I know, I know, it makes me sound like a granny from the old country, but I must confess, I really do love a good shvitz.
Let me be clear: I don’t love plain old flop sweat, the kind you get from 20 minutes on the treadmill or 2 minutes on a New York subway platform in July. I’m talking about what my Ashkenazi forbears called a shvitz—a relaxing interlude of lolling sweatily in a very hot room, usually naked, often surrounded by strangers.
Now, steam baths have been around since the dawn of civilization. Whether it’s the saunas of Finland, the hamams of the Middle East, the thermae of the Roman Empire, the sweat lodges of Native American tribes or my personal favorite, the Russian & Turkish Baths in New York’s East Village, people have been united for millennia in their shared desire to sit and sweat. And while most of my friends think gathering naked with strangers in a 100 degree plus room is icky, for me, this ancient pastime has all kinds of modern pleasures.
For starters, it’s good for you. Thousands of years ago, the Greek physician Hippocrates wrote glowingly—no pun intended—of how steam baths improved respiratory and immune function, relieved arthritis and aching muscles and generally contributed to a sense of health and well-being. For me, the most noticeable benefit is to my skin; regular visits to the steam room keep it dewy and acne-free in winter, despite the constant attacks of icy winds and drying radiator heat. Many doctors recommend regular shvitzing—either in a steam bath or sauna—as a way to detoxify, especially to rid the body of heavy metals (Jeremy Piven, take note!). The medical jury is still out on the specifics, but most of the research indicates that if you’re in good health, heat/steam therapy has many benefits. Also, if you lather up your hair with conditioner before you head into the steam room—instant hot oil treatment!
There’s also something wonderfully soothing about a steam room. I prefer steam to saunas. The dry air of the sauna parches my mouth and nose but the swirling, moist heat of the steam is refreshing and induces an almost trance-like state. You feel almost embryonic in a nice, dim steam room, lulled into a pleasant state of sensory deprivation where the only sound is the swish of your pulse in your eardrums and the drip, drip of water from the ceiling. For me, it’s the same kind of battery recharge my friends get from yoga or meditation.
Now, I’ve sung the benefits of shvitzing to many friends and gotten plenty of negative reactions. My female friends are often turned off by all the public nudity and the notion of sweating on purpose—eww! My straight male friends all look at me like I’m trying to drag them to an all-day Crisco-and-poppers festival at Pride Week. Personally, I’ve never seen anything even remotely sexual in all the years I’ve spent in women’s steam rooms, but I’ve had plenty of male friends, both gay and straight, tell horrified—or, in some cases, delighted—stories of sex, masturbation and indecent exposure at the men’s steam room of their local spa or health club. Based on such compelling eyewitness testimony, I will concede that there are pleasures (or perils) associated with shvitzing that I haven’t explored yet–and probably won’t.
Still, as old-school and seemingly silly as it is to sit in a hot room and sweat, I can guarantee that in practice, it’s sensual, relaxing, and you will feel better upon leaving the steam than you did upon entering. The ancients may have been wrong about some things, but they knew exactly what they were doing when they built those bathhouses.