Insider's Guide to Spas
Archimedes Banya

Fundamentals

In Search of the Perfect Sweat

Stephen Kiesling


Imagine a sauna two stories tall. Open the door and head up the cedar stairs, gaining in altitude and heat, till you reach the highest cedar bench—an intimate perch where the thermometer reads 190 degrees F. and 20  percent humidity. Ahhhh! Almost immediately the sweat starts to bead and then to pour. And this is the cool sauna! The hot one—200 degrees F. and 10 percent humidity—is the next door down the hall. Across from that is a Turkish hamam, a steam bath so thick with steam that it is in fact like walking into a hot bath. Immediately you feel yourself tenderizing, practically melting in your own juices, until it’s time to take the plunge under the continuous waterfall at 55 degrees! O…M…G!!!

What is this place?

It’s San Francisco’s new temple of sweat—the Archimedes Banya (banyasf.com)—built by the Russian mathematician and Lincoln University president, Mikhail Brodsky. A passionate sweat aficionado, Brodsky’s dream house provides a complete total body workout —inside and out—where all you do is cycle from extreme hot to extreme cold until it takes everything you have left to carry your IPA up to the roof-deck overlooking the Bay. Ahhhhhh-some.

On March 12th and 13th, Brodsky’s Banya proved to be the perfect setting for the first “Perfect Sweat Summit,” an invite-only gathering of about 50 of the world’s foremost sweat aficionados brought together by Mikkel Aaland, an award-winning photographer and author of the 1978’s cult classic, Sweat. The entire thing was filmed by Emmy Award-winning director Doug Pray, for a travel TV series based on Aaland’s great book.

Among the heavy sweaters of the gathering were the Finns, a place where saunas (a Finnish word pronounced sow-nas) outnumber cars. In fact Finland has enough sauna space for the entire population to sweat at once—plus room for guests. The penultimate Finnish experience, we heard repeatedly, is the “smoke sauna,” a chimney-less shed with a huge stone fireplace inside. You stoke the fire till the stones are superheated. When the fire burns out, you let out the smoke, add water, and steam for the next four hours. The next best is a traditional wood-stove sauna. Then gas stove. Then electric (but only pour water on the rocks, not on the electric coils or metal because of the nasty ions generated). The gathered Finns wouldn’t talk about infrared saunas.  “Microwaves,” they sniffed.

But even the Finns lamented the decline of communal sweat bathing—as public bathhouses are replaced by fancy private bathrooms. A young presenter from Istanbul admitted to only once having visited a hamam, and that was for a bridal party. Germany still has a strong public sauna tradition, and spa resorts like Baden-Baden are booming, but on the whole the public tradition isn’t doing so well.

But even the Finns lamented the decline of communal sweat bathing—as public bathhouses are replaced by fancy private bathrooms. A young presenter from Istanbul admitted to only once having visited a hamam, and that was for a bridal party. Germany still has a strong public sauna tradition, and spa resorts like Baden-Baden are booming, but on the whole the public tradition isn’t doing so well.

Speaker Mary Bemis (who I am happily married to) explained the dearth of public sweat bathing in our own spa culture with the observation that the major destination spas that shaped the modern US spa industry—places like Rancho La Puerta, Canyon Ranch, The Golden Door, and The Oaks at Ojai—all started in places with lots of sunshine, but without traditional healing waters.

“Spa comes from Sanus Per Aquam, which means health through water, and the spa tradition throughout most of the world originated at hot springs. But in the modern US spa industry, the sauna, or sweat bathing, is treated as an added amenity rather than as an essential experience,” she explained. (That said, the only way I could keep Mary in Oregon was to install a hot tub and a barrel sauna from Almost Heaven in our backyard.)

I spoke about the sweat lodge tradition of the Native American tribe where we live on the Rogue River. At the annual salmon ceremony here (opb.org/television/programs/ofg/segment/first-salmon-ceremony/), the Indians now build temporary, Lakota-style sweat lodges: a dome framed by bent willows that is covered in blankets. These lodges are now mostly talked about in terms of “spiritual” cleansing. But the original Takelma village here had permanent, pit-house sweat lodges that the men lived in—and I believe they sweat for their health.

None other than Hippocrates noted that sweating is a way of inducing a fever, which is a fine way to kill bugs. In my own experience, after catching Lyme disease here and sweating through the first fevers, I got some friends to build a lodge. Was it the heat or the antibiotics that killed the bugs? I don’t know. But something worked, and I do believe the Takelma and countless other indigenous peoples were onto something. (Btw: some of the old Finnish smoke saunas look a lot like a Takelma sweat lodges, but a barrel sauna is a lot more convenient.)

In my own experience, after catching Lyme disease here and sweating through the first fevers, I got some friends to build a lodge. Was it the heat or the antibiotics that killed the bugs? I don’t know. But something worked, and I do believe the Takelma and countless other indigenous peoples were onto something.

One great speaker gave a surprisingly bright future for the future of sweat bathing for health. Matt Wiggins, CEO of Remedy Partners (whose father created Oxford Health Plans), says that fundamental changes in health-care laws may get these healing practices paid for through insurance.  Matt will be speaking more specifically about bringing insurance into the modern spa at the Washington Spa Alliance annual gathering at the National Press Club in D.C. (washingtonspaalliance.com) on Tuesday, June 24th.  Join us!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stephen Kiesling

Stephen Kiesling

Stephen Kiesling is the editor in chief of Spirituality & Health magazine. He was the youngest member of the 1980 US Olympic Rowing Team and the oldest competitor at the 2008 Olympic Rowing Trials. A Scholar of the House in Philosophy at Yale, he was a founding editor of American Health and Spirituality & Health magazines. Stephen is the author of several books, including The Shell Game and The Nike Cross Training System, and has written for The New Yorker, Sports Illustrated, and Outside. He has been featured in The New York Times and The Boston Globe and has appeared on numerous television and radio shows, including Today and All Things Considered.

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