Even in our plague-riddled world, the communal bathing scene is thriving.
You know you’ve hit the sweet spot in your bathhouse session when the dim lights illuminating the dank, sweaty environs start to blur and a foggy halo appears around them. This optical illusion typically appears for me after around an hour of intense sweating, when I’m on the brink of heat exhaustion, and it’s usually when I feel most at peace with myself and the world. There’s a certain clarity of mind that comes when you’re shoulder to shoulder with a dozen or so other moist, warm bodies, your cell phones and all other connections to the outside world tucked away in storage lockers. It’s an increasingly rare feeling, and might help explain why the communal bathhouse, a tradition that dates back to at least 2500 BC, was so quick to bounce back after pandemic closures, and in spite of ongoing COVID concerns.
Before COVID hit, bathhouses around the country were thriving. Amid the boom in digital wellness apps and e-commerce-as-self-care à la Goop, the decidedly analog business of saunas, steam rooms and plunge pools was quietly growing too. According to Forbes in 2018, sauna sales increased at a rate of about 10 percent per year. The “bathhouse renaissance [is] in full swing,” wrote The New York Times in a 2016 profile about the 128-year-old Russian and Turkish Baths in the East Village. Mobile saunas began popping up in Seattle, Minnesota, and Brooklyn, and high-end spaces like the international AIRE chain and Bathhouse, which opened in Williamsburg in November 2019, targeted affluent young customers. In January 2020, mere weeks before New York City would become the epicenter of the covid pandemic in North America, New York magazine published a guide to shvitzing in the city, outlining the myriad communal bathing options available in the area.
But despite an email sent out from the Russian and Turkish Baths on March 13, 2020 that declared in red, bold-faced, all caps letters: “CDC STATES THAT SAUNAS KILLS VIRUSES,” [sic] bathhouses were forced to shut down with the rest of the city just a week later, on March 20.
And then… everything picked up largely where it left off.
“We’ve been running full occupancy for the last year and we’re always full,” Jason Goodman, cofounder of Bathhouse, told Mic in May. “We should have made a bigger bathhouse!” On a recent Sunday, the Russian and Turkish Baths were humming, particularly the Russian Room, the hottest of the East Village sauna’s five rooms. “We’ve noticed that business has been steady, good. We have no complaints,” Dmitry Shapiro, the co-manager, said. And the media attention is returning, too.
While it may seem odd that bathing culture has so quickly come back, I get it. Aside from the brief moments during takeoff and landing on a flight, and, I’m guessing, submarines, there are precious few places where we can be truly disconnected from the internet. The forced isolation the bathhouse provides is at least part of its appeal for many. “I think people are really looking for escape from the pressures of hyperconnectivity,” said Jane Withers, a design consultant and writer who curated a show about bathhouses at Roca London Gallery titled Soak, Steam, Dream: Reinventing Bathing Culture. Leonard Koren, an artist and founder of the defunct magazine Wet, a cult publication about “gourmet bathing,” wrote in his book Undesigning the Bath, “The bath, I feel strongly, should be a place to escape from the depredations of the technological world, not revel in them.”
Today, after two-plus years of interacting with coworkers, friends, and family through computer screens, that escape from technology feels especially valuable. And pandemic aside, we are more inside our own heads and devices now than at any other time in history. Many people spend multiple days per week not speaking with another human being. “I mean how many hours can you spend on your phone or on the internet?” Dmitry says. “Eventually you need human contact.”
“Throughout history, bathhouses have always been a central gathering place, a place to be fundamentally human.” — Jane Withers
The odd thing about being disconnected from the outside world while surrounded by others is the sense of camaraderie that forms. Bathhouses, especially the really hot ones (temperatures typically range from the low 100s to near 200 degrees Fahrenheit), inspire a sort of foxhole mentality, where everyone is on the brink of death, slightly delusional, and striking up a conversation with your neighbor is accepted, even encouraged. “Throughout history, bathhouses have always been a central gathering place, a place to be fundamentally human,” Goodman says.
That spirit of togetherness is unique to bathhouses, not to be confused with spas, which lack the egalitarian attitude of bathhouses. “I suppose in the latter part of the 20th century spa got less linked to the water,” says Withers. “And became less about that and more associated with massage one-on-one treatment, beauty treatments, that kind of thing, and often quite sort of rarified but not so much a social place, I think.” This is an important distinction, as spas have for decades been proliferating to seemingly every corner of most major American cities, while bathhouses have, until their recent rediscovery, largely been thought of as holdover institutions from another time. The desire for an alternative to the isolating experience of spas was partially behind the motivation to open Bathhouse, too. As cofounder Travis Talmadge explains, “spas are overall precious and often antisocial.”
Benjamin Shapiro (no relation to Dmitry), 38, started going to the Russian and Turkish Baths on East 10th Street in 2012. At first, he went about once a month in an effort to cure his vertigo (he’s still unsure if it helped), but over time that spiraled into a bathhouse devotion bordering on addiction. “I started off going once a month, and then I would go once every other week. Then it sort of peaked when I was unemployed in early 2017, and I was going about six days a week for about four or five hours a day,” Shapiro says. “It was easily the best time of my life. No amount of exercise or eating healthy or self-care can even come close to the feeling of healthfulness that I experienced during that time.” On returning to the baths for the first time in April, he says, “It was an unbelievable sigh of relief to be back at a place that brings me so much joy and so much physical relief… I almost felt like I was going to cry.”
Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that the surge in desire among young people to heat their bodies to near-fatal temperatures in the name of some sort of release is occurring now.
The actual health benefits of saunas have been a topic of debate for decades, with proponents touting sometimes outlandish claims and skeptics who say there are few benefits beyond a sense of relaxation. But in 2018, a study out of Finland published by Mayo Clinic Proceedings found a number of potential upsides. Regular sauna use, the study’s scientists found, was linked to a “reduction in the risk of vascular diseases, such as high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease, neurocognitive diseases, nonvascular conditions, such as pulmonary diseases, mental health disorders, and mortality.” The report also noted that sauna use corresponded with a higher quality of life, which any regular bather could have told you.
Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that the surge in desire among young people to heat their bodies to near-fatal temperatures in the name of some sort of release is occurring now. Our world is, as you may have noticed, a grab bag of horrors. Burnout has joined the World Health Organization’s International Classification of Diseases, the cost of living is skyrocketing and wage growth is stagnant, our president is real bad and the Supreme Court is worse, we will never retire, we’re always on the brink of war, the pandemic is now endemic, and also the planet is literally on fire. But for a few precious hours in the bathhouse, those anxieties melt away.
“The sauna demands only your presence,” the author Reif Larson wrote in 2019. “Sweat itself has no memory. Heat is heat is heat. But by being present, by exiting the world writ large, time and possibility collapse in the hot room — and then expand.”
People change when they’re cut off from the outside world. The idea of all responsibilities, worries, and distractions being neutralized by the urgent heat, and of a resultant democratic environment where everyone is equal, is one that comes up repeatedly when talking to people about saunas. In Japan, there is even a phrase, hadaka no tsukiai, or “naked companionship,” which hints at the unique bond that forms among bathers. “I suppose you’re there with your guard down,” Withers tells me. “You leave your clothes and your usual social barriers behind.”
That flattening of socioeconomic status is one of Benjamin’s favorite aspects of bathing culture as well. “In that moment, when you’re in a room full of people of all different ages and backgrounds, it doesn’t really matter what your job is, what your title is, how much money you make, where you come from, or anything at all,” he says. “The only thing that really matters is can you hang. And if you can hang in that moment, then you can be part of a really incredible community that wants to listen to you, and from whom you can learn a lot.”