It’s cold and I have a craving for the caress of balmy air to contrast the bitter winds that blow outside. Every time I step out the door I am confronted by the harshness of the elements, with Nature demanding that I cover my body with layers of clothing.. Inside me wells a yearning for the soft winds of summer that dress me of their own accord with their warm and sensual ways.
It’s late on a Friday. I’ve worked diligently at the office all week and I can feel the wear and tear of stress wrinkling my edges. I crave heat to smooth out the roughness, and images of warm places I’ve known flash instantaneously across my mind. Unfortunately, transporting myself to the Caribbean to fulfill this visceral longing for the sensation of the tropics against my skin is not a feasible option for me on this weekend eve. My mind jumps to the local landscape, New York City, to seek a more practical solution.
Whether they call it a sauna, a sweat lodge, or a schvitz, most cultures around the world share this yearning of mine for a hot space in which to melt and relax. Sweat baths have been popular for thousands of years. The power of the intense heat of the bathhouse, no matter its form, does not stop with the physical body; its cleansing actions sear through to purify the psyche and the spirit as well.
In New York City, the interpretation of this age-old rite varies in flavor between the ethnic and traditional, the contemporary and modern. I vacillate between the two styles depending on my mood, but on a Friday night, my mood is mod.
Many great weekends have started with an impromptu trip to one of my favorite hotspots, QT Hotel. In the heart of Time Square, on 45th Street between Broadway and 6th Avenue lies this glorious, quintessential New York gem that I’ve had the fortune of knowing about for years. Designed in a fresh modern esthetic, QT Hotel makes a contribution to the 21st century styling of the sauna. With walls of clear glass and its signature sunken bar that serves drinks straight into a warm dipping pool, the space is visually spectacular. Adjacent to the luminescent pool are a sauna and steam room, and to top it off a DJ spinning smooth tracks that create a celebratory ambiance.
As I slip into my bikini and disappear behind the glass doors that enclose the hot foggy steam room, I feel instantly more open. The heat obliges me to breathe more deeply. My lungs open, and all kinds of emotions rise to the surface. One day vulnerability, fear or grief may be present. On another day, irrepressible joy, playfulness or flirtatiousness may reign. Whatever the emotional tone, I keep breathing, filling the dark corners of my insides with moist air, even if it is a struggle. It feels safer to stay within the easy confines of a shallow breath pattern, and the relatively superficial emotional landscape that corresponds to it. Still, I push myself to go to plunge within; deep breathing engenders access to deeper awareness and I go as far as I dare.
As my inner world is unraveling silently in the semi-lit enclave, I recall that I am not in the cocoon of my home, but essentially in a public place. This rite, now available for anyone who walks in off the street, has in the past been restricted to the privileged: men, religious figures, or society’s elite. Nowadays bathhouses are accessible meeting places for all, where friends congregate in the hallowed alter of heat to socialize and unwind.
Bathhouses are the perfect example: pleasure and health proceed hand in hand, each one further enabling the other, in innocent and natural ways.
On weekends, or on rare occasions when I sneak out of the office during the day for a quiet escape, my bathhouse of choice is the Russian Bath on Fulton Street, where grit replaces glass and function supersedes form. Known in Russian as the banya, these baths are an ode to the ethnic mix that exists in New York. Lanky Lithuanian ladies, portly Russian grandfathers, Orthodox Jews, and midtown Manhattan executives sit side-by-side unapologetically, sweating together in their own created context.
Eight thousand years ago in Greece, the custom of bathing near places of physical and intellectual pursuit was sparked. Bathing was ritualized, becoming an art where the canvas was painted with hot water, darkly lit enclaves, hot vapors, cold plunges, body kneading and aromatic oils. Today in the financial and creative hothouse of New York, the opportunity to evolve our own rituals of cleansing, connecting and counter-balancing stress is at our fingertips. Each of us brings a unique body, mind and life situation to the mighty claws of the unceasing heat, responding with our own styles of ritual.
Some come alone for the solitary, introspective experience of the banya. Be it the hot room or the cold plunge, either temperature extreme acts like the metaphorical tap of a Zen stick on your shoulder by a master supervising your practice, decapitating the churning mind and delivering quietness and meditation. When coping with the temperatures demands all your attention, nothing but the present moment exists and the mind is encouraged to momentarily relinquish its monkey-madness and finally allow you some peace and quiet!
For others, the ritual is to come with friends or to meet with the regulars who have become family. The baths of Ancient Rome have been described as a cross between a health club centre and a theme park, with pools, game rooms, gardens, even libraries and theatres. So too, the Fulton Street Baths offer multiple attractions: dry, wet and infrared saunas, a steam room, a jacuzzi, a spacious swimming pool, a juice bar, a restaurant, a massage parlor, and lounges for napping, reading or watching TV. Depending on your desire, a day spent in the banya could be in the pursuit of quiet pampering, conducting business, or being a social butterfly. One lawyer proudly told me as he sat sweating on the wooden bench that he was accruing billable hours as he sat in his towel, sweat pouring off his forehead, contemplating the case of a client.
At the Russian Baths the heat is superlative. The longer I sit the more the heat forces my muscles to surrender their overwrought grasp and lengthen to their proper range. I imagine the heat itself to be a hefty Russian woman pounding the tension out of me and relishing the pleasurable sensation of an outside force having its way with my body.
When the heat has reached my limit I stagger over to the cold plunge and entrust myself to the stern grip of the biting water. My lungs heave in shock, heat and cold colliding within my body. After a few deep breaths I emerge and bliss cascades all over me. The oscillation of my blood vessels, at first expanded and then contracted, now expanding again, conditions my circulation, the inner pump that keeps me alive where he fortunate side effect is ecstasy. It is deeply symbolic that the most pleasurable moments at the bathhouse tend to be the pauses in between the action, when the body is integrating the stimulation, rather than the extremes themselves.
I rest until I start to feel cool and head back into the furnace again where my capillaries open up , and then go back and forth between hot and cold for at least three rounds. I’ve learned, as in every other area in life that the key is to find my own pace rather than exert myself to keep up with anyone else. Over time my body yields to readily accept both more heat and cold, but only in its own time.
Lastly, the sauna experience is one of enormous detoxifying power and a booster to the immune system and the metabolism. The heat mobilizes toxins from not only the blood, but from the lymphatic system that runs parallel. Both lie close to the skin, our biggest organ of detoxification, and sweating causes the opened pores to discharge polluting, unwanted chemicals from these vital systems, out of the body. High temperatures also speed up metabolism, and inhibit the growth of invading viruses and bacteria, while exfoliation via a combination of sweating and scrubbing leaves the skin feeling smooth, refreshed and squeaky clean.
Back in the locker room, as I dress, bringing the ritual to a close, I revel in defiance of the notion that things that feel good are contrary to healthy, embracing the opposite view, I call it “Healthy Hedonism.” Bathhouses are the perfect example: pleasure and health proceed hand in hand, each one further enabling the other, in innocent and natural ways.
In this moment my body feels fresh and inclined towards clean, light foods that augment the detoxification that has begun. I feel centered and calm, anchored to Earth by the breath that allowed me to endure both the heat and the cold. I feel confident that the skills I’ve honed in the sauna, of knowing how to breathe through physical and emotional intensity, will be waiting for me, ready for when I need it in any other scenarios life presents.