It’s 10:52 on a cold and blustery Sunday morning, and I’m seven minutes late for my first-ever hot Pilates class. I’ve arrived at Hot Yoga Aptos (HYA to the regulars) in my knock-off Lulu’s and Big 5 compression wear on a mission: to sweat and suffer and grit through the pain to understand what exactly is behind the scorching-hot trend of extreme-heat fitness. I get my first hint that it’s not just a fad when I realize that the 80-person class I planned to attend is already full.
What began with heated Bikram yoga just a few decades ago has morphed into a full-on, high-temperature movement. Hot spin, barre, boot camp, and Pilates workouts are popping up at studios across Santa Cruz and beyond. Nicole Duke, 42, is a yoga and Pilates teacher who has owned and operated HYA for nine years. “Three years ago, I went from 1,000 members to over 3,000—and it’s growing every year,” says Duke, who charges $130 a month and up for unlimited classes, or $20 for drop ins. “I could schedule a class at 2 a.m. and people would come.”
I had no clue what Pilates was all about when I wandered in—let alone why you’d want to do it in a room heated to 100-something degrees. But here I was, staring into a sparkling, mirror-lined room the size of a high school gymnasium at four rows of 20 barely clothed, tanned, glistening bodies powering in unison through an elaborate core workout. It turns out that to get one of those coveted spots, you usually have to arrive at least 15 minutes early. Barnacles.
My Pilates dream thwarted, I decided to stick around for the noon “Barefoot Boot Camp,” a combination of high-intensity aerobics, weights, stretches, and poses performed in sweltering heat. I got a preview of my fate when 36-year-old Jeff Hicky emerged from the hot Pilates class like an apparition, sweat dripping from every pore. “It’s like going to war,” Hicky says. “This is some of the hardest shit I’ve ever done. I’m using muscles that I never use.”
Most people associate hot exercise—yoga, specifically—with women. But there are plenty of men who flock to classes at HYA. “Guys should take these classes,” says Hicky. “There’s no better way to get in badass shape than in hot Pilates and hot boot camp workouts. It’s hard, but I feel so calm and peaceful when I get out of here.”
I certainly didn’t feel calm or peaceful as I laid down on my (borrowed) yoga mat for the next class. Like clockwork, men and women rushed in to get their favorite places 15 minutes before start time, marking their territory with water bottles, mats, towels, and articles of clothing. I looked around curiously at the tan, fit people filtering in, dreading the things to come and feeling a tad self-conscious about my non-beach-body. A merciful woman named Molly noticed that I didn’t have a water bottle (a huge no-no for any hot workout!) and rushed to the lobby for a dewy liter of Crystal Geyser—my first taste of the community at HYA.
The Drill Sergeant
The energy in the room was already frenetic when Carina Reid, our punky, beach-blond instructor covered neck to ankles in tattoos, skip-jumped to the front of the room and cranked the music up to 11. “What does it feel like to be a badass?” the 45-year-old fitness instructor yelled in her relentlessly peppy way. Even though there were 80 of us in the sticky-hot-mess of a workout space, Reid seemed able to personally reach every one of us with her booming voice.
And we were off—with stretching, aerobics, weight exercises, push-up-like-things, and oh yes, the dreaded squats. The soundtrack was an eclectic mix of hip-hop (Nelly’s iconic “Hot in Herre”), ’90s alternative (Bush’s “Adrenaline”) and other block-rocking beats. The whole class doubled as an elaborate strip tease. I shed my Lulu’s after only 5 minutes, then my shirt, until I was in nothing but my skivvies.
The temperature Duke prefers for her off-the-charts-hot yoga, yoga fusion and hot Pilates classes is between 100-105 degrees, with added humidity and fresh air pumped throughout. Barefoot Boot Camp takes place at a slightly-more-bearable 98 degrees. A sauna, by comparison, is usually set to around 160 degrees.
Proponents of hot exercise offer a long list of benefits, arguing that heated workouts allow you to burn more calories, lose more weight, detoxify your body, and reduce your risk of injury by increasing flexibility and loosening your muscles. Hot fitness evangelists call heat the perfect “accelerator” for workouts like Pilates, Barre, and yoga. They argue that elevated temperatures speed up your heart rate, thereby intensifying a workout and making it more challenging. “The heat brings something out of you that you don’t normally have,” says Reid. “It’s a new beast you’ve never met before, and it challenges and changes you. You just drive harder.”
Super-hot classes aren’t without their potential drawbacks, though. People with heart or lung problems, pregnant women, and people taking medications that affect body temperature are all advised to consult their doctors before taking a heated class. Jason Zaremski, an assistant professor in the University of Florida College of Medicine, has written that overheating and dehydration are the two major risks for anyone participating in strenuous physical activity in high heat: “The major concern is that your body’s core temperature will begin to rise and you put your internal organs and central nervous system at risk.”
As for “detoxing,” the jury’s still out. Technically, you’re sweating out calcium, potassium, and sodium—nutrients your body actually needs. Motivated or comforted by the heat, some people also stretch deeper than they actually should, which can lead to ligament and tendon injuries. Anyone doing hot exercise for the first time needs to be cautious, letting instructors know of any existing injuries. Hydration is crucial.
Still, many hot fitness regulars contend that the mental benefits of hot exercise can outweigh the physical. They say that the connection you develop with your body during a hot exercise class is drastically different from non-heated classes. More spiritually-attuned enthusiasts say that heated workouts help tame fluctuations of the mind, strengthen the physical body and soften the emotional body.
It only took me a few minutes to forget that I was drenched and almost naked. I was overcome by a strange sense of oneness, comradery and mutual respect. It didn’t feel like anyone was judging me, or really even paying attention to me or my gyrating flab. Each of us seemed to be lost in our elemental selves, where it was okay to just … be.
The details of the never ending high-intensity drills quickly became as blurry as the notes I tried to scrawl in my damp, yellow notebook. My hands slip-and-slided across my yoga mat as I tried to push through the mountain climbers and extreme-yoga poses, weighted squats, and burpees. (If you are unfamiliar with burpees, you are blessed.)
“This is a safe place to get ugly!” Reid yelled. By the end of the class we were ugly, but we felt beautiful. The workout itself was one of the most challenging and rewarding things I’ve ever done. And the heat did add something real and intangible—magical, one might say.
Reid, who got into fitness as she overcame drug addiction, says that one of the best things about hot fitness is the community that has developed. “It’s a movement—something totally unique and not done before in Santa Cruz County,” she says. “It’s a family that grows stronger together.”
Ultra-marathoners Eisha Carroll and her husband Gavin Sanford are hot-fitness converts. They agree that the “heated workouts help you relax, sweat, detox, and strengthen your cardiovascular system”—an extension of the heat training that elite athletes have long employed to prepare for races in hot environments. The risk of dehydration gets lower because athletes will start to sweat sooner to cool down, losing less sodium.
Carroll and Sanford have been frequenting HYA for almost seven years to train for a long list of marathons in extreme-heat environments. Carroll just finished the Marathon De Sables, a 240-kilometer race through the Sahara Desert. She says that the classes she takes at HYA are essential for her core strength and stamina—for “the center of your essence,” as she puts it.
If training for desert marathons sounds extreme, there’s really nothing “regular” about any of Duke’s offerings at HYA. That’s the point, she says, as the fitness industry expands: “People don’t just want a regular, run-of-the-mill workout. A huge part of our culture is people looking for something that’s not a pill to swallow. They want an experience, and a connection.”
In my boot camp class, there were times during the near-constant barrage of aerobics, gyrations and squats—oh, those dreaded squats—that I didn’t think I could push on. My puny, 3-pound weights morphed into almost-immovable watermelons around the halfway point, and my heart raced like a jackrabbit on steroids. What got me to the finish line were my fellow soldiers.
It seemed fitting that at the 52-minute mark, Aretha Franklin made an appearance. “R-E-S-P-E-C-T/Find out what it means to me,” the soul queen belted. By that point, the mutual respect among the 80 of us in the room was palpable. We were doing something together. Something special. Somehow, it even made me want to come back and do it all over again. Next time, I’ll be early.