Fitness classes have clearly progressed since the days of step aerobics and Sweatin’ to the Oldies. We’ve seen workouts like barre, spin and rowing skyrocket in popularity and a recent movement toward mindfulness-infused HIIT classes. Now the new big trend on the wellness scene: Taking your workout beyond the purely physical and tapping into your sense of sight, sound, smell and in some cases, even taste.
What’s become known as immersive fitness, these classes give a whole new meaning to a total-body workout. An hour in the studio won’t just get your body moving — it’ll also provide a full mental and physical “experience.”
What Immersive Fitness Is All About
Some studios at the forefront of immersive fitness include WOOM Center (a New York City-based yoga class), IMAXShift (a spin studio in Brooklyn), Earth’s Power Yoga (based in Los Angeles) and Les Mill’s The Trip (also a cycling class, in New York and Santa Monica). All of these studios have a huge visual component to the class, drawing you in with computerized graphics or life-like landscapes. WOOM takes it a few steps further, too. There, you’ll experience sound baths, aromatherapy and even a sip of some good-for-you ingredients post-yoga flow.
One reason to try these all-consuming classes: They just might slash the monotony of your regularly scheduled programming. “The same workout routine can become mentally fatiguing,” says Leah Lagos, PsyD, a New York City-based licensed psychologist. “If you’re looking for something to push you a little more and help you work at a higher level” these classes could be the answer to your plateau problems, she says. Like most forms of exercise, immersive fitness studios can also provide a mood boost. “Adding new innovations and seeing better performance results from these innovations can definitely make people feel good,” Lagos says.
The founders and creators of these classes aim to give you a break from the stressors of everyday life. As a result, you can better focus on yourself — whether you’re trying to push your body to its limits or gain some peace of mind. Here’s how they achieve that goal, addressing each of the senses.
Your Sensory Rx
Obviously you’ve been using your sense of touch in fitness since before Jane Fonda made exercise a model behavior. Every workout involves moving your body and many instructors tell you to pay close attention to how you feel through each movement. But now some meditation and yoga studios take the sensation a step further, embedding a more physical element into the typically mind-focused sessions. Inscape in New York City, for example, guides students to start a meditation by vigorously rubbing their hands together, bringing the focus into the present. At WOOM, you might grasp hands with fellow yogis to encourage a connection with those around you. These tactics can help you feel more grounded.
Most spin classes are known for their covetable soundtracks. And research has proven the benefits of listening to music while exercising. In fact, it can increase your intensity and performance, without actually making you feel like you’re working harder.
Before curating a playlist, both WOOM and IMAXShift instructors think carefully about the overall theme they want to bring to class and the feelings they hope to evoke. While WOOM starts out with verbal chanting, followed by more traditional music, it then ends with instructors playing instruments you’d often find in sound bath meditations. Yogis choose the instruments based on the time of day or the message of the class. “If the theme is fluidity of life, we might play an instrument that brings in the element of water, like a rainstick or ocean drum,” says Elian Zach-Shemesh, co-founder of WOOM. “If we talk about leaving the past in the past, we might bring in an instrument that has a minor mode scale and tends to bring up a melancholy sense of yearning… We tie everything together.”
Some believe sound baths promote deeper meditation during yoga. Or as a stand-alone experience, they can have a calming effect, even if you’ve never meditated before. “Sound acts as the focal point to assist you in achieving a more relaxed state by influencing brainwaves, shifting them from active to more introspective and creative,” explains Nate Martinez, certified sound therapy practitioner and founder of NTM Sound Healing. “It’s different than music because it removes more structural elements like rhythm, arrangement and melody.” Translation: The instruments help keep your mind from racing, allowing you to more easily concentrate on yourself and the moment. Add that to your downward-facing dog and you have a recipe for mega mind and body benefits.
Sometimes seeing really is believing (in the advantages of a workout, at least). In a WOOM class, you’ll actually begin blindfolded. This takes sight out of the equation, helping students tune into the sounds and vibrations. But once the blindfold comes off, you’ll see splashes of lights and moving images on the three white walls surrounding you. “You’ve been through a mini experience with the blindfolds, and then you’re immersed in the music and visuals and so it’s almost like you’ve journeyed to a different place,” Zach-Shemesh explains. (Remember that main goal of providing a mini mental vacation? This does the trick.) “The visuals and sounds then root us back into the present moment and you realize, ‘This is happening now. I’m seeing this now.’”
Jesse Alexander, master instructor and creative director at IMAXShift says the visuals of the class also lock students into the room, therefore allowing them to focus on the challenge ahead. To decide what kind of videos will go up on the movie theater-sized screen, “we pull from energetic, emotional and performance buckets,” he says. For instance, a performance visual might have you climbing up a virtual mountain as you increase the resistance on the bike. An energizing one might take you around train tracks or have you ride to the beat of a pulsing computerized graphic. And an emotional experience could involve flying over a Hawaiian landscape, giving you a breather mid-ride or putting you at ease as the class winds down.
Even studios like Inscape take sight into consideration, just with a subtler approach. The space has two studios — the Dome and Alcove — which feature lighting meant to mimic a horizon, forcing you to feel instantly relaxed. The Alcove (where relaxation classes featuring sound baths take place) has an art installation created by founder, Khajak Keledjian’s friend. It uses more than 18,000 feet of rope, each with its own design. (The underlying message: Even though each pattern (or person) is different we’re all interconnected.) The layout of the studio offers “a mix of grounding and uplifting at the same time,” says Keledjian. “It gives that sense of calm, right off the city block.”
With the growing popularity of essential oils, it’s no wonder studios have started incorporating more aromatherapy into classes. Meditation and yoga instructors, including those at Y7 and Yo Yoga!, have been doing this for some time. However, the standard spritz used here and there is taken up a notch at places like WOOM. During savasana, the instructor sprays the room with the studio’s custom, therapeutic blend of 13 essential oils. “[Scent is] another vehicle for that strong connection to self,” Zach-Shemesh says. That’s because smell is the sense most linked to memory, she explains. Studies have also demonstrated the benefits of some smells, including the relaxing effects of lavender and the brain-stimulating and energizing results of rosemary.
What better way to round out a sensory-centric class than with a health-enhancing shot? Many studios have juice bars and smoothie stations for post-workout fuel (Barry’s Bootcamp has been at it for years). But at WOOM, you don’t pay a penny more. After peeling off the mat, class-goers follow the instructor into the café for a freshly made elixir. The concoction often includes a blend of nutritious, anti-inflammatory ingredients. You might sip turmeric, coconut milk, reishi mushrooms, apple cider vinegar or chai spices, depending on the time of year. “It’s a community-building and nourishing part of the experience,” says Zach-Shemesh. Cheers to fitness gurus who think of everything.
Keep in mind, like most workouts, immersive fitness might not be for everyone. “For some people, this kind of experience can be truly stimulating — almost addictive because it’s so much sensory stimulation,” Lagos explains. Conversely, “it can be overwhelming to others.” (Of course, the best way to tell if you like it… head to a studio!) In the end, immersive fitness all comes down to a well thought out experience meant as an escape from the daily grind. And we could all use 60 uninterrupted minutes away.