Perfect Sweat Summit, an international congress of bathing experts and fellow travelers

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As mentioned previously, an exciting event happened recently in San Francisco at Archimedes Banya. This was the Perfect Sweat Summit, a gathering of sauna/banya/spa/sweat-lodge experts from around the world. Here are some thoughts and impressions on the Summit.

Back in 1978 Mikkel Aaland published a unique and important book: Sweat. This was a era when saunas and hot tubs were something of a fad along the same lines of water beds, pet rocks and roller skating. Mr. Aaland's book certainly exploited a trend but it pioneered new ground on something much more meaningful. Sweat wasn't simply a how-to book on saunas or hot tubs written for the benefit of pleasure-seeking baby boomers. It delved deeper and was the first book that really created a synthesis of an idea. This was that sweat bathing (and I think Mikkel gets credit here with popularizing this term) is a wide and, at least historically, surprisingly ubiquitous human tradition. He showed us that sweat bathing traverses the globe and is a integral part of many cultures on almost every continent. Hot tubbing and saunas may have been trending in the U.S. in the 1970s but the movement tapped into deep roots of what it meant to be a human. In many instances these practices had been forgotten as our world modernized with quick-and-easy morning showers.

Just as Carl Sagan (coincidently working around the same time Sweat was written) integrated up-to-date scientific information from a wide array of sources to show us the "big picture" of how we fit into the universe, Mikkel synthesized diverse knowledge to tell us an important story: sweat bathing is part of how many cultures have traditionally cleaned themselves, communed socially, and reconnected to being alive and human.

Tinygogo--as you, my dear reader, know--exists to evangelize these truths. But we are not alone. There are many who want to help rekindled these practices. And so, 36 years after the publication of Sweat, Mikkel Aaland used a similar holistic approach in conceiving the Perfect Sweat Summit. This time, instead of writing a book, Mikkel invited key thinkers/players from different disciplines to create a "think tank." These were folks whose practices may or may not intersect but still orbit around the same topic: sweat bathing.

We gathered at Archimedes Banya in San Francisco. It was an ideal setting (and I will discuss the facilities in a later post.) All of us just managed to squeeze into the cafe/bar area. We met for two days. Each morning after a light breakfast, we'd listen to a full-day's schedule of speakers. Every talk would be followed by questions which tended to turn into colloquium-style discussions. There was a lunch break, more talks, and in the evening we reconvened in the banya itself, getting down to the real stuff--the actual practice that we had been talking so much about.

To me, sitting quietly in the banya was where we really broke bread. There may not have been too much meaningful discourse but I think all of us shared "aha" moments. We were silently reminded that this was really what it was all about. It added strength to our conviction about how awesome sweat bathing can be. And this is important. 

The practice is such an intangible commodity. Weight loss? Not so much. It won't give you golden skin or rip your abs. Even for the initiated, it's hard to market an experience. You only know it's happening while you experience it.

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There would be too much to discuss here if I went over each individual speaker. (An annotated attendee list is here.) Instead there were some broad categories of discussion. The first and generally best represented, were the high priests of the sauna orthodoxy: the Finns. There was the president of the Finnish Sauna Society, the head of the International Sauna Association, a historian on Finnish sauna culture and the co-director of a movie of Finnish Saunas (Steam of Life.)

But there were also representatives of other sweating traditions: banya, hamam and sweat lodge. There were experts from the ancillary disciplines of balneology, hydrotherapy and spa therapy. There were scientists and academicians. There were authors. There were reporters, bloggers and enthusiasts. And there were owners and representatives of other West Coast public bathing facilities. (One from Russia too!)

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On the patio of Archimedes Banya with a couple of world sauna rock stars:
Mika Hotakainen, co-director of Steam of Life and Michael Nordskog, author of The Opposite of Cold
Some of the speakers were maybe more illustrious and/or experienced than others but I found that without exception every talk was beautiful and interesting. The warm congenial atmosphere made it easy for everyone to open up and share.

Mikkel, as chair and MC, gets credit for this but he had a tough job. He was constantly working to keep the discussion on track given time constraints, individual passions and full agenda. He handled it admirably, with kindness and alacrity and certainly a sense of vision as to where to direct discussion. 

I do want to mention a couple of speakers. These two were chosen to speak early in the schedule. To me they helped set the tone for what followed by providing an overall aesthetic, historical, and spiritual context to the gathering.

The first was Phil Cousineau. Phil is a well-established protégé of Joesph Campbell, best known for his film biography, The Hero's Journey. His discussion centered around some basic Joesph Campbell "101" hero's journey stuff but he tied this in with how humans have historically gathered around the fire. This to me really hit a nerve. It spoke to deep truths as to why many of us are attracted to the heat.

The other was Leonard Koren. When I first heard about the event I was particularly excited to read that Leonard Koren would be speaking. Mr. Koren is something of a personal hero and inspiration for this blog. He is perhaps best known for Wet, and the famous byline: The Magazine of Gourmet Bathing. But I also appreciate his later books, Undesigning the Bath, Wabi Sabi, and How to Take a Japanese Bath. In his talk, we were reminded how bathing is a space for quiet introspection and reflection. The sensual experience of the bath creates a mood of contemplation. Amen!

Behind our lofty enthusiasm there was another purpose for the Summit. This was to help launch a film series on world sweat bathing. It will have the same title as Mikkel's book, Sweat. Many of the speakers where individually interviewed on camera for the series. Maybe some of this footage will be used in the show? Maybe ideas will be harvested for use as building blocks for episodes?

What the series will be and how it will turn out is unclear. My sense is that a production crew will travel the world and explore--in some sort of documentary narrative--how different cultures sweat bathe. I'm pretty confident that after the Perfect Sweat Summit it won't get bogged down on "prefered sauna procedure" or with trendy lifestyle stuff. I'm really looking forward to it since it could rekindle a movement and, dare I say, awaken the consciousness of it's viewers.

My only hope is that Mikkel Aaland is a spokes person. In an homage to Carl Sagan, I picture him opening the series on a rocky California coast--perhaps while soaking in an open-air hot tub--expounding poetic on how a good sweat ties us in with deep currents of our human heritage.

News flash: historic Wilbur Hot Springs lodge burns


                                                                                                                     (photo, wilburhotsprings.com)

It's a sad day for soaking enthusiasts, particularly for those who live in Northern California. The main lodge of the wonderful historic, Wilbur Hot Springs (about two-hours north of San Francisco) has burned down.

Here's a link to the news story. It happened Saturday morning, March 29th, with fire crews being dispatched at around 10:40 am. No one appears to have been hurt.

I discovered Wilbur Hot Springs just recently. It was, thankfully, a minimally developed hot springs resort. The accommodations were simple, more like a bed and breakfast than a modern hotel. There was no restaurant, and blissfully, no TVs. It's main strength was how carefully the soaking area was constructed in relation to the natural surroundings and the old buildings. Wilbur offered world class mineral hot springs: outdoor soaking in hot water with high mineral content in a quiet and peaceful setting.

The springs soaking area does not appear to be affected by the fire but the lodge was a central part of the experience and identity of the facility. Even though it suffered from sometimes disjointed remodels and re-stylings, it remained a grand old historic building (1915). It's original construction must have been a considerable achievement given how isolated the location was at the time. The lodge was big and old and it had a very homey feel that included shared bunk rooms and a large communal kitchen and community dining areas. There was a pleasant congenial atmosphere to the space where guests from around the world felt welcome to sit in the library and dining areas and talk with each other. 

I was impressed with how the facility was off-grind and powered entirely (I think year round) with photovoltaic solar panels. The communal kitchen had something like four or five very high-efficiency Sun Frost refrigerators for guest use.

While the old lodge can never be replaced, we hope that something similar will re-open so the soaking can go on. 


Sauna in Cinema, Asi Nisi Masa! The truth of bathing in Federico Fellini's 8½



Poor Guido Anselmi. He’s having a crisis, a midlife crisis, something akin to a nervous breakdown.  He, the main character as played by Marcello Mastroianni, is in the midst of  a new film project. He's forced to take an emergency hiatus to attend to his stress. He checks into a hot springs health spa, an old-school European variety. Mineral water and sweat bathing are his therapy and they are a reoccurring theme throughout Federico Fellini’s film: .





One of the best bathing scenes is where the patients slowly walk down a set of stairs into Hades-like vapor baths, woman on the left, men on the right. Does anyone know if this was a real place? Some actual European health spa or just a set?






On to the movie:



The opening is a dream sequence where Guido is having a claustrophobic panic attack. He's trapped in a traffic jam, he floats away from it all, soaring through the sky. Abruptly he is pulled back to earth by people who must see him. He crashes into the ocean and wakes from the dream in the dark room of his resort hotel. 

Immediately he is assaulted by outside influences. His intellectual friend finds him and begins to pick apart his movie. Likewise, a doctor and nurse enter to fuss over him. The doctor dictates his daily regimen to one of the nurses: “Breathe. Your system is a bit worn out. You may get dressed now…This treatment will do you good. You’ll see. Nurse: 300 ml of holy water, 3 doses to be taken at 15 minute intervals, on an empty stomach. Mud bath every other day. After the mud bath, ten minutes in the mineral water as prescribed.” Will the treatment do him good? Yes and no. It was close but not exactly what he needed.

Later Guido makes it out into the sun to take his water. As part of his spa cure he waits in line with others, mostly old people, to drink mineral water from the spring’s fountains. 


Here he has a vision of female essence in the form of actress, Claudia Cardinali. She comes walking out of the woods, an embodiment of feminine grace, serenity and beauty. He is distracted by this hallucination momentarily when he notices that he's at the front of the line.


He reaches out to take his glass of water--and there she is again--serving him with a smile. He looks again and it is a different woman. The vision has past.

This is his cure. It’s a symbolically loaded scene. All of the people waiting in line, geriatrics and clergy are dead to the world. They underscore the banality of the spa. The process is a farce. Yet his vision of femininity and water, and later bathing, represent his lost deepest truth.
 


Notice the placement of hands on Claudia. She runs through the woods toward Guido like this. It’s weird. But, none the less, we see it again here in a fantasy dream sequence where Guido is bathed by all of the woman in his life: former girl friends, wife and mistresses. His hands are in the same position. Could it be that Guido is seeking a union with his lost Jungian anima? This is why he is not whole.



Clearly Felini is saying something here. There was a previous bathing sequence, a flashback memory of Guido as a young boy. It’s bed time and the children are bathed and tucked in for bed. Tuck, tuck, tuck. He’s safe and cozy, in a state of singularity with life. This is a mental state Guido has lost in his life, the stress of his job, and the incessant intrusion by others has wiped this away.

The memory was triggered when he overheard some old childhood words, "Asi Nisi Masa." I read elsewhere that the first syllable of each word combined creates the word "anima." 

Does the movie have a resolution? Does Guido find his peace? Hard to say. In the end, Guido takes a gun from a potential rival for his wife and, during a press conference, climbs under a table and shots himself in the head. The death is a release and he awakens to a world where everyone is dressed in white. The clowns are in charge now. All of the people in his life are as equals, free of judgement and joyful. All join hands in a circle and dance as Nina Rota's wonderful carnival music plays.

Maybe he just needed a good bath?



Perfect Sweat Summit



This is happening! While the rest of you suckers are toiling away at your desks, a select group of inspired thinkers, free spirits and artist-types will attend a special conclave in San Francisco to share stories, science and insight into one of life's most important topics: how to have a good sweat.

This will be the Perfect Sweat Summit and it will be held at Archimedes Banya in San Francisco March 11th and 12th.

Archimedes Banya is a fantastic facility. (I will write about it in a future post.) The building is an entirely from-the-ground-up bespoke design for the purposes of quality sweat bathing. It includes hot pools, a Finnish sauna, a three-story traditional Russian public-style banya and a steam room. Best of all, there is a fantastic 40 degree-ish cold plunge pool. The upper stories have a cafe/gathering space and there is a nice patio which overlooks San Francisco and the Bay. You couldn't pick a better spot for a gathering of sweat enthusiasts. 

Here is a list of the attending luminaries:

Organizer/Moderator
  • Mikkel Aaland, author of Sweat
Presenters

Doug and Erin's wood-fired hot tub revised, now with sauna!

A few years ago I shared a popular post about my friends' do-it-yourself wood-fired hot tub. Since that time Doug and Erin had a kid and moved to a more rural setting. They brought their hot tub with them but Doug re-did the DIY, creating a new structure that doubles as a hot tub cover and backyard sauna.


The outdoor sauna/hot tub structure is small, simple and elegantly conceived. Situated on the edge of their lot next to the forest, it's a wonderful setting. Imagine the bliss of having a completely silent soak in the dark while taking in the sights, smells and sounds of the surrounding forest. 
 

Here you can see how the 300 gallon Rubbermaid stock tank sits on a pad of gravel. A fair amount of water gets displaced when four people soak. The gravel keeps the surrounding area from getting muddy. 

There is a separate pad for the Chofu stove. Originally Doug had the stove inside the sauna. His idea was to have the Chofu heater double as a sauna heater. It was a great idea. Unfortunately, in spite of the small sauna, the Chofu was just too efficient at pumping heat into the water and not into the surrounding air. It didn't do a very good job at heating the sauna space. Because of this, Doug added a small wood stove to the sauna space and moved the Chofu outside.


The inside of the sauna has a new replacement wood burning stove. It's a small and inexpensive stove but cranks out plenty of heat for the small space. If he wants a quick sweat without the time and effort required to heat up 300 gallons of water, Doug fires up the sauna. It takes only about 20 minutes to get hot.


The entrance to the sauna is this nice old salvaged four-panel door. There are two little tea light candle lanterns that serve to light the outside at night. Behind the lanterns are two glass bottle windows like this one:


The bottle glass windows are a wonderful feature. Doug found nice blue bottles and a bottle cutter for cutting the bottles in half.




 This is what they look like on the inside.




Another addition is the old clawfoot tub that's used as a dunk tank. It's pictured here with a plywood cover.

Theo asks if the water is hot yet.

Tinygogo goes on sabbatical

It's time for a break in life. I have an taxing job where I'm forced to get face to face with people living on the edge. 

For the next month or two I will be in Alaska getting away from it all and soaking up the darkness and peace and quiet. While away I hope to get some good saunas sessions in, work on my own sauna and do some writing. 

An historical sketch, steam baths in Portland, Oregon circa 1956

One hundred years ago, here in Portland, Oregon, what did people do to get clean if they didn't have access to a bathtub? It’s easy to lose sight of how Portland was a western frontier town and what this meant in the ordinary lives of someone living downtown. Even though we see (and some of us even use) the same turn-of-the-century buildings, how people lived in them has changed markedly.

In the late-1800s as downtown Portland grew, innumerable single room occupancy hotels (SROs) were built to house the droves of itinerant workers: farmers, sailors, longshoremen, miners, loggers, fishermen and cannery workers--who all needed a short-term place to live between seasons or jobs. The SRO hotel was a good fit for these working men. It was something more than a typical hotel room but not a full fledged apartment. 

A single room might consist of--depending on when it was built and what someone was willing to pay--a single corner sink, central heat and/or rudimentary electricity. Most came with simple furnishings: a bed, easy chair and table. If there was plumbing, more often than not these buildings had a shared commode down the hall and a separate shared bathtub room.  

With the older buildings, indoor plumbing was iffy. It was either too expensive when the hotel was first constructed or it came along shortly after completion. Plumbing may have been retrofitted after construction, with added supply and waste chases in a building's light well or in the back. Indoor plumbing, after all, wasn’t really established in new construction here in the West until around the 1890s and 1900s.

Even if a given SRO building was appointed with a shared bath it's a safe guess that it was either crowded or just plain too gross to use. What if lumberjack Sven was too dainty to wash up in a clawfoot tub coated with multiple other residents’ accumulated dirt and sebaceous grime? So where would a humble, honest and hard-working man go to clean up if he lived in a building that either didn’t have a bath or it was too filthy to consider?

Enter the public steam bath. What a public steam bath was exactly remains unclear but it was a business where a working man could go to get really clean, this probably included some age-old righteous sweating. Still what was it? Was it a steam room, sauna, or multiple bath tubs. 

Even if we don't (yet) know exactly, Portland had a number of bath houses to serve the itinerant working population. We know this because they were listed in the phone books.

I took a brief trip to the downtown Multnomah County Library to look in the phone directories to see what existed. From my first cursory investigation I looked up “steam bath,” “sauna,” and “bath house” in the Yellow Pages. I checked books from a few decades, 1956, 1963, 1973, and 1983. Everything I found was listed under "steam bath." So "steam bath" was the proper vehicular for a bath house sixty years ago and probably earlier.

In 1956 a number of steam baths from at least the 1920s were still in business. (Nothing listed in the 1983 directory is still open today.) Below I list everything from 1956. I figured by using this year there was a good chance that there would be a link between the original business/structure from the steam bath's heyday and a structure which would still be standing. Later I hit the pavement and sought out the original locations for the 1956 businesses. Surprisingly--with the exception of a "ladies" steam bath that listed an in determinant address--all of the buildings are still standing!

Here are they are:

Finnish Public Steam Baths, 304 NW Flanders, was in the basement of the Royal Palms Hotel.
The Royal Palms Hotel still exists as a hotel of sorts. It now serves low-income residents in a mental health program. The structure was built in 1913. 


At some point this brass plaque was installed in the sidewalk on Flanders just outside the old entrance. 



McMahon's Steam Bath, "Since 1906," was possibly the longest-running public bath house in Portland.
It was located at the corner of SW 4rd and Washington. By the 1980s it was a gay bath house, Olympic Steam Bath. Later it became a restaurant, the Greek Cusina, famous for it's giant inflatable purple octopus on the outside of the building and flouting building codes. You can still see some purple paint on the corner of the building where the octopus was.

McMahon’s Steam Baths was at 509 SW 4th Avenue so the entrance was probably just to the right of the woman's head (in the foreground). 

The structure was built in 1898. It's presently for sale. It is supposed to have a number of building violations. Hopefully it can be rehabilitated. It's surprisingly modern-looking for 1898 and seems to be a fairly sound, but who can say?




Sanitary Steam Baths was at 1005 N Failing. The structure was built in 1924.
While it was not in downtown Portland, it's close and it was in the heart of what was originally Albina, a working-class city which in 1898 was incorporated into Portland (now inner North and Northeast Portland.)

Albina is remembered as an immigrant community. There was a large group of Volga Germans who came from the Volga region of Russia. It also had a sizable Polish community. The Volga region of Russia is the heart of banya country. It's a safe bet that Sanitary Steam Baths served immigrants who knew and loved banyas. 

Albina is often sited of a classic example of the disruptive effects of 1950s/60s urban renewal era--a time when planners ruthlessly drew plans on maps and mowed through entire communities. 

In this photo to the left in the background is the sound wall of Interstate 5. You have to wonder if Sanitary Steam Baths was part of the "social glue" of the immigrant community of Albina, a place where men and maybe even families would gather on a weekly basis to chit chat and network in the sacred ritual of bathing. I-5 represented progress and modernization. Implicitly, part of the "progress" message was to underscore how older ethnic traditions were no longer desired. The noise and sight of I-5, with cars racing to and fro, was probably a stark reminder to the locals that their bathing tradition was outmoded. This says nothing of the destruction of so many nearby houses and putting up a physical barrier to half of Sanitary Steam Baths customers.



Moving back into NW Portland, there was Luoma’s Steam Baths at 825 NW 16th Avenue (built 1904).
The building is still there. Initially, judging by it's appearance, I thought maybe the structure had been lifted and a new foundation added sometime more recently. The stairs for example are obviously much newer. I looked more closely (by sneaking a look at the side of the building) and the foundation seems original. I bet the steam baths were on ground level.

Luoma is a Finnish surname. Was this another Finnish sauna? Was Louma's in another ethnic working-class enclave? It's not too far from the Royal Palms Hotel, home of Finnish Public Steam Baths (as above). 

Looking at this photo, you can see the brick Radio Cab building (a fun place to buy gas downtown) in the back ground to the left. To the right is I-405, the business loop through downtown Portland that was constructed along with I-5. Louma Steam Baths is listed in the 1963 phone book but I did not find it in the 1973 book. Was it another victim of Interstate urban renewal?  


Thompson Mineral Baths (also called Any Hot Springs) was at 1524 NW 23rd (built 1908).
Even though this in now a high-rent district, gentrification was a relatively recent development. Prior to the 1990s, trendy Northwest 23rd was a decidedly working-class neighborhood, albeit more family oriented, with fully-appointed apartment buildings and single family homes instead of SROs. 

This building has an older retrofitted entrance from the front sidewalk to the basement. This was almost certainly where patrons entered to get a steam/bath. 
I went into the Headtrip Salon, the hair salon in the basement unit. I asked the owner if there had ever been a sauna in the space. She said that she took the property over from an Eastern European woman in the 1990s. I got the sense the space had been vacant for a while. The hearsay was that sometime before the space was reoccupied it had indeed provided spa sauna services. 

There were a couple of other entries from the 1956 phone book. One was Solvik Health Center located at 5736 N Greely. It's a ways out in North Portland. As with the other listings the building still stands and it remained listed under "steam bath" in the 1973 phone book so it was around for at least 17 years. (It could have opened much earlier than 1956 and closed later than 1973.) Solvik Health Center wasn't in the 1983 phone book.

The other listing was Alice Robertson "since 1919, ladies only." The address was rather ambiguously listed as the "Morgan Building." Was this in Morgan's Alley just off of Broadway? The fact that it was around for so long and that the location information is not so specific suggests that this was a place for prostitutes to go to unwind and get cleaned up.

Clearly more investigation is called for! Again this is just a snap shot of what there was in 1956. In the interest documenting this matter of vital historical importance more research must be done. I'm hoping that Tinygogo can access the inside of some of these buildings to see if any remnants of Portland's original steam baths remain.