What It’s Like to Survive an “Ice Bath Breathwork” Class

Flatiron's Remedy Place has sessionized everyone's favorite fitness trend

February 14, 2023 6:08 am
A shot of the ice baths at Remedy Place in Flatiron.
C'mon in, the water's cold: Remedy Place is capitalizing on ice bath buzz.
Courtesy of Remedy Place

A couple months before the pandemic arrived, we’d dubbed Flatiron the “Fitness District,” in reference to the inordinate number of spin halls, boxing gyms and yoga studios that had propagated along a 10-block NoMad stretch.

It was a ClassPass paradise, for at least a couple years, with peak operating hours of six to nine o’clock (a.m. and p.m.), easy subway access (28th Street, 23rd Street, Union Square), and healthy-ish grab-and-go for when the workout was through (Beatnic, Cava, INDAY, etc.). There were also a predictable variety of wellness flagships and headquarters throughout the area: Equinox, lululemon, SoulCycle, Nike and the like.

The ultimate reason the area earned the title, though, was for its early embrace of experimental fitness. I’ve had some wacky workouts in Flatiron — 90°F vinyasa flow to Meek Mill, guided elevation treadmill runs under neon lights, battle rope circuits in rooms as cold as refrigerators. I posted a ton of fitness firsts in NoMad, too — first cryotherapy session, first VO2max test, first time sampling compression boots.

When the city went dark, this neighborhood saw more tumbleweeds than most. But over the last 18 months, as home-workout willingness has waned, the Fitness District posted a comeback. You could study the latest studio list (it’s robust), or simply go for a walk near Flatiron and see it for yourself. But for me, the clincher was a recent visit to Remedy Place, which officially opened last September.

Billed as “the world’s first social wellness club,” the 21st Street facility is a pitch-perfect entry to Flatiron’s fitness tradition: offbeat, recovery-minded, mildly pretentious. The project is a luxury-fitness amalgamation of Equinox and Williamsburg’s Bathhouse — cheeky copywriting, slabs of stone all over the place, employees wearing black T-shirts with their job descriptions boiled down to one word over the sternum. Still, Remedy Place has a distinguishable conceit: this is the ice bath place.

Remedy Place Ice Bath Classes
An ice bath class typically begins with nine minutes of intense breathwork.
Courtesy of Remedy Place

You’ve likely been bombarded with enough cold plunge content by now to be aware that freezing cold water is good for you…somehow. But even as jumping into it attained some level of ubiquity over the last many months, ice baths hadn’t been “class-ified,” quite yet…not even in spas angling to simulate the Nordics’ full, contrast bathing experience. They’d coasted on a DIY charm: stay in for however long you can manage; end your shower with an icy rinse; build yourself an ice barrel; jump into the ocean after a run.

(In a recent viral video, which one uploader tagged “Writers spend their lives trying to write a scene this perfect,” a polar-plunging duo sprint into the chilly sea, leaving a smartphone recording on the sand behind them. A couple of old ladies walk by with their dog, confused and cranky: “They’re crazy…they’re nuts…they’re either trying to sober up real quick for a reason or they’re just nuts.” They then continue on out of the frame, muttering about how high the girl’s wearing her thong.)

Remedy Place seems determined to capitalize on ice bath’s buzz, leaning into the poppy, longevity science of everyday shocks to the body, while offering a more predictable/convenient entry-point to the ritual. After all, trips to Rockaway take a minute, no one’s hopping into New York Harbor anytime soon (no matter how many bottlenose dolphins are spotted), private ice barrels are expensive and impossible to store if you don’t have a backyard, and the very-coldest temps that city shower nozzles can offer still hover around 60°F.

Last November, The Boston Globe profiled a group of Sunday morning ice-bathers who evidently dump 10 bags of ice into a backyard tank in order to cool it to a temperature of 36°F. The group’s ringleader, aged 58, claims the new habit had helped him lose 35 pounds, putting him in the best shape of his life. It’s a fascinating story, but the mechanics of his operation are uncomfortable to even look at — the unit is somewhere between a Middle Ages torture device and a mid-aughts David Blaine prop.

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Contrast that to Remedy Place, a subterranean temple with oversized stone tubs, built into walls with electric fireplaces. I paid the site a visit last week, for a 30-minute “ice bath breathwork” class, hosted by a trainer who’d spent the holiday season dancing with the Radio City Rockettes. He’d done up to four shows a day, for nearly 50 days straight, and he told me that he’d come to Remedy Place to soothe his aching lower half whenever he got the chance. He introduced me to my classmates, a husband and wife, had us lie down on daybeds right next to our personal ice baths, and left us in the charge of Dr. Jonathan Leary, co-founder — or Leary’s voice, at least, communicated via a recording.

An ice bath breathwork class, in these initial days of its existence, actually takes 15 minutes: nine minutes of breathing, six minutes underwater. For the first portion, Leary leaned on a version of Wim Hof’s controlled hyperventilation: powerful inhales and exhales, sucking in as much oxygen as possible, at a cadence of in, in, out…in, in, out…in, in, out. Leary lets you know that you can take a break whenever you like, but the deep house instrumental music plows on regardless, so I sucked in breath after breath, bringing on a bizarre head high. My thoughts became hazy and undefined, though I was certain I hadn’t had so much oxygen in my diaphragm in a long time.

The purported benefits of power breathing are murky, scientifically speaking. (As are those for cold-water immersion, for that matter.) Fitness influencers and blasé podcasters have made careers out of listing out all the magical reasons to start doing a thing, any thing, and the ice bath-breathwork combo is credited with having many — improved mood, immunity, mental health, muscle regeneration, etc. Still, the studies are yet to corroborate the claims.

The class did force me to breath, though, something I know I should be doing more of, but never make time for. We were told that the water — you could sense how cold it was, just laying next to it — would be all the more hellish without the pre-breathing. So it was meditation with a mission attached to it: gonzo, distractive, athletic. I tapped into a disposition I typically reserve for running or lifting. When the breathing portion was over, our trainer told us it was time for the tubs, which were deep and long enough that I was able to sit fully outstretched, with water lapping my shoulders, at 6’3″.

It’s not a cold shower. It’s not one of those rumbling, chilly jacuzzis at physical therapy. It’s 39°F, straight up — sans chunks of floating gas station ice. The last time I felt water that cold on my skin I was jumping into a river in Norway. The first 90 seconds, as our trainer had warned us, were agony. He put on RÜFÜS DU SOL, yelled some Peloton-esque exhortations. When everything went numb, the moment didn’t exactly morph to one of euphoria, but hyper-focus. I felt my heart fluttering, my eyes dilating, the red blood cells running fire drills throughout my bloodstream. It was a few minutes of being very, very alive, which, in my experience, at least, continued for hours after the session. It’s not that I wanted to go in again — I felt inspired to go conquer other things, like my body and brain had undergone a full factory reboot.

Science? Placebo? One detriment to the “is it legit” google, which now undergirds so many debates in the wellness sphere, is this recurring presupposition that if you’re going to start doing something consistently, it should cure all that bothers you: your skin, your cardio, your self-confidence. And that’s simply too much pressure to put on any fledgling ritual. I can’t say that ice bath breathwork will help me live to 100…but I can say it helped me live one really great day.

From Remedy Place’s perspective, I’m not sure if that’s the sell they’re looking for. It stands to reason that their deep-pocketed parishioners (the all-access monthly membership is a nauseating $2,750) are either A) “next frontier” fitness types: extremely fit people who won’t rest until they do all the fitness, or B) luxury lifestyle consumers: people with lots of disposable income who care about their well-being and are prone to talk about a new cool thing they’ve started doing when at a dinner gala. Either group would probably want some sort of validation that their commitment in hours and dollars and chilly toes will have long-term boons.

Or who knows…Remedy Place offers a whole host of other mildly-researched, feel-great remedies, from lymphatic compression to cupping to vitamin drips to hyperbaric oxygen chambers. Sometimes fitness (whatever it costs) is less combing through Healthline, more finding consistency — settling on a routine that makes you happy, that keeps you coming back, that inspires you to do the things we know keep your organs and bones healthy, like sleeping and lunging and eating cruciferous vegetables.

If nothing else, I require no further proof that the Fitness District — wiley, sweaty, multi-headed monster it once was — is fully back. After my post-class high wore off, I found myself wedged between a bike and a backpack on the L. I thought about that membership fee, the general “you’re welcome” attitude I clocked the second I entered the spa’s atrium. Cold water is free, I grumbled in my head. And why pay $50 a session for a reminder to breathe? The next day I prepared a cold shower before work. I live a few miles and a river from Flatiron, but I figured I could recreate the sorcery of the Fitness District in my bathroom at home. I didn’t come close.

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