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“Fight for Yourself”: Max Sheldon’s SOUL Journey

earning to love your body because it’s YOURS is not always easy. Instructor MAX SHELDON shares an honest and brave account of his journey from struggling with insecurity to finding strength and inspiration through the magic of movement…

I went as a butterfly for Halloween three years in a row, a fact I still have trouble admitting. As if two years of breaking the mold and being the only boy butterfly on the block wasn’t enough, I decided that I’d wear the costume a third year and make my debut appearance at my elementary school’s Halloween carnival.

The butterfly costume stayed the same size, little Max’s body did not. I remember putting the outfit on in a tizzy of excitement, not realizing how ill-fitting my leotard was this year. It wasn’t until we walked into the carnival and I saw all of the other kids dressed up in amazing costumes (that fit them swimmingly) that I looked down: my rolls of fat bulging from under my wings staring up back at me. I started hysterically crying, forced my mom to drive me home, and changed into a different, far less exciting get up.

After that day, I could never look at my body the same. I’d spend at least an hour every night after my parents put me to bed looking in the mirror and taking inventory: checking if anything had gotten bigger or God-willing smaller. I’d cry to my mom every night about how I hated my body and wished I could just get a different one. When she’d tell me that I was perfect the way I was; I’d tell her she’s required to say that because she’s my mom.

I tried everything to change my body. I tried eating less, I tried not eating at all, I tried playing every sport, I tried eating only fruit, I even turned to God (a figure with whom I had very little communication or experience) once or twice and asked for a brand new body. I went through phases of real, deep depression and at a very young age confronted this idea of what it is to so viciously hate the body that I lived in.

Then, as if the universe was listening to my nightly prayer, at age 12, I took my first dance class and everything began to change. When dancing, I loved my body. I was in control; it was my canvas to create something beautiful and interesting and intriguing. In everyday life, however, I still wanted nothing to do with my body. I became addicted to dancing, my only escape from that self-loathing. The more I danced, the less I had to think about how much I hated my body.

I moved to New York ready to take on acting school, the city, life without parents, a social life, a dating life maybe, but most importantly, to “become who I really am.” This included, of course, finally having a body that I was satisfied with. I continued dancing, surprisingly ate healthier than I ever had, and worked out hard every day.

My body did indeed begin to change. Aesthetically, the things I wanted to see started to happen. So, why did I still feel so uncomfortable in my skin? Why did my body still not feel like mine? The universe listened again. In the spring of that freshman year, one of my best friends from high school came to the city for a weekend. She called me and said, “We’re going to this thing. I bought you a class. You’ll love it. Don’t be late.”

I was late. I arrived at SoulCycle Union Square a minute or two after class had begun, put my things in a locker, grabbed a water and some shoes, and rushed into the room with a staff member. I entered the room and was utterly overwhelmed with this insane dance party packed to the brim with bodies moving in unison. I left the class having no idea what I had just experienced, but I knew I was hooked and haven't stopped riding in the five years since.

About two years into my SOUL journey, I dropped into a class on a random week night. I can’t remember the instructor for the life of me, but I do remember that at one point in class, he/she asked us to close our eyes and picture the life we wanted. I shut my eyes and all of a sudden I saw myself standing on a stage. I was performing some wild production number, singing and dancing my face off, which was no surprise to me. What was a surprise, was how I looked. I looked exactly the same: no idealized, chiseled version of myself, just me.

In this moment, I realized that the life I dream of includes me loving myself and embracing a confidence in who I am no matter what my body looks like. No matter how much my body changes or morphs or how close I get to a six-pack, I am me and my body is mine. The instructor then said something along the lines of “you already have all you need to make that dream life a reality, all you need to do is believe that it is yours.”

After that class, SOUL became my temple; my space apply positive physical action to the dreams I wanted to manifest in my life. The beauty of riding a bike that is stationary is that it only goes where you want it to. At SOUL, I finally had to face my demons. I had to be honest with myself and realize that by saying I hated my body, I was saying I hated myself. I had to come to terms with the fact that there is no such thing as the perfect body.

I had to figure out how to love myself. I began to focus on strength and feeling grounded rather than working hard to achieve some aesthetic perfection. I pushed against resistance not to burn the extra fat, but to push through my doubts, my fears, my insecurities. Every time I would clip into the bike, I would take a deep breath and remind myself how lucky I was that I had a body that would move through space and support me in fighting ferociously towards my dreams.

I began to walk through life with a different ownership of space. I stood just a little bit taller. I asserted myself into situations that I formerly would’ve cowered from. So, why did it take SoulCycle to make all this happen? For me, it’s all about the energy I feel in the studio: bodies moving together, holding each other accountable, inspiring one another to reach new limits, dancing and feeling free with one another no matter your shape, size, color or background.

As I stood in the TriBeCa studio B, preparing for my third and final Community Ride before going onto the schedule, I was so preoccupied with ‘getting it all right’ that I felt like I had lost sight of why I was doing this in the first place. I took a deep breath and shut my eyes for a moment. I saw staring back at me the little boy in his ill-fitting butterfly costume and suddenly felt an overwhelming sense of love and gratitude for that boy and for the man that he became. I remembered how nearly five years ago, a SOUL instructor said one thing that lit a fire within me and changed the course of how I’d see myself forever. I realized that through sharing my experience honestly and with love, there was a chance I could say one little thing that could turn someone’s life in a different direction.

I am constantly inspired, challenged and ignited by how much love and passion my riders bring into the room. It’s remarkable to look out to a room of human beings who are willing to get messy and fight for what they believe in. I’m not going to pretend like the conversation between me and my body is one that is over or magically easy for me. Some days I still want to crawl out of my skin. Some days I still hate the mirror. Some days I feel like my butterfly leotard is still too tight. What has changed is that I take a breath, clip into a bike, look out to a room full of inspiration, and say to myself and my riders “you deserve some one to fight for you. So fight for yourself. Let’s dance through this mess. Now, ride.”

Catch classes with MAX at East 54th Street, West 60th Street, Short Hills and West Village. Want to ride? Grab a series HERE and book a bike!

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