The room was a kind of sticky warmth that hinted that nobody was leaving without a good sweat.
I clipped my shoes onto the pedals and began to cycle slowly, warming up my stiff calf muscles as I mentally prepared for the workout ahead. The door closed shut, leaving me and a handful of others in a nearly dark room, lights dimmed and candles flickering at the front of the instructors' stage. Dani Robertson paced back and forth, warmly greeting individuals with smiles and promises of a judgment free zone where old and new comers could relax and unwind. There were no real rules but one—you had to quiet the negative thoughts for the entire 45-minute SoulCycle session and “choose happy."
“In my classes I like to call it 'happy hour,'" Robertson says. “It's basically a time where you go to class and set your own intention. You want to go and get some things off your chest. You want to sweat."
The idea of choosing to be happy—choosing to live a life that you love—may seem foreign to some and impossible to many, but for Robertson, it's become her life mantra. At 27, she's chosen a path where many fear to go, one where you eradicate self-doubt and ratify possibility. A year ago, Robertson wouldn't have guessed that she'd leave behind her "traditional" job in ad sales to venture into a career path that is still somewhat undefined, and three months ago you couldn't have told her that she would be leading a room of others on their own individual journeys of freedom and self-awareness.
Growing up in Atlanta, Georgia, Robertson didn't know what she wanted to do with her life. She tried sports and various activities in hopes of finding the one thing that made her feel “full," but all came up short when it came to fulfillment—or purpose.
What she did know was that she wanted something that made her feel alive and motivated her to wake up every morning in anticipation of the day ahead. Although money was important, it wasn't the motive. Living with just her mom and twin brother she understood the hunger for it, but refused to feed into it. “I realized at a young age that money is just a means to an end; it doesn't really complete anything internally," Robertson says. “I knew that people feared money. I knew it was something that was needed in order to do good and live a certain lifestyle. But I knew I wasn't going to allow that to bully me into a lifestyle that I didn't want."
"I realized at a young age that money is just a means to an end."
After graduating from Georgia State University, she took a job in New York at a publicity agency that she interned with the previous summer, but after two months of waking up to a job that robbed her of her joy, she quit. “I was like I can't be this miserable. I can't look forward to another week of this misery."
Thanks to a few connections and a surprisingly good interview, she snagged a position in ad sales at Nickelodeon. But like the previous job, she had a gnawing feeling that she was settling for a steady paycheck. “I've always believed in my heart that everybody knows how they feel within themselves," says Robertson. “It's nothing that they can describe. Everyone has their thing that they know deep within their heart, and one of the things that I knew was that I always felt like I was supposed to be happy. I always thought that was something I was supposed to always feel. I expected to feel it."
Thinking that a change of scenery would do the trick, Robertson left behind her New York lifestyle and transferred to the L.A. office under the assumption that the more laid-back atmosphere and sun-filled days would be just the antidote to her career woes. “I thought that would do it. I thought that would break the chain, and it didn't."
Robertson was unsure of her next steps, but remained opened to new experiences that would reveal the answer. When a friend invited her to the gun range she obliged (though she firmly states that she's against gun violence), and found herself gripping a shotgun, too scared to pull the trigger. “I was petrified. I did everything that you had to do and all I had to do was pull the trigger. It was probably the most symbolic moment of my life. I remember telling my friend I'm not ready; I don't think I have a good grip. And all I had to do was make my index finger move, and I was afraid. I somehow told my finger to move and I did it and then it was like everything was fine. It was like trusting what I believe in my heart and that I should be happy, and that if it doesn't make me happy, then for lack of a better reference, pull the trigger."
But as the experience showed her, firing the proverbial gun was easier said than done. She left Nickelodeon at the end of the summer, and by fall she was working in ad sales at Quantcast—a company that she describes as good, but not good enough. “Good is awesome, but in my life it's not good enough. I should reach for great and excellent, and I should literally max out what I can do. Good is cool, but if there's more, why don't I deserve to get more?"
Robertson stayed a few more months but her mind had already left the job, and as one door prepared to close, signs lit the path to another that stood open. The first came in the form of a friend, who encouraged Robertson to try out a SoulCycle class. The session proved to be both physically and emotionally challenging, forcing her to push beyond her limits as tears streamed down her cheeks. After one session she was hooked. “There were certain instructors who could literally call that out of me. They would inspire me to work harder, and I was moved, but I was scared. It was like I would love to do that, but I can't. That's not even my vibe. It just wasn't me, but I kept riding as rider."
Robertson quieted the thought of leading the pack until once again purpose gave her a nudge while attending a SoulCycle session at Oprah's “Live the Life You Want" tour. “I don't believe in coincidences; I believe that everything happens on purpose and with reason, and so it was there so I was like okay cool. It's a sign."
"I don't believe in coincidences; I believe that everything happens on purpose and with reason."
She took on a part-time position as a front-desk attendant at the Santa Monica studio while continuing to work full-time at her job and attending class as a rider, but by the spring she once again felt that it was time leave her full-time position to pursue the one thing that brought her fulfillment. “I remember being on the bike like this is fun, this is ridiculously fun. It was an amazing pressure to literally figure out what I wanted to do and what I loved, and what I cared enough to wake up early in the morning for. “
In her downtime, she also focused on finding happiness within herself through reading and meditation, what she refers to as training. “Sometimes your mind is so chaotic that it just won't settle down. You go to bed at night and you can't focus. You want to fall asleep but you can't fall asleep, and you have to be able to calm yourself down and get your mind to be at peace. So I learned a lot about that. I really just got in touch with me and what I wanted and what I thought I wanted, and I was riding more. I could tell that I was just feeling better."
During one particular session she unknowingly rode next to a scout. A week later she ran into the same woman on her way down the escalator when the scout stopped and asked if she ever considered being an instructor. “It was such a moment of validation and I was extremely shy at the moment. It's the sweetest compliment you can ever get, like you can do what you never thought you could do. It really opened me up emotionally."
After going through an intensive training program—one that challenged her core values and gave her an even deeper understanding of who she is—she was ready to guide others on their quest for finding their own happiness. “I've had certain riders tell me, 'Wow you really made my week' or 'I never thought I'd cry,'" she recalls excitedly. “Like this is real life. This is how life should feel. We should be moved."
And in Robertson's class you'll feel just that. As I pedaled feverishly over the next 45-minutes, I challenged myself to be present, to tap into the thoughts and emotions that often spill onto the pages of my journal and in the occasional text message to a confidant. As she sporadically shouted out affirmations I reflected on my own dreams and goals, and asked myself the same question that she did just a year ago: Why don't I deserve to get more?
“So often I was held back by fear. A beautiful quote that I heard is 'feel the fear, but do it anyway.' Don't run from fear but go deep within it. That's how you get rid of it and that's how you get better.
If you sit there and your life becomes average or not what you want it to be then it was your decision. And I just always felt that I was more powerful than fear."
Likewise, girl. Likewise.
Want to #chooseHappy and ride out with Dani? Head over to the SoulCycle location in Downtown Los Angeles.