I was feeling old in December. Not "wise" old, not "old soul" old, but "everything hurts" old. I think part of this stems from a return to more regular physical labor. I've been doing some building projects at home, which have included activities like overhead sheetrocking, stooped installation of wood floors, and the lifting and carrying of heavy objects. All of this would, no doubt, be of little impact to a younger man's body, or even to an older man's body accustomed to such efforts. But I've been working in software for 14 years, and software, I'm here to tell you friends, makes you soft. My body, over the course of the month, became a sorry collection of painpoints: a captured nerve somewhere under my left shoulder blade, stiff legs, sore lower back...I felt like Indiana Jones after his successful recapture of the Ark of the Covenant. "It's the not the years, honey, it's the miles..."
I'm feeling much better now, as my body is beginning to get used to the new routines. But I've also committed to some wellness activities in this year, and yesterday that included a trip to Banya 5. Or, to put it another way, a spa day.
I have to admit I have struggled to come to admit to being a guy with "spa day" in my vocabulary. There's no good reason for this -- just a holdover of some Puritan/Western states ethos about suffering, masculinity, and silent endurance. Self-care doesn't really rate high on the list of values in that cultural corner. But expand the cultural reference points a bit, and the regular use of water, heat, and steam show up pretty quickly. The Finns, Norwegians, and Swedes have sauna baked into their culture. For the Japanese, the onsen and the mushiburo. For many Native American cultures, the sweat lodge. Mikkel Aaland, a photographer and writer, spent years studying and photographing the many cultural manifestations of sweat baths. You can find a trove of images and information on his website. Among them you'll find the Russian "bania," a bathhouse/steamroom tradition. The urban spa Banya 5, located near the south end of Lake Union in Seattle, is a modern incarnation of this tradition.
The concept is compact and simple. The relatively small building houses changing rooms for men and women, which lead into a common room containing a small hot tub, a steam room, a dry heat sauna (parilka), a small cold water pool, and a small tepid salt water pool. A few shower heads are positioned in the corners as well. Customers make a circuit of the pools and rooms. I start in the hot tub, then the steam room, then the dry sauna -- a trio of heating experiences that brings me right to the edge of my heat tolerance, and produces sweating and elevated heartrate (among other desirable outcomes). When I can't stand the heat, it's into the cold water plunge, which is shocking enough to elicit spontaneous yelps from a few of the patrons. Then the tepid pool, with enough salinity to make you feel nearly weightless. After the cold water plunge the tepid pool (87 degrees Fahrenheit) feels perfectly comfortable. My body activity slows back down a bit, I enjoy the tingling sensation in my skin, and I relax completely. Then back into the hot water tub to start the circuit over. After a few rounds of this I might retreat upstairs where large urns of icewater and hot tea are available. All of these activiites are purported to produce a wide range of health benefits. They certainly leave me with fewer aches and pains.
All of this may sound luxurious, and "spa" is often a word mixed in with other luxury goods and services -- an indulgence reserved for the affluent. But this, again, seems to be a peculiarly American framing of this wellness practice. Happily, Banya 5 offers an "early bird" special a couple days of the week. For $25 I can spend as many hours as I like (or can tolerate) in their facility, as long as I check in before 2pm. My wellness goal is to hit the steam twice a month. That's pretty affordable healthcare. And it scores well on the "real things" index: water, a bit of village (these are community bath houses, after all), and it connects with tried and true multi-cultural traditions.
A quote from one of Aaland's articles to leave you with:
I remarked about the Russians' good health and Mrs. Markov broke out in a big grin. "If I could give any advice to your Americans, I would say. that if you are feeling sick, take a hot bania, drink a little vodka, and by all means, be happy! That is the Russian, way."