. Instead of hitting the bars like we used to, my friends would come over and we'd cook dinner together.

I did become pretty strapped for cash when the restaurant I was working for closed for a month because it was opening a new location. I decided to apply for a cleaning job at the studio, which not only helped provide some extra cash flow, but it scored me free classes. I loved cleaning the studio. Actually, it dawned on me that I loved cleaning the studio more than I liked my job managing a restaurant. That's when I started to re-examine my career path.

Secretly, my dream was to become an instructor, but I was too embarrassed to tell anyone. I didn't think I "looked the part."

Secretly, my dream was to become an instructor, but I was too embarrassed to tell anyone. I didn't think I "looked the part." So I kept it to myself, but I went down a rabbit hole on LinkedIn, seeing how various people worked their way up from working the front desk, to becoming a manager, and beyond. I was determined to do the same thing.

After a few months of being on the cleaning staff, I got promoted to working the front desk, and promoted again to being a key-holder, a managerial role. I started telling my coworkers and friends about my dream of being an instructor. By this time, it had been a couple of years since I walked into the studio as a first-time rider, and I had lost about 90 pounds. It was a very gradual weight loss—not all at once. I wanted to tell people about my weight loss journey and inspire them to accomplish their health goals. Everyone was really supportive of me, telling me I should audition. So finally I decided to—even though I was terrified.

soulcycle instructor

All the way to SoulCycle instructor auditions

Even when you work at SoulCycle, you don't really know what goes on in the auditions. You hear rumors, but it's still a mystery. I was extremely nervous—horrified, really. But the cool part was, everyone who was auditioning encouraged each other. "You got this!" we'd say as each person took the stage.

I got a callback, and then I had to do essentially the same thing all over again. Later that day after my second audition, I got the call: I made it. I literally started crying in the street; I was so excited. Teaching my first class was just as nerve-wracking, but after a few times, I started really loving it. The key was remembering what I loved about it in the first place and how I wanted to be an inspiration to other people.

Now I'm teaching full-time in Philly—SoulCycle asked if I would relocate—and I'm also a Pilates instructor at SLT Philadelphia. I just want to change lives. That's what it's all about.

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