It's Probably Crazy, But I Went to an Urban Sweat Lodge for a Month
Since moving to Los Angeles two years ago, I like to think that I've generally held onto my New York–bred realism in a city that notoriously embraces all things new age and woo-woo, even as I've gamely tried some of its most offbeat offerings. I roll my eyes at myself when I tell the tale of driving to the middle of the desert for a sound bath (even though the experience was undeniably worth it); I poke fun at the green-juice crowd as I clutch my kale- and reishi mushroom–infused smoothie. At minimum, living here is a fascinating case study in a wellness culture that brazenly flirts with the edge of scientific reason. It means that we have preliminary access to some of the most interesting and forward-thinking products and treatments in the country, but it also means that by default, we have to embrace the weirdness of living in a place where Erewhon is regarded with deep reverence, and taking a "float" in a sensory deprivation tank is quickly becoming the norm.
Holding onto the no-bullshit attitude I was raised with as I thumb the crystals I carry in my bag has been an exercise in blatant hypocrisy, sure, but it's also a defense mechanism that's allowed me to maintain my outsider status, at least in my own mind. A couple of months ago, however, as I laid wrapped in an infrared blanket at Shape House, a self-described "urban sweat lodge," I realized that perhaps I could no longer deny my complete metamorphosis into a true Angeleno. I wasn't just trying something out once or twice in passing fascination, but finishing up a month's worth of treatments, a true commitment. This was around the time that I realized that I no longer felt like a newcomer to the city, and the fact that I was willingly and consistently lying in a pool of my own sweat in the name of wellness—without any trace of disdain, no less—seemed to vividly (if not hilariously) seal that fate.
To my credit, I opted for a month's worth of Shape House visits (twice a week) over a one-off session in the name of science; I wanted to be able to honestly relay the benefits of my own experience over time—especially since the research behind infrared technology is so fascinating, even if it is, at this time, fairly limited. (That tends to be the case with many of the alternative treatments in L.A.—the downside of being ahead of the wellness curve.) The fundamental difference between infrared treatments and the saunas that we're most familiar with is in the way the body is heated: Steam and dry heat saunas heat the body passively and externally by exposing it to hot air while infrared uses light technology to heat the body directly, from the inside out, usually at a slightly lower temperature. Either way, the goal is to sweat profusely, which preliminary studies suggest can benefit the body in all sorts of ways: from improving heart health and relieving chronic pain to even aiding patients with Alzheimer's and dementia.
But when I spoke with Shape House founder Sophie Chiche prior to my first visit to get a more detailed view of what to expect, I was most captivated when she told me that sweating in one of the infrared beds for 55 minutes was the equivalent of a hardcore cardio workout—complete with hours-long afterburn. As someone who usually sees running as a special kind of torture, I needed to hear exactly that, even if it seemed a little too good to be true. (Getting all the benefits of a miles-long jog while lying on my back watching Netflix for an hour? The future couldn't be that kind.) And when Chiche told me it would also benefit my skin and likely help my insomnia, I made a beeline for the bed.
Want to see how it all went down? Watch footage of my first treatment in the video above, and keep scrolling for the play-by-play of my entire experience at Shape House.
As excited as I was to experience the potential benefits in action, I was admittedly a bit nervous going into my first session. Everyone I'd spoken to who had gone to Shape House before had mentioned the same thing: The last 10 minutes—when the body is really, really warm—are rough. ("Agonizing" is the word Byrdie's editorial director, Faith, used.) But I gritted my teeth nonetheless as I traded my clothes for Shape House's sweats, got into one of the beds, and was wrapped up like a burrito in a heavy infrared blanket. I had a glass of water to sip on throughout and was granted a pair of noise-canceling headphones and a remote so that I could watch the TV in front of me, which was complete with access to Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, and HBO Go. How bad could this possibly be?
Not at all, I thought for the first 45 minutes, breezing through episodes of Portlandia and Insecure. I felt warm but exceedingly comfortable, even as beads of sweat began to prickle my face. Then, my heart began to race, and I realized that my sweats were plastered to my body underneath the blanket. As the minutes dwindled, I began to lose focus on what I was watching, even after someone came by to drape a cool lavender-scented towel across my forehead.
But just as it began to feel almost unbearable, it was over—an attendant swooped in and helped me out of the blanket while I caught my bearings. I felt a little nauseated and then totally self-conscious about how I looked and smelled; I even apologized, as if dealing with disgustingly sweaty people isn't in the Shape House job description. "Do I really smell like that?" I said incredulously, and the very kind attendant laughed as she led me to a "relaxation room." "Actually," she said, "you might find that the scent becomes less potent after a few sessions, once you've started consistently sweating out your toxins." (Spoiler alert: She was right.)
After catching my breath in the relaxation room—the concept of which would continue to make me laugh since it's basically where all the sweaty people go and try to politely ignore each other in a show of solidarity—I realized that I felt totally refreshed, if not in immediate need of a shower. (Shape House advises waiting an hour or two after each session so that your body can cool down on its own, lest you mess with the afterburn effect.) I changed into my clothes and left feeling totally excited about monitoring my results, especially since I already felt this good. And that night, I slept better than I had in months.
Even with just a few sessions under my belt, I began to calculate how expensive it would be to continue visiting Shape House consistently after my monthlong trial was over—I was hooked that immediately. I began to really look forward to the quiet hour spent wrapped in that heavy blanket; sometime during week two, the excessive sweating started to feel more therapeutic than it did disgusting. I wondered if perhaps I should give hot yoga—which I have always claimed to dislike—another try.
That's not to mention that some of the side effects of consistently sweating were immediate. My skin began glowing after the first session, and by the end of week two, any residual breakouts were ancient history. While I typically wake up at least once during the night, I always slept soundly after my sessions and in turn felt happier, energized, and more focused throughout the day. And while I knew that any "weight loss" I'd experience (which was definitely not a priority) would most likely be due to shifting water weight, I did appreciate the fact that sweating was a fast and easy way to de-bloat.
While those last 10 minutes in the bed didn't seem to get any easier, I was starting to get used to breathing through it—that is, until a particularly trying day during week three.
As the halfway point of my trial run with Shape House came and went, I felt nothing less than confident about my experience. Then, near-disaster struck: After a particularly harrowing last few minutes of a session during my third week, I quickly got out of the bed to wind down in the relaxation room and immediately felt a very specific kind of nausea I've only experienced two other times in my life. I was about to pass out—I was sure of it.
I collapsed into a chair as my vision started to tunnel, trying to maintain my composure as I didn't want to make a fuss if I could stomach my way through the next few seconds. After the attendant left to get me a glass of water, I put my head between my knees and tried to breathe deeply. It was only after I gulped down my water that my head stopped spinning. I know now in retrospect that there were several factors at play: I hadn't eaten a lot that day, and I definitely stood up way too fast. But since I'd been traumatized by fainting in the past, it was enough to make me lose my nerve. During the next couple of sessions, I was fearful it would happen again and ended up getting out of the bed a couple of minutes early. (Doing so is certainly allowed but not encouraged, as the last 10 minutes of the session are the most crucial.)
But with that near miss behind me, I also realized that I only had a couple of visits left in my trial run and decided to renew my resolve to see it through; I had been otherwise enjoying the side effects of my regular sweats too much to let it fizzle out. During my second-to-last session, I breathed through those tough final moments and made a point to get up very slowly. Once I knew I was fine, it really began to sink in that this fascinating experience was coming to a close.
All in all, I had become addicted to sweating. I loved how therapeutic it felt to flush out the fluids in my body, how I had started sleeping soundly almost every single night. My skin looked unreal—I didn't have to wear much concealer, let alone foundation. It was exactly the reboot my body needed after a very fun but indulgent summer, during which working out and eating healthfully took the backburner to late nights and tacos. Most interestingly of all, this fairly lazy alternative to cardio had also reinvigorated my appreciation for tough workouts, and I began to seek out other, more active ways to sweat.
So while I don't necessarily think it's in my budget to return to Shape House quite so regularly—individual sessions are $50, though there are cash-saving packages and memberships available—I now know exactly where to go when I need a quick tune-up (like, say, after a holiday season packed with cookies and champagne). Either way, I can now say that I frequent an urban sweat lodge without a hint of derision. New York, are you still in there?