Gyms are the new churches

I finally joined a gym last week. When I did, I was struck by something. I had an epiphany on the running machine. It seems to me that gyms are gradually taking on the role of the Church.

In the past, when people were stressed or emotionally upset, when their life wasn’t going how they wanted it to, when they wanted to turn over a new leaf or expiate a sin, they went to the Church. They confessed their sins, they prayed to the Lord, they asked the priest for advice.

Few people in England, and hardly any in London, now have that sort of relationship with the Church. Most people I know never go to church. If they do, they go irregularly, and they would never share confidences with the priest there.

So we have millions of people who, if they no longer feel weighed down by sin, do at least feel stressed, uneasy, out of touch with their true selves, and weighed down by the burdens of modern life. So where can they turn?

Why, to the gym of course. They get on those running machines, and they exorcise their demons. They sweat them out. Exercise is the new exorcise. They exhaust themselves running on the spot, until they have no energy left to feel stressed or ashamed. Then they get off the machine, and they feel virtuous, because they have disciplined the flesh.

In my new gym, they even have a special room, called the ‘mind, body and spirit room’, where they give twice-daily classes in yoga. Yoga, of course, was originally a spiritual discipline that was part of Hinduism. It’s become incredibly popular in the West, because it gives you a spiritual, relaxed feeling, as well as a well-toned bum.

And, above the ‘well-being room’ is a spa and a massage parlour, which has a reception with a pretty smiling girl and a big sign saying ‘Heaven’. Yes, heaven in the 21st cenutry has become a massage parlour.

So the gym is gradually shifting, becoming less a place where you go to get in shape, and more a place you go to for ‘well-being’. Can it be long before there are also meditation classes at the gym, or whirling dervish classes? We could have Christian prayer from 3 to 4, followed by Tantric massage at 5 and shamanic drumming at 6.

Actually, I think this spiritualization of the gym is no bad thing. As I’ve written before in this column, I think it’s useful if we go beyond thinking of spirituality as a matter of faith and metaphysics, and start thinking of it as a set of exercises, habits and practices. Gymnasiums, in ancient Greece, were in fact places of both spiritual and physical education – the two were not separated. The education of the mind was intimately connected to the education of the body.

So really, what we are perhaps seeing happen is not just a spiritualization of the gym, but a physicalization of philosophy. We’ve come to realize it’s no use simply sitting cramped in a library pouring over some logical text and thinking this makes you a philosopher. Philosophy is also about how you live, how you eat and drink, how you treat your body. Indian philosophers understand far better than most Western philosophers that the way your mind works and feels is intimately connected to how well your body is functioning, and that physical exercises have a profound effect on the mind.

Perhaps the fact that we are turning to the gym, of all places, for spiritual guidance shows how abjectly the rest of society – politics, literature, the media, schools and universities – has failed us. As Darrin McMahon, a historian at Florida State University and the author of Happiness: A History, said to me in an interview last year: “We’ve arrived at this bizarre situation where the only people teaching moral values in schools anymore are sports coaches.”

But slowly, this is changing. More and more people are talking about introducing the study of well-being, both physical and mental, into schools once more. In Australia, for example, one of the top schools, Geelong Grammar School, where Prince Charles briefly studied, has built a $15 million new ‘well-being centre’, which combines sports facilities – gyms, swimming pools, tennis courts – with facilities for mental well-being, such as counsellors and meditation centres.

The school’s headmaster, Steven Meek, told me: “The School’s aim was that the centre should not just help pupils in terms of physical health, but also in terms of mental health, that if students were beginning to feel lonely, upset etc., they would be able to go to the Well-being Centre to meet others, see a Counsellor, do some exercise, which is accepted as a way of combating depression.”

Perhaps the Church will cotton on to the new trend, and start offering Pilates classes in between services. The new priests will wear tracksuits and blow a whistle between hymns. When we confess our sins to them, they’ll insist we do fifty press-ups, fifty sit-ups, and ten star jumps.