The Church of Sweat

The first time I went to a Russian banya, I was taking Russian class with my sister in Moscow. We were living in student apartments and our roommate Lilia, a Hungarian student, asked if we wanted to go to the city’s famous Sanduny baths. My sister, who unlike me actually learned Russian, said she had to study. I didn’t really know what a banya was – “Hot,” said Lilia, “Very nice,”- but I said I would come. This was in the summer, which in Moscow can be very hot. But I like heat, and Lilia and I set out. I couldn’t really speak any Russian, which was our only common language, so we mostly used smiles and hand gestures. We emerged from the long metro ride into the city center, crowded with elegant old buildings, overlooking streets – it must have been a Sunday – that were nearly deserted. On a corner, a lone elderly woman was selling bunches of dried-out, leafy branches, and Lilia bought two.

An alternating feeling of pleasure and pain

We found the address, entered an ornate 19th century building, bought tickets and made our way through a palatial entryway to the women’s banya, on the first floor. We rented white sheets, towels, flip-flops and felt hats from the nurse-like women standing guard, then made our way into the sanctum, filled with tall, old-fashioned wooden benches, where you could hang your clothes or sit, wrapped in a towel, and eat or drink.

Sanduny Baths in Moscow
Sanduny Baths in Moscow (©NVO)

We wrapped ourselves in our sheets, put on our hats, and went into the large, tiled room next door. At one end was the banya room. Some older women gestured us to hurry up, and we rushed inside a smaller room with a big oven. The door shut behind us, and we climbed a set of wooden stairs to a wooden platform with benches, where we joined the other women wrapped in white sheets, sitting or lying down, waiting. There was the sound of the metal door to the oven swinging open, then the room filled with crackling heat, an alternating pleasure and pain that felt like stepping out into a desert, but hotter. The intensity built, and my skin got so hot it felt cool again, and I wondered how much of this I could take. “Close your eyes!” shouted a woman, as drops of hot, lightly scented water hit our bodies and faces. After a pause for breath came another wave of crackling heat. A simultaneous feeling of calm and exhilaration overcame me. I loved it.

My entire head was a deep purple color

Afterward, I did a little breaststroke in the cold menthol bath at the other end of the tiled room, and a bone-deep feeling of well-being settled in, along with just a little dizziness – the kind that makes you realize everything you were worried about isn’t such a big deal, after all. We did all this again, one more time. I felt deeply relaxed, and happy.

Birch twigs in a banya sauna

Later, I took a break. I was sitting on the bench in the front room when a Russian woman came up to me. “Don’t worry,” she said, in English. “We asked the matron, and she said, you are fine. It’s the toxins leaving.” I didn’t know what she was talking about, until she gestured at the mirror. My entire head was a deep purple color, like an eggplant – it was nothing I had ever seen before. “Whoah,” I said, getting a little nervous. The matron looked over at me. “It’s fine,” she said. So deep was my feeling of relaxation that I decided not to worry about it, though I did wonder if it would be inconvenient to go through the rest of my life in that unusual shade of purple. After a while, as promised, it went away. When we left my face was a normal color. And I was changed forever.

In the years since, I’ve of course gone to the banya regularly whenever I’m in Russia – among my favorites are the tiny wooden room hidden down a mysterious corridor in the basement behind the women’s changing room beneath the city’s enormous Soviet-era year-round outdoor pool called “Seagull,” and a bare bones set-up in a side street in St. Petersburg, not so far from where Dostoyevsky lived, where the oldest women made the room hotter than anything I have experienced, before or after.

Three people swimming laps in a pool

I often had ideas when I went to the sauna.

But I also discovered that a once a week visit to the sauna in Berlin, where I live, lifted my California-native’s winter blues completely. Over the years, I realized that, in addition to feeling calm and happy, I often had ideas when I went to the sauna.

When I wrote my first spy novel, I took the draft with me to the large “saunalandschaft” in the tiny German village I went to, to write. It worked astonishingly well – the warmth of the sauna helped calm all the regular fears that can be so debilitating when writing (“this is stupid, I am stupid, why am I writing this, nobody cares,” etc). Plus, it was fun to go to the sauna, something to look forward to. I settled into a routine: in the afternoons, I would take my printed-out draft to the sauna, find a lounge chair by the window, read over a section, pen in hand. Then, at the top of the hour, I stopped editing and went to the Aufguss. There, as often as not, the solution to the plot problem I was dealing with would come to me as the intense heat settled over the room of naked people. I went back to the lounge chair, grabbed my pen, wrote the plot change down, and repeated. I finished that book, and the next one, that way.

Bundles of tree leaves in a banya sauna

Last year, when I got pregnant, I remembered that somewhere along the way I had heard that in the old days Finnish women gave birth in the sauna. I did some research and found that, while this is now very rare, and that indeed a modern hospital is a safer place to bring a child into the world, there is currently a slew of new scientific research about the health benefits of saunas, in general. (Both the Finnish and German sauna association doctors also agreed that it was fine to keep going to the sauna, while pregnant, which I did, up until the night before labor started).

A place for authentic communal experiences

As part of the story I wrote about this new scientific research, which shows that regular sauna visits seem to improve everything from depression to blood pressure, susceptibility to colds and flues, and heart health, I got to talk to Finnish, German and Australian researchers. But it was a conversation with an American sauna aficionado, Mikkel Aaland, that was the most revelatory, for me. Mikkel, who happens to be from San Francisco, just like me, traveled the world in the 1970s, visiting “sweat baths” all over (he wrote a book about it called “Sweat”). Finnish saunas and Russian banyas, along with hammans, Japanese mushi-buros, Mexican temescals, and Native American sweat houses, he explained, were all part of an ancient human tradition – one that we have largely lost, in the US. He extolled the virtues of sweat baths – the community spirit, the feelings of well-being, the healing properties. The way time slows down, priorities are sorted, the spirit restored. According to his research, around the world, traditional sweat bathing is having a resurgence, especially as millennials seek out authentic communal experiences. His hope is that sweat bathing traditions will move into the mainstream, even in cultures where they have been largely forgotten.

A mushi-buro steam bath in Japan

As Mikkel was describing all the places he had been, different kinds of sweat bathing traditions he had take part in, and people he had met who loved to sweat, I couldn’t help telling him how relieved I was to hear all of this – I had been a little bit worried that it was weird, that I loved the sauna so much. Mikkel reassured me that this was totally ok. Then he said something that sounded absolutely right, to me.

“You are a member,” he said, “of the church of sweat.”