I first learned to embrace sweating three years ago when I was in a "sweat lodge" in Mexico. Led by a shaman, a temazcal is an ancient Mayan ritual intended to purify the body, mind, and spirit. While it's meant to be a healing and spiritual experience, at its core recreating the feeling of being inside the womb, it's intense; after a shaman cleanses your energy, you, usually along with a small group of participants, enter a low mortar-and-stone structure, whose windows and door are then sealed, leaving you in complete darkness with lava rocks in the center emitting heat.
As the shaman leads you into chants and sprays the rocks with water, the steam intensifies, as does your sweating; you're then asked to reflect on your past and present, eventually mentally freeing yourself of the memories and experiences that no longer serve you and setting intentions for your future. Following the experience, I walked out feeling freer and more at peace than I could last remember. A private person who deals with many things internally, I was forced to reckon with difficult experiences of my past, ones I didn't know I was still holding on to. As I walked out, sweat and tears covering what felt like every part of my body, I felt lighter and rejuvenated. I felt relief and clarity.
Sophie Chiche, the founder of Shape House, had an equally transformative experience, that lasted for seven hours (!), in a sweat lodge at the age of 19. "It was a very powerful experience for me. I would even call it one of my very first spiritual connections," she says. Almost 30 years later, she would open the "urban sweat lodge," where guests are made to sweat while tucked into heated beds that use FAR infrared technology, a radiant form of natural energy, for 45 to 55 minutes. "I kept remembering this experience of sweating, sitting in the mud, and just really, it was painful... It was big for me, like there was something very like, Whoa, I can’t deny what I just saw."
While the health benefits of sweating range from better sleep to glowing skin and relaxation, it's the emotional relief and clarity that I experienced after the temazcal that I was seeking to recreate when I stepped foot in Shape House—though Chiche warns against looking at the mind and body as separate entities. "I’ve learned to not separate myself the same way that I used to. I used to be like, there's the body and then there was the brain, and then there was the heart and emotions," she says. "I kind of don’t anymore, because the way I eat really affects the way I feel, and the way I feel really affects the way I eat, and it affects the way I sleep, and it affects the way I’m able to come up with a creative thought or not. It’s not a bag of a bunch of different things."
Plus, Chiche believes you can't achieve the emotional clarity without clearing the body of the effects of things like polluted air, chemicals, pathogens, GMOs, etc., that, according to her, affect us physically, emotionally, and psychologically. "I’ll go sweat, and then I’ll come out of there, and I’ll be totally inspired and totally sharp," she says. "There’s a logic and a common sense, for me. You get out the trash out of the house, the house feels better in every shape and form. It smells better, it looks better, it feels better to be in it. And the body is the same way for me. It’s like, if I take the time to go do a sweat like this, I will release stuff." She says that it's essential to empty the body of these "poisons" in order to function optimally.
This applies to mental "toxins"—built up from small and big frustrations, whether it be over a driver cutting you off on your morning commute or a frustrating job—too. "I just think we pile up all this crap: the tears that we didn't cry, the jobs we didn't like, the boyfriends we didn't know what to do with, the kids we wanted to have. All that shit, it goes places," she says. She points to our culture's tendency to repress emotions as a contributing factor to people feeling so unbalanced. In fact when people come to Shape House and say that "overnight" they started feeling "like crap," she has to break it down to them: "Uh, it doesn't happen overnight. It happens because you didn't take care of yourself, and you weren't kind to yourself, and you did a bunch of things that were piling up a bunch of toxins, so eventually—like with your computer when there's too much that's open—it just breaks down."
When I ask if people who visit Shape House have the same emotional reaction and release as I did while doing the temazcal, she says it's the best case scenario: "Crying is actually the better version of it! Sometimes, it triggers anger." She explains this response: "You don't come to our place because you're feeling all well and balanced, by definition. You walk in there because you want to feel better, you want to feel less trapped, you want to feel less tired... whatever it is, you walk in as a means to take care of yourself... people walk in with all sorts of emotional stress." She says that for some people, being put to bed can be a vulnerable, and even triggering, experience, prompting them to express emotions they have been holding on to.
I, on the other hand, walk out of the session feeling like I am floating—a distinct difference from the stressed state I came in with. Chiche says that, with everyone being under pressure all the time, it's important to find time to stop and take a break from the "push, push, push kind of way" of life. "I don’t think our bodies are meant to do that. So when you sweat, you kind of take a pause," she says. "When you think of it, it’s a smart hour, because you feel better emotionally... You feel more creative, and your body feels better, and your skin is incredible, and people comment on how glowy you look. And, that’s a lot for an hour! It’s like a massage and a therapy session and a facial."
She says that when she can't focus, she will make herself sweat just to reset her mindset. She compares sweating to OK Go's "This Too Shall Pass" video, a domino effect of positive outcomes. "When people sweat, it’s maybe a little small hour, but somehow, from that, the next day they eat better, and maybe that night they sleep better, and maybe that night they don’t drink alcohol as much, and so maybe they’re not pissed at their kid, and maybe their kid goes to school and has a better day. I see it as like a really big, yet kind of subtle, shift to everything," she says. "Sweating is not a silver bullet, but it does a lot of things... It does enough to bring you to a place where your body can start healing itself."
It helps that after putting on sweatpants and a long-sleeved shirt and walked into a dark-ish room, you're tucked into the bed by an attendant. Though the experience may recall something from one's childhood, Chiche says it wasn't "an intentional 'oh, I want to offer an experience that, like, reminds them of their mommy'" decision. "I kind of wanted to offer something that, like, shuts us down a little bit and allows you to not care about how we look for a minute, and not care about what people think for a minute. That happens in the dark," she says. "I became more and more kind to myself, and more and more self-loving, and more and more in tune, and I think maybe it had a little bit to do with, like, a loving person just wrapping me in a bed and sending me off to a really loving experience. It's simple, but I don't know that we have so much of that in our world at this moment."
Though there is a TV in the room should one want to pass the time that way (yes, there's Hulu, Netflix, HBO, and Spotify), Shape House offers an experience that ultimately encourages people to turn off their senses and calm their minds for the duration of the session, coming out on the other side feeling rejuvenated and like they're ready to face the world again. Chiche says that, following a sweat session, you should also feel lighter, not just physically—though, obviously, you burn a lot of calories sweating this profusely—but mentally. She compares the feeling of getting out of a session to the lifting of a long traffic jam that you stood in for hours and finally being able to speed on a freeway unobstructed. Ultimately, "what I like is developing in people a sense of what it feels like to be detoxed. Like after you sweat, the way you feel after that," she says. "[Following some sessions,] I can see in people's faces: They relaxed in ways that often, you could tell, it was the first time in many, many, many years they had had an experience like that."
As I walk out of my first session, I am reminded of the experience I have had in the temazcal. I am calm and happy and soaked in sweat. As I bite into a cool, fresh slice of orange I am offered after I get out of bed, I realize that I forgot how much I love oranges. I know that soon I will forget that simple fact again, caught up in my busy day-to-day life, but am comforted by the fact that I now have a permanent safe haven where I could remember this whenever I feel like I need it.
And that's what Chiche hopes every person that walks out of the space takes away from it—the small pleasures of life. "I just want people to have a loving experience, walk in stressed, walk out relaxed, walk out like they're feeling loved, because that's sadly something that a lot of people don't experience, especially in cities like L.A. and New York," she says. "Emotionally, I hope for them to come out a little bit high, because it kicks your endorphins. Sometimes I walk out of there, like, giggling for no reason. The world could use a little more giggling." It could. And some orange slices, too.