woman wading in a bath house

Where My Worries Wash Away

Hot springs, saunas, and steam rooms don’t just relax me. They renew me.

I was raised in Michigan, where we had only Jacuzzis and gym saunas, the latter of which terrified me with the giant-font health warnings displayed on their doors. The idea of sitting around in a hot room with a bunch of sweaty, sometimes-naked strangers was not an appealing one, even if it was supposed to be good for you. Later in life, I spent time living on a New Zealand commune that came with a small Hobbit-esque sweat lodge. It may have been the ambience, or it may have been the delirious heat; all I can tell you is that, from that point on, I became the sort of person who enjoys sweating in the company of strangers.

Now, I’ve been to bathhouses from California to New York, Paris to Helsinki. Although each one has had its own distinct character reflective of the local culture, all of them have offered me one thing that is difficult, if not impossible, to find outside their walls: the opportunity for renewal against a backdrop of communal vulnerability. And, in doing so, some of those places have changed my life.

It’s happened where I least expected it. I didn’t, for example, go into the Russian & Turkish Baths in New York’s East Village expecting to find anything other than conditions that approximated a rush hour subway car with broken air conditioning: The 126-year-old facility is bare-bones, frequently crowded, and low on amenities. You can, however, pay someone to beat you with a broom made of oak leaves (the idea being that this platza treatment opens the pores and exfoliates the skin). The first time I went down the stairs to the sauna and steam room, I thought I was descending into hell. What I found instead was a group of my fellow New Yorkers, stripped of their clothing and defenses. We sat together, largely in silence, a still eye in the center of the city’s eternal storm. When I left, I finally had some understanding of how to live in New York. The key, I realized, was to periodically retreat behind a veil of steam so thick that the city couldn’t find you. Sweating out toxins is a myth—the body sweats to cool itself—but I believe that if you sit still long enough, you can sweat out your stress, and in its place remains the almost superhuman resilience required to resume daily life.  

Years later, in the wake of the breakup of a long-term relationship, I discovered my first hot spring during a trip to California. I had gone to Big Sur to try to fix my head and on my second night there drove south along the pitch-black Pacific Highway to the Esalen Institute, a nonprofit retreat with hot springs that offers special public hours between 1 and 3 a.m. The springs are perched on a cliff above the ocean; to experience them, you sit in a clawfoot tub and fill it with hot, faintly sulfurous water. The first time I did this, I watched the steam rise into the cold sky choked with stars and listened to the waves a few hundred feet below. In that moment, I came closer to finding God, or some version of God, than I ever had before—or have since. 

I wanted to recapture the crazed, transcendent beauty I had found in the springs, the sensation of hot water diluting my troubles until my mind resembled a calm, clear pool.

The Esalen springs, I told my next boyfriend, were my favorite place in the world. He took me seriously enough that, when we went there several years after my first visit, he got down on one knee and asked me to marry him. It was 2 a.m. and the stars were out. I said yes. How could I not?

As it turned out, there were some good reasons not to, and it was with the memory of Esalen in mind that I decided to flee New York for San Francisco after I broke off my engagement. I wanted to recapture the crazed, transcendent beauty I had found in the springs, the sensation of hot water diluting my troubles until my mind resembled a calm, clear pool.

I stayed in San Francisco for four years. Part of what sustained me was the reassuring proximity of Northern California’s many hot springs, though it was the Kabuki Springs & Spa baths in San Francisco’s urban Japantown that I visited most frequently.

As I had in New York, I sat among strangers in a state of stoic condensation, occasionally migrating from sauna to steam room to plunge pool. The Kabuki baths were utterly serene; there was a gong you could hit if anyone got too chatty. Where the Russian Baths had telegraphed endurance and Esalen cosmic spirituality, Kabuki radiated wellness, the sense that we were all just one 120-degree steam room away from achieving our better selves. Every one of us had set aside our schedules, phones, and inhibitions to pursue renewal in a shared space. In doing so, we had allowed ourselves to be open—to extreme temperatures, our physical limitations, and the proximity of other people’s mostly unclothed bodies. If that isn’t a prerequisite for self-betterment, I don’t know what is.

Rebecca Flint Marx is a Brooklyn-based writer and can be reached at rfmarxworks@gmail.com.

Illustration by Alex Green/Folio

Originally Published November 2018