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Exercise that brings a tear to the eye

Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

When John Legend’s “All of Me” comes on the car radio, Jodi Ryan changes the station. There’s only so many times the Longmeadow mom can hear the pop ballad. But cue the same schmaltzy tune in her spin class at SoulCycle, and Ryan leaves the class in tears.

“I think it’s an incredible experience,” she said. “You can be mesmerized in there.”

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No one keeps track of the weepers at SoulCycle, which opened its first Boston-area outpost two months ago in Chestnut Hill, but the phenomenon is real. Instructors and spinners report the classes to be as much of an emotional workout as a physical one, and when new enthusiasts tell friends they’ve been to SoulCycle, the first question — sometimes asked in hushed tones — is usually about the waterworks.

“I have cried in class many times. I don’t know why it happens,” said Caroline Stone of Wellesley, a 36-year-old mother of two.

The 45-minute classes are held in a darkened room with large candles and loud music, and Stone’s cry usually comes when the instructor uses the word “grateful.”

“It’s the only thing that has gotten to me consistently and it’s when they use the world grateful. I am very grateful that I can be there. I recognize that not everyone has that opportunity,” said Stone, choking up during a phone interview. “Here I am getting emotional on the phone. That’s the piece that gets to me.”

Stone can’t explain why she cries, though she believes the trigger is physical, not emotional. “If the sweat is dripping off my face and my eyes, something is happening in my brain as well. Literally I feel high. Maybe it’s endorphins.”

‘I have cried in class many times. I don’t know why it happens.’

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Dr. Gregory Fricchione, the associate chief of psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital said crying after acute exercise “is not uncommon.”

“Emotion from visceral areas of the brain connects up with muscle tension (think of getting a stiff neck during tax season) and after intense exercise as muscles relax, emotions are theoretically more superficially accessible,” he wrote in an e-mail.

Fricchione, also the director of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at MGH, said that instructors “who address values” likely spark an emotional release “which sometimes emerges as tearfulness.”

“It occurring in an exercise class with a group of people would make some social sense as well,” he added.

Erin Lindsay would concur. The rookie instructor, who started teaching at SoulCycle four months ago, described her classes as choreographed journeys that are intended to push riders on mental and physical levels. The music, she said, is a carefully constructed playlist designed to elicit a dramatic reaction.

“We never want to give the riders emotional whiplash so they’re startled. You can’t start with a mystical song and then knock them in the face with Katy Perry,” she said. “It’s usually the second-to-last song in class. It’s almost like you have this moment. They get reflective and then your last song needs to be epic,” she said.

Lindsay, a former Rockette, has a playlist that highlights Active Child’s “Silhouette” and Labyrinth’s “Beneath Your Beautiful,” songs that seem to connect with riders experiencing feelings of being alone or imperfect. She recalled one college student who broke down in class earlier this month.

“She was experiencing graduation. Her best friend was moving away. It was small, but she got teary. Then, she said, ‘I can’t believe I’m crying right now’,” Lindsay said.

But there is pride in a good spinning cry, said many riders, including Ryan. “I kind of cry with my head up — powerfully.”

Not everyone ends up sobbing. Stephanie Trottier attends multiple classes a week, and has yet to shed a single tear.

“I guess it takes a lot for me to cry, but I’ve definitely had that rush, that emotional rush through my body,” said the 25-year-old nursing student.

Trottier, who treks to Chestnut Hill from South Boston, said the instructors’ mantras help her to focus and build confidence in her nursing classes and in real life.

“Some days when I had so much work, I didn’t know how to complete the day and it allowed me to get back on track,” she said.

Jill Radsken can be reached at jill.radsken@globe.com.
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