Los Angeles is no stranger to new health fads. In fact, the well-to-do areas of SoCal sprawl are like the Nevada Proving Grounds for fringe vitality treatments, bizarre diets, cosmetic surgeries, and creative workout regimens. Colonics (that’s where they put a hose up your butt and flush your colon and lower intestine with a blast of warm water) and Botox parties are almost as commonplace as haircuts and manicures, in some vainer circles. So Shape House, which calls itself an urban sweat lodge and is built into an unassuming craftsman home on the edge of the desirable neighborhood known as Larchmont just south of Hollywood, should fit right in.
The notion of sweating for health reasons is nothing new—sweating out all the toxins you ingested during the prior all-nighter is a known and harsh remedy for a hangover; steam rooms and saunas are standard in most modern gyms, spas, and country clubs. But the term “sweat lodge,” a place where you go just to sweat and do nothing else, makes people visibly uncomfortable when you describe it to them. Maybe the horrific incident of 2009 still lingers in the back of some people’s minds, in which a self-described new age health guru named James Arthur Ray locked participants into a triple-digit Sedona, Arizona desert sweat lodge for an extended period of time, ultimately killing three of them.
However, this is the isolated tragedy the media made a major story and the polar opposite of Shape House, which is more like spa meets science fiction novel. Inside, the décor is intriguingly European, like the best of an Ikea catalogue with a color palette of rich bluish grays, a sharp orange, and touches of white. Large block letters of on-brand words like “sweat” and “quench” read vertically from bottom to top on the doors, while black and white Hasselblad prints of perfect nude bodies grace the walls. It would be incredibly soothing except for the fact that you are hyperaware you are about to do something you’ve never done before.
“I heard of the technology from hospitals in Europe who used them on people who had broken bones,” lifebyme founder Sophie Chiche explains. She is a native Parisian, though she has been stateside for long enough to sand her accent into a pleasantly unique tenor. Her skin has a certain olive radiance and she speaks with a pleasant frankness that is too honest to be a sales pitch. “However, the doctors and nurses realized these patients were getting other benefits beyond just fused bones—skin problems were cured, people were sleeping through the night and were generally less agitated.”
While the heating bed technology had made begun to make the transition to the fringes of the health industry, it was still tough to find, even in the megalopolis of the culty, health-nut area like Southern California. Chiche finally tracked one of the machines down way out in the valley, nearly in Calabasas, and tried it out for herself. The infrared energy bed was tucked in a storage room of the house; the place was a little creepy and there was no shower or place to wash off after she used it. But when Chiche left, she felt incredible. She decided she wanted something like it herself and figured others would too—as long as it was a comfortable, safe environment and there was a place to shower and change, of course.
Considering there is no other establishment like it in America and L.A. is loaded with absurdly heath-conscious people with large amounts of disposable income, Chiche was onto something. At forty-five bucks per hour of sweating, or a ten-sweat package for $350, the experience is at least a reasonable experiment. But is it healthy?
“Sweating is healthy,” Chiche tells me. “It’s basically healthier than saunas and steam rooms. The latter is the worst, as the steam from the water and from your sweat is released into the air and you breath it in. Here, your head is kept completely away from the heat.”
I decided to experience this for myself. Outfitted in socks and Rocky-esque gray sweats, I was brought to my own private curtained booth. In it was a silver colored sleeping bag lined in a light, disposable plastic atop a piece of furniture that was somewhere between a massage and operating table in width and height off the carpet. The table itself was hooked up to blinking machines with numbers and diodes seemingly pulled from the set of 2001: Space Odyssey. I climbed into the bag and my…uh, sweating supervisor? zipped me up to my shoulders and inclined the table to my desired position, so I could sit up. Headphones are placed on my ears and I am given a small remote that allows me to watch just about any streaming film or video service—Netflix, Hulu, Roku—on the small flat screen TV on the wall above me. A mortar shell-sized glass bottle of alkaline water was placed beside me. I put on Arrested Development and suddenly felt very much like a human burrito, stupidly laughing at the screen flickering in the darkness in front of me while I slow-cooked to sweaty perfection.
The machine I was on produces infrared energy, which is a uniform deep-heat penetration that forgoes the usual sensation of feeling hot. As the far-infrared definition stated, “this is achieved by using a specific infrared band of energy peaking at around 9.4 micons, a level designed to penetrate beyond the skin (where heat is most acutely felt) to a depth what fat resides. As this subcutaneous fat begins to heat, your body begins to thermo-regulate itself by producing sweat.” Chiche tells me the bed heats to a temperature far hotter than the hottest day on planet Earth—168 degrees—though it felt like little more than a muggy tropical day.
Sweat began trickling out of my body while I guffawed to the Bluth family, but I didn’t feel particularly hot. My body knew it was hot, but while I sat motionless and my head remained cool, the rest of it didn’t know what to do. Because of this, I assume, it took a good ten minutes or so before I really started sweating, and it wasn’t like the disgusting rain shower that has been shockingly wrung out of me in a dry sauna. My tall bottle of alkaline water has depleted after 30 minutes, and I am most of the way through a second one by the time the session ends. I’ve lost the sense of time and reality as I climbed out of my cocoon, and while I was sweaty, it’s not as much as I had thought. It’s odd—I had patches of sweat in areas that seem unrealistic to a hard gym workout: the tops of my thighs, my sides beneath my armpits, my stomach. In a nearby room, I sat down in a chair and ate orange slices and almonds while slugging another full alkaline water, feeling stoned. That night, I slept like a baby.
While I’d have to go regularly to really give any insight into the overall health benefits, Shape House was certainly worth the experience. I certainly felt different for a day or two afterwards: noticeably chiller, more relaxed. Considering most other cultures celebrate the health benefits of sweating, there’s no reason establishments like Shape House shouldn’t enter into their own niche health and beauty category, an additional option to an already crowded field. Unless medical evidence claims otherwise, I know where I’ll head after a future all-nighter in Hollywood.