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Shvitzing it Out

New York Press

August 8, 2007

Naked, sweaty transcendence at the Tenth Street Baths

“Inga!” shouts a naked woman, hoisting a bucket of cold water above her shoulder.
A full-bodied Russian woman lying prone on a wooden slab moves her head groggily in acknowledgement of her name. The bucket tilts.
Inga moans unabashedly as cold water hits her back and runs over her butt. As the water heats up to the temperature of the room, Inga’s moaning trails off. Her head returns to its original position, forehead pressed onto a wet beige towel. Without a word Inga goes back to what she was doing: sweating.
I absorb the scene from across the sauna through half-lidded eyes. We are in the Russian Sauna, familiarly referred to as The Fiery Pit of Hell, the hottest of the four rooms steaming underneath East 10th Street. This century-old cave is heated by an oven filled with 20,000 pounds of rock that have been cooked overnight. The rocks give off a radiant heat so intense that when I first walked in I involuntarily covered my face.
There is a warning on the door not to exceed half an hour, but I can’t touch that. Five minutes in, my synapses seem to be firing at half speed. My self-consciousness over looking like a newcomer here has been replaced by grogginess and a vague worry that I will pass out, desiccate and die. My head is heavy and I feel vaguely stoned.
It takes me a moment, therefore, to process what I’ve just seen. Imitating Inga’s friend, I make my way to the white pails overflowing with icy water flowing from two taps. I lift and tilt.
If you’ve ever jumped from a hot tub directly into snow, this sensation is a lot like that, except without the painful pins and needles. There is a moment of complete numbness that encompasses mind as well as body, as if your soul is hovering just above the place where you are standing, followed by an overwhelming sensation of relief in which all your muscles melt to the consistency of marshmallow toffee.
Just like that, I had happened upon a portal to emotional nothingness – that state you aim for when you’re tossing and turning at night trying to turn your brain off. And the release could be replicated, I quickly learned, just by moving from sauna to ice cold bath to steam room to shower, until you feel like a tortured Goldilocks who wants nothing more than to find the middle ground between too hot and too cold.
If $30 for a day pass seems like a lot to be spending on self-pampering, you can rest assured you’re not paying any extra for friendly service. It’s off-putting how the men behind the front desk gruffly leave it to you to figure out protocol, letting you guess at the purpose of the key they’ve handed you (it’s for your locker, and you can also charge food, drinks and massages to your key number), and where to disrobe (one old woman with scoliosis exited the locker room naked and grimaced when she came face to face with a man sweeping the floor).

Shuffling around in my blue robe and white plastic slippers marked with someone else’s initials, with my locker key hanging from a thick rubber band around my arm, I’d felt at first like a patient in a mental hospital who’d accidentally wandered away from her bloc.
But there’s nothing like group nudity to remove interpersonal barriers. I’d purposely come on Wednesday morning, because between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. the baths are open only to women. That means you get to be naked, an opportunity that doesn’t present itself nearly often enough in the adult workaday world. (It’s men-only on Sundays from 7:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.).
In short order I found myself smearing mud, allegedly from the Dead Sea, on the back of a new friend with two nose rings and a long tattoo running down her hip. I accepted a container half-full of mango from a small Jewish lesbian sporting a faux-hawk. I got shushed by a stately woman in an African turban when my conversation with a belly-dancer who grew up in a town near mine got too animated.
I wondered to myself if she would have asked the Russian regulars to gossip in six-inch voices, but I was just as glad not to speak. It’s better to lie silent, like Inga, and make noise only when the cold water moves you.