Hot yoga fans swear by the benefits of heat, but frosty temps may actually take your practice to the next level. We shivered our way through a “cool yoga” class to give you the scoop.
It’s a Monday afternoon and I’m freezing my rear off—willingly—in a metal tube that looks straight out of a science fiction movie. To make matters even chillier in this bone-chilling chamber, I’m in my birthday suit, with the exception of socks, clogs, and mittens.
Why am I torturing myself like this? I’ve spent the past several weeks testing cryotherapy, a.k.a. cold therapy, at New York City’s NKD NYC and Cryofuel, along with yoga and fitness classes at brrrn, the world’s first cold temperature fitness concept studio, which opened earlier this year.
What Is Cryotherapy?
Cryotherapy, which exposes the body to extremely cold temperatures, is having a moment in the fitness world. Proponents tout its post-workout recovery benefits. A typical whole-body cryotherapy session involves spending 3 minutes (any longer risks hypothermia) within a sub-zero chamber set anywhere from -150 to -300°F. Similar to an ice bath, cryogenic temperatures cause blood vessels in surface skin and muscle tissue to constrict, forcing blood away from peripheral tissues and toward the core, where the body’s natural filtration system works to remove toxins. In turn, this reduces inflammation, eases pain, accelerates muscle recovery, boosts metabolism, increases circulation, and improves sleep, says Erin Hamilton, General Manager of NKD NYC, a luxury wellness center that specializes in cryotherapy.
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Hollywood is also catching on to the trend. Actor/producer Mark Wahlberg recently went viral after posting his (slightly insane) fitness routine on Instagram, in which he detailed his post-workout recovery in a cryogenic chamber—after waking up at 2:30 a.m. to start the day and exercise.
After both of my cryotherapy sessions—one at NKD NYC and one at CryoFuel, another luxury wellness center that specializes in cryotherapy—I hoped to find relief from an intense few days working out and teaching back-to-back yoga classes, as well as the occasional ache in my right ankle after tearing several ligaments years ago. While I didn’t notice a difference in my ankle, I felt slightly less sore, and I did sleep exceptionally well on both nights. It didn’t hurt that both of my sessions took place on humid summer days, making the sub-zero temps (almost) refreshing. I left feeling revitalized, calm, and simultaneously energetic.
Cryotherapy and Yoga: Is ‘Cool Yoga’ the Next Hot Yoga?
Cool temperatures (not sub-zero, but cooler than room temperature) may also provide an optimal environment for more effective, efficient workouts, according to proponents. “In ambient or hot environments, your perceived rate of exertion is higher,” says brrrn co-founder Johnny Adamic. “This means your body thinks it’s working harder than it actually is, while in cooler temperatures—anywhere from 40-64°F—your perceived rate of exertion is lower, which means you can work out harder and sustain your maximal best performance for longer,” adds brrrn co-founder Jimmy Martin. “If you’re looking to burn fat, more calories, and optimize athletic performance, it makes a whole lot of sense to turn the thermostat down instead of up for exercise.”
But is the same true when it comes to yoga? According to Adamic, the answer is yes. “The biggest benefit of yoga in 60°F is that it’s cool enough to trigger what’s called ‘mild cold stress,’ where the body burns fat and more calories,” he explains. “It also takes longer for the body to fatigue, allowing you to challenge yourself by holding poses, creating increased flexibility and more space within the body. Most importantly, you are creating your own heat, rather than relying on the technology of centralized heat to keep you warm.”
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Plus, the studio is more brisk than cold. “We say it’s cool, not cold yoga,” says Adamic. “Think crisp fall morning, instead of dark wintery night.”
One added bonus of cool yoga may win over germaphobes: “Hot yoga creates a giant petri-like dish of bacteria,” says Adamic. The brrn co-founders also don’t see a benefit in dehydrating the body and losing electrolytes from sweating so much.“Excessive sweating has become the measure for a great workout, when in reality, that benchmark should be the body’s cooling to prevent us from cooking our internal organs.”
Hot yoga devotees aren’t convinced. “I certainly do not agree with the claim that a heat-building practice contributes to cooking our internal organs,” says Leah Cullis, a Baptiste Yoga master teacher and author of Power Yoga: Strength, Sweat, and Spirit, adding that it may take longer to access the physical benefits of yoga when practicing in a cold room. “Heat is strengthening, cleansing, and purifying, as it softens the muscles and tissues of the body and makes the body more receptive. When you practice in a heated room, heat becomes a tool to get into the body faster,” she explains. “You can shape your body in ways that might not seem possible when you first start your yoga practice. Heat melts away layers of resistance and old holding patterns, physically and energetically.” Sweat also naturally heals the body by releasing toxins, she adds.
Feeling the Brrrn: YJ Tries Cool Yoga
Despite the initial chill, I broke a sweat at brrrn, which offers a trifecta of 50-minute classes: FLOW (Yoga-Inspired Mobility and Strength Series at 60°F), SLIDE (Core & Cardio Slide Board Series at 55°F), and HIT (High Intensity Training Battle Rope Infused Series at 45°F).
FLOW, the warmest of brrrn’s classes, utilizes yoga-inspired movements to lengthen, strengthen, align, as well as connect the mind, body, and breath. Each class takes you through a sequence of traditional vinyasa poses, including Downward-Facing Dog, Upward-Facing Dog, Plank, Warrior, Twists, Lunges, Squats, and Side Plank, and more complex shapes, such as Fallen Triangle.
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The class also features a breathing practice called Brrreath™, inspired by Tummo, or g-tummo, a form of meditation that uses forceful breath to heat the body. This sacred practice of the Indo-Tibetan traditions of Vajrayana Buddhism is also known as vase breathing or psychic heat. After the inhale, practitioners contract their abdominal and pelvic muscles, expanding the lower belly to take the shape of a vase or pot, all while visualizing flames.
Ironically, the class closes with a blast of heat. Brrrn uses overhead infrared panels to create a warming, luxurious, and extra-relaxing Savasana. “We view heat as dessert at brrrn, so this is a reward when we’re lying still,” says Adamic.
I enjoyed the change of pace of practicing in a cooler environment. The cooler room felt refreshing and challenged me to really focus on the act of breathing and each movement. This meant I had to concentrate, rather than zone out like I might in a traditional or hot yoga class. I made a conscious effort through each of the 50 minutes to pair mindful breathing with my movements, to dynamically build upon and stimulate internal energy, ultimately creating heat from within my body. And just a few minutes into FLOW, I warmed up enough to shed my long-sleeved top.
A cool environment may create initial discomfort for some, yet it also provides the opportunity to accept this sensation, push past it, and grow stronger, taking us out of our comfort zone and helping us to be more present, says Martin. “There’s nothing that brings us more in the moment than entering a cool environment.”
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About the Author
Crystal Fenton is a yoga teacher and writer based in New York City.