- Our lifestyles are changing, and so are the ways that we stay fit. People are always coming up with new ways to get better, faster, and stronger.
- In five days, I tried five of the most unusual fitness trends out there, including an urban sweat lodge, circus-inspired aerial yoga, a nightclub-like HIIT class, a prison workout taught by a former inmate, and whole-body cryotherapy.
- I came out the other side bruised, sore, and possibly slightly thinner.
- Most importantly, I had a better idea of which trends suited my fitness lifestyle and which ones didn’t.
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I’m not really a fitness person. Or a trends person.
I basically keep fit by walking a lot and occasionally beating up a punching bag. Otherwise, I keep my head in the sand and my sneakers on the treadmill.
But the world is full of fitness trends straight out of “Star Trek” or “Saturday Night Live.” I had five days to try the most seemingly bizarre, cutting-edge, or unusual fitness trends that New York has to offer. And New York has a lot to offer.
I ended up focusing on five different kinds of classes:
- the urban sweat lodge
- circus-inspired aerial yoga
- nightclub-like HIIT (high-intensity interval training)
- prison-style workouts taught by former convicts
- whole-body cryotherapy
Over the course of a week, I sweated for an hour in an infrared blanket, hung upside-down from aerial silks, “turnt up” with kettlebells, did countless burpees and push-ups in a prison cell-style room, and stood naked in a futuristic chamber that blasted me with air that was -150 degrees Celsius.
Proponents of both sweating and cryotherapy claim that the treatments have calorie-burning and toning effects on the body, along with a whole host of benefits including easing pain and muscle stiffness, increased energy, and better sleep, though these claims have not been verified by the FDA.
When I visited my parents shortly after, my mum commented that I looked noticeably thinner than I was the last time I visited a month ago. The scale tells me I weigh the same, but I do feel lither. Maybe one or more of my unusual fitness efforts paid off.
Here’s what my week was like:
I started off at Shape House, an urban sweat lodge with locations in New York and Los Angeles. It smelled like a Buddhist temple, and there was New Age ambient music playing in the background. I was greeted by Kathleen, who sweats twice a week to supplement her regular workout regimen.
Before starting my 55-minute sweat session, I signed a fairly extensive agreement and waiver. Open wounds and pregnancy are two of the many things that apparently make a sweat session unsafe.
When all was signed and done, Kathleen led me into an area with cubbies and dressing rooms.
Since this was my first sweat session, Shape House loaned me a set of clothes to sweat in free of charge. They consisted of loose cotton pajamas and thick wool socks. A rental usually costs $US2.
The sweating bed was fully equipped with water, headphones, and a smart TV with a wide selection of shows and movies. There was also a call button. The temperature inside the bed was regulated by a small machine that Kathleen operated.
When I first got into the bed, I felt snug as a bug in a loving hug. However, I’m a sceptic and I don’t do well in high temperatures, so I was a little nervous about forcing my body to tolerate extreme heat for an hour. I also realised that I’d forgotten to pee.
As soon as I got in the bed, I was treated to a commercial for the exact thing I was doing. I felt a mixture of comfort and anxiety.
After trying to decide which TV show would help me tolerate an hour of heat, I settled on an episode of “Seinfeld” where Jerry tries to break up with his annoying friend. Fifteen minutes in, I started to find the smell of incense nauseating.
Twenty minutes in, sweat trickled down my face. I pressed the call button and asked Kathleen for a towel with which to dry my face. I was starting to feel quite uncomfortable. I really should have used the bathroom …
Kramer had a business idea where people could make their own pizza, and Seinfeld laughed it off. Joke’s on you, Jerry, look at MOD and Blaze now. All this talk of 600-degree pizza ovens was all too painfully relatable.
At 23 minutes in, I started to notice my heart beating faster. Four minutes later, I was dying to get out. Time was passing verrryyyy slowly. Help. At 35 minutes in, I had a brief renewed sense of control that dissipated when my left hand fell asleep. At 40 minutes, I was taking deep breaths to stay calm.
As I entered the final stretch, wild thoughts passed through my mind. Mind over body. I really should have peed. Kathleen came and put a cold, wet towel on my forehead. How did she know I needed one? And did I smell lavender or was I hallucinating?
After I emerged from the bed, I felt like Frodo being carried away from rising lava by magic eagles. I smelled like a perm, and I felt dizzy and lightheaded. My face burned.
Kathleen prepared me a towel and a chair in the resting room. She told me to avoid showering for at least an hour afterward in order to reap maximum benefits. She offered me a selection of teas from an iPad. I chose turmeric cinnamon.
It was a very relaxing tea, and it came with two orange slices. I sat down and sipped tea. Ten minutes after I’d emerged, my heart was still beating very quickly.
It took about half an hour for me to feel like my body was at a normal temperature. When I did, I felt deeply calm and refreshed but slightly off-kilter. I was very, very hungry. The next day, I woke up with a flatter stomach than I’d had in a while.
Next, I went to Om Factory in Manhattan for an aerial yoga class. They have sister studios in Taiwan, Vietnam, Thailand, and Malaysia. Instructors come from a mix of aerial circus and yoga backgrounds.
I was reminded of why yoga communities often make me feel uncomfortable: there were no Indian instructors, but the space was rife with references to Indian culture.
The studio was bright, airy, colourful, and profoundly welcoming. It smelled like lemon Pledge, and there was soft instrumental guitar music playing in the background.
Our instructor, Cassandra, helped each student adjust his or her aerial hammock before class. She requested that I not take photos of other students during class, as maintaining a yoga-conducive atmosphere was a priority.
Cassandra told me that the practice of aerial yoga arose from aerial circus performers looking for a better way to condition and improve flexibility.
I spent a year with a Moroccan circus after college, but I’ve never touched aerial silks. These were hammocks, which meant that they were easier to handle. Traditional aerial silks must be wrapped around hands and legs for support, while the hammocks already had structural integrity.
We started off with basic stretches aided by the hammock, like leaning forward and leaning back. Then, we progressed to variations on triangle, tree, and warrior poses that incorporated the hammock. I felt very relaxed.
As the class progressed, the ways in which the hammock was used became increasingly complex. I struggled to do a downward-dog-like pose that involved looping one foot into the hammock.
Soon enough, we got off the ground. First, we were asked to stand on the hammock in tree pose and alternate our standing legs.
This eventually led to hanging upside down. We spent a while building up to “inversions,” which involved leaning back in the hammock and looping our legs through in the style of aerial silks. This part was thrilling!
Once I was up in the air, I understood why people come to aerial yoga. Contorting my body while upside down brought out an inner playfulness that reminded me of my joyful, carefree childhood days on the playground.
We ended the class by cocooning ourselves in the hammocks and doing gentle stretches inside them. I felt like a flexible zen caterpillar. By the end of class, I was really enjoying myself and looking forward to the idea of coming again.
Watching Cassandra and some of the other students perform more advanced poses was inspiring. The punk-loving side of me hated myself a tiny bit for having such a great time at a place called “Om Factory,” but I couldn’t deny how much I’d enjoyed the class.
Next on my list was Beast Fitness in Brooklyn. Beast was founded by a DJ, a fitness instructor, and their schoolmate — all New York City natives. Their concept? Bring the hype of the nightclub to HIIT, or high-intensity interval training classes.
Kristie Alicea, Beast’s cofounder who has a fitness background, took me on a tour of the space. Branded apparel was sold at the front.
Local artist Ian Sullivan was hired to do several of the murals. Alicea told me that “the idea was to bring a lot of Brooklyn into the space.” There were names of Brooklyn neighbourhoods and locales hidden in the mural.
The studio was lit to mimic the vibe of a nightclub. Alicea told me that the goal was to have an environment “similar to a SoulCycle vibe where you release your inhibitions and have a lot of fun.”
There was even a mixing booth in the corner, complete with a live DJ who was firing the beats.
Before class began, I took a peek at the “10 Beast Commandments.” I was definitely going to break Number 8. Oops.
Our pack leader — or instructor — donned a mic headset and told us to look at the TVs for guidance if we got lost.
In classic HIIT fashion, we were going to do eight-minute blocks at each station. There were three stations, each with their own set of equipment.
Our instructor demonstrated each exercise. There were six exercises per station, so altogether there were eighteen-plus transitions. I had trouble remembering after the third exercise, so I just followed the lead of my clearly more experienced classmates.
The music was loud, and I had trouble keeping up with my classmates. I had yet to unleash my beast, but I was having fun. The variety of exercises was interesting and challenging.
There was a definite nightclub vibe. The instructor encouraged us with shouts of “yasss queeen” and thanked us at the end for how we “turnt up.”
By the end, my body felt thoroughly destroyed — but the kind of destroyed that makes you feel like you’ll be stronger tomorrow. Even if I wasn’t a beast by the end of that class, I was sure I’d become one if I kept going.
After the weekend, I headed to Conbody in lower Manhattan. Conbody was founded by Coss Marte, who developed a workout regimen that helped him lose 70 pounds while serving time in prison.
At first, I thought it might play too much off of the whole “ex-convicts yelling at you while doing prison workouts” gimmick. And it kind of did.
But part of Conbody’s mission is to bridge the gap between young professionals and previously incarcerated individuals. And Marte seems to live by that mission: all of Conbody’s 40 employees are previously incarcerated individuals. According to Marte, none of Conbody’s employees has been incarcerated again after joining the company.
Conbody also seeks to raise awareness about the systemic inequalities that lead to higher rates of incarceration for men and women from black and Latino backgrounds.
So while the gimmick is strong — students exercise in a room fitted to look like a jail cell — so is the purpose.
I was also amused that there was a generous selection of toiletries in the bathroom, including beard oil and Poo-Pourri.
The lights in the studio were kept just bright enough to see the outlines of shapes. It was nighttime-level dark, which meant my camera wasn’t able to function very well.
The instructor happened to be Marte himself. Marte told me that the workout combines exercises he learned in the Marines with others he learned from inmates who’d spent decades in prison. They’re all bodyweight exercises — no weights or kettlebells here.
We started with jumping jacks and moved into three rounds of various exercises including mountain climbers, push-ups, and bicycle crunches.
Then, we moved on to three sets of other exercises. Then, another three. It was stamina over strength. Unlike the HIIT program at Beast, which required quick bursts of high effort, this workout required a sustained moderate effort. I have little strength and even less stamina, so it didn’t take long for me to start struggling.
Marte would move around the room encouraging us (read: yelling at) to improve our form and keep up. It wasn’t like Beast, which encouraged students to go at their own pace. We had no breaks, except for 10 seconds for water at the halfway mark.
Overall, though, Marte was a very supportive and helpful instructor. The workout was smart and effective. We alternated quickly between muscle groups for a full-body burn.
However, I can’t say that this was my cup of tea. Not just because it was very hard — it was — but because it didn’t give me the sense that I was building towards anything in particular or learning anything new. I also found it repetitive, as we repeated a lot of the same or similar exercises.
Finally, it was time for me to give my beleaguered body a break. I bought a Groupon for a whole-body cryotherapy session at a studio in lower Manhattan. I was greeted at the front desk by Anya, who was friendly and helpful from the get-go.
I was provided a fluffy, luxurious robe to change into, as well as thick socks.
There were some Crocs to choose from, too.
Anya first learned about cryotherapy after she broke her leg getting out of an Uber. She told me that since she started doing cryotherapy once a week, her leg pain went away immediately.
Cryotherapy has been a trend for a while, first emerging as a recovery method for elite athletes around four years ago, then shifting into the mainstream in 2017. It involves standing mostly nude for two to five minutes in an insulated chamber called a cryochamber while controlled air from a liquid nitrogen tank is pumped in.
Temperatures can range from -100 to -150 degrees Celsius. I’d bought a three-minute session, and Anya chose to put me in at -120 degrees Celsius since it was my first time.
My body was stiff and sore, and I was looking forward to the relief I hoped cryotherapy would provide. Anya told me I could also expect increased energy, an endorphin rush, better hair, skin, and nails, and a metabolic boost. This sounded very similar to sweating’s purported benefits.
I stepped into the chamber fully robed. Anya closed the door, and the platform beneath my feet whirred and elevated me until my head was above the chamber’s edge.
Anya told me to disrobe. I handed her my robe over the top of the chamber. I also asked her to snap a couple of photos of me while I was in the chamber. She happily obliged.
She handed me ski gloves to wear as the cold increased. I felt pleasantly cool, like I was standing outside naked in the snow, but it wasn’t intense or uncomfortable like the sweat session. I was also entertained by the clouds of nitrogen. Anya asked me to whoosh some of the nitrogen smoke up for photo purposes. I happily obliged.
It was all over before I knew it. I probably could have stayed there for several more minutes before starting to feel uncomfortable. I was comfortably cool throughout, maybe because I’d just come in from a long walk in the hot sun.
I did feel refreshed afterwards, and I noticed that my soreness and stiffness were slightly, if not very, diminished. However, the whole experience didn’t feel all too different from taking a cold shower. And although I’d snagged a Groupon for $US39, the session would have otherwise cost $US50.
I came out of the week bruised, sore, and possibly slightly thinner. Since I’m generally happy with the way my body looks, I’m mostly interested in getting stronger and having fun doing it.
After sweating, freezing, lifting weights to heavy beats, hanging upside-down from an aerial hammock, and doing what felt like infinite burpees in a faux jail cell, I felt a little less clueless about today’s increasingly diverse world of fitness.
I’m not sold on the idea of sweating or freezing my way to a better body. I noticed minimal effects from those sessions, and I take anything that’s marketed as a cure-all with a heaping spoonful of scepticism.
But even though novelty drew me to places like Beast Fitness, Om Factory, and Conbody, it quickly became clear that what they really had to offer its customers was a sense of community. They also focused on self-improvement and reaching personal fitness goals rather than exercising to attain a certain body type.
While looking good is still a huge motivator for many who exercise, today’s fitness classes are more about getting stronger than about getting thinner – and providing a fun, community-oriented way to do it.
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