At Shape House, you can work up a sweat without working out.
Story By: Cuyler Gibbons
Images by: Mowry
Okay, I admit it. I had to cheat. But only a little. I let my hand, and then most of my arm linger outside the bag at the water bottle, savoring the relief, for long seconds at a time. I know I wasn’t entirely maximizing the promised efficacious effects, but otherwise I’d have been clawing at the Velcro seams and crying out for assistance.
Welcome to the Shape House, an urban sweat lodge. This is the second iteration of the successful model first launched in Larchmont Village by lifestyle sage Sophie Chiche, who wanted to create “an oasis in the middle of the city” because, as she says, “I know just how much of an impact sweating can have on people’s daily lives.” Not only just an opportunity to relax and wind down, Shape House is an update on the thousands year old tradition that purports to provide the ideal therapeutic sweat.
While the ancient sweat lodges of indigenous Americans and more recent “New Age” sweat lodges were and are intended to provide a mystical experience perhaps more than any therapeutic benefit, the urban sweat lodge is a more secular affair, meant to impart specific efficacious physical rewards. And, at least in the case of Shape House, do so in a spotless, relaxing spa-like environment—no mud floor, steaming rocks and smoke, or chanting shamans required.
The day I visited, I was greeted by Sophia, who handed me a bottle of water. Special, branded, mineral-rich alkaline water, I was told. As I filled out some brief paperwork, absolving responsibility should I expire, or perhaps just melt away like the Wicked Witch of the West, Sophia explained what to expect, both in terms of the experience and what I might gain…or lose.
The bed, she said, would be heated to 150 degrees Fahrenheit using an infrared heat system that penetrates through skin and muscle, and would remain at that temperature for the duration of my 55-minute sweat. “Most people find the first 20 minutes relaxing, but the last 20 or so can be quite challenging,” she explained. It’s over that last stretch however, she told me, that you begin to reap the rewards you’re body worked toward over the first 20 minutes, including ultimately burning some 800 to 1,600 calories (Approximately the equivalent of a 5 to 10 mile run, depending on your weight and speed.). It seems this impressive caloric shedding is due to the up to 36 hour “metabolic boost” the sweat produces. Although there was one catch. I was told to avoid showering for a couple hours after my sweat, as precipitously cooling my body would slow my metabolism and negate “the boost.”
While any weight loss immediately achieved is obviously easily replaced water weight, the sweating process also purports to not only shed your body of unwanted toxins, but, in conjunction with proper nutrition, over time a regular sweat also helps you to jettison unwanted fat. But that’s not all. It seems sweating is a major contributor when it comes to giving your skin that healthy glow. The infrared heat opens your pores allowing your body to flush out your skin, while increasing blood flow and bringing important nutrients to the dermal layer. Yet most exciting to me perhaps was the idea that the sustained elevated heart rate achieved via a 55 minute sweat, as your body works diligently to cool itself, could have the same beneficial cardiovascular effects as a 10 mile run. While lying down, no less.
A workout without the work? Let’s get to it! Sophia led me first to the locker room where I changed into my Shape House provided sweating clothes—all cotton long sleeve shirt, sweat pants and socks. Somewhat disconcertingly, the shirt was exactly the same color orange as a Guantanamo Bay prison jumpsuit. I simply trusted that this was coincidence and not indicative of the experience to come.
From there, I was led back to the sweating rooms: small (but not claustrophobic), private, dimly lit rooms with a bed and a wall mounted TV. I climbed onto, or rather, into the bed, and what seemed to be essentially a rubber Velcro-fastened sleeping bag lined with a sort of saran-wrap material. Once fastened in, only my head was exposed (An ancillary benefit of this treatment versus a traditional steam room is the fact that your lungs are not adversely effected breathing super heated air.). I quickly located the hole through which I could reach my water bottle and the TV remote, as well as satisfying myself that I was easily capable of escaping should the need arise.
“We’ll visit you at the 20 minute mark,” Sophia said, “and at 40 minutes, we’ll bring you a cool towel for your forehead for the home stretch. Choose something engaging on the TV.” And with that we were off. I chose a TED Talk from a channel selection far superior to my choices at home, then settled in. I could hear nothing but the sound from my headphones, the muted lighting was indeed soothing and the heat, though noticeable, was not at all uncomfortable. Within about 10 minutes however, I was having trouble concentrating on whatever the TED talker was talking about, and wondering where the hell my 20 minute check up was. But I forced my self to relax, downed some water and when the 20 minute check up did arrive, I was relaxed and ready for the rest.
At this point, I had begun to sweat copiously and could feel my cotton garments growing damp. Soon enough my confidence dissipated and I can only describe the remaining time as a test of wills between an uncaring infrared cocoon and me. I was determined to persevere, but began to wish mightily for the company of an actual living, chanting shaman. One who could provide the necessary distraction, because the nattering on TV was providing no mental relief at all at this point. Mercifully, my second check up arrived with a lavender scented cold wet cloth for my head. It felt like cool moist heaven and proved the necessary relief to get me to the finish line.
With my 55 minutes complete, I was ushered to the recovery room where I was served oranges and tea in the company of two other recent sweaters. Both said they were “regulars” and big fans, attending a couple times a month to once a week depending on their schedules. “It definitely gets easier to tolerate the more you do it,” local stand up comic, Matt Wyatt told me. “I feel like I glow a little bit more. For me, it’s not a weight thing, it’s more a feeling of a clean slate. “
At rest now myself, I could understand very well what he was saying. I was definitely on an endorphin high, just as if I’d run 5k (about as far as I go) minus any residual soreness. I maintained this “post workout” sensation for the rest of the day, as well as continuing to pour sweat to some distraction, until I succumbed and took a shower two hours later. Most propitiously, I enjoyed a pronounced feeling of wellness and relaxation until I fell peacefully asleep that night. While I can’t testify to any lasting therapeutic effects, I’d definitely explore more regular sweats. Except I’m thinking of bringing along my own shaman, for a more personally effective distraction.