The Sweat Bath—Then and Now
FOR centuries various cultures have enjoyed sweat baths. Some of the many types of sweat baths are the inipi of the North American Indians, the bania of the Russians, the hamman of the Turks, and the mushiburo of the Japanese.
There were also the baths of ancient Rome, which included a hot room and a steam room. Among the most beautiful and luxurious of the Roman baths that have been unearthed are the Caracalla baths. These covered 28 acres [11 ha] and could accommodate 1,600 bathers.
We invite you to examine two kinds of sweat baths still in use today. One is the temescal of Mexico. The other is the Finnish sauna, and after reading about it, you just might want to try it!
The pre-Hispanic temescal of Mexico was used by the Aztecs, the Zapotec, the Mixtec, and the Maya for therapeutic and purification purposes—coming-of-age rites, childbirth, the burial of a relative, and other tribal ceremonies. Temescal comes from the indigenous Nahuatl word temazcalli, meaning “bathhouse.” The temescal was a rectangular or round adobe structure with a vaulted roof. In it volcanic rocks were heated, and steam was produced by throwing herbal teas, such as rosemary and eucalyptus, on the rocks. The bather was gently whipped with ritual or medicinal plants, and the ceremony was ended by aspersion with cold water.
The Spanish friars fought against this custom during the viceroyalty because they considered mixed-gender bathing inappropriate. Nevertheless, the temescal survived and is still used in certain parts of Mexico, mainly for bathing, for alleviating illness, or for recovery after childbirth. However, there is an increasing interest in reviving the traditional religious aspects of the temescal as part of the country’s heritage.
The Finnish Sauna
Perhaps the best-known sweat bath is the Finnish sauna. In fact, “sauna” is a Finnish word. The sauna has been in existence for some 2,000 years, the earliest consisting of a crudely covered hole in the ground with a fire pit in the center or the corner. Outdoor cabin-type saunas appeared in the early 12th century C.E.
In modern Finland the average home has a sauna, paneled with wood and heated electrically or by firewood. Wood-burning saunas are still very common in cabins and rural areas. Whether electric or wood burning, the stoves are topped with a bed of rocks. Bathers then increase the humidity by throwing water on the heated stones with a ladle. An important difference between a Finnish sauna and the Roman or Turkish baths is that most saunas are paneled with and furnished with wood. Because wood is a poor heat conductor, high temperatures can be achieved without bathers getting burned by the benches, rails, or walls.
The sauna is so much a part of Finnish culture that there is 1 sauna for every 3 Finns, according to estimates. Most Finns take a sauna about once a week. While enjoying summer vacations, often at a lake, many take a sauna almost every day! Usually the bathers alternate between the hot sauna and a swim in the cool lake waters. For those who enjoy this back-and-forth sauna ritual all year round, there are plenty of saunas located near frozen bodies of water, where a hole in the ice is kept open for quick dips.
Health Benefits of the Sweat Bath
The Finns have long been advocates of the sauna for its health benefits. A Finnish proverb says: “The sauna is the poor man’s apothecary.ʺ Indeed, in addition to being a bathing room, the sauna served as a kind of hospital and maternity ward until the 19th century.
A typical sauna lasts about 10 to 15 minutes a session at 180 to 212 degrees Fahrenheit [80-100 degrees Celsius]. Many bathers enjoy repeated sessions, resting or showering in between. Stimulated by the heat, blood flow is increased, the pores are opened, and wastes such as lactic acid are excreted, producing a cleansing or detoxifying effect. A sauna is often taken to relieve aches and pains after exercise and to bring relief from allergies, colds, and arthritic pain. Although there are mixed opinions about these health benefits, sauna enthusiasts say that such a bath does create a feeling of well-being, a sensation of lightness and cleanness. Some enjoy a sauna at the end of the day for its relaxing and sedative effect. Others find that alternating between hot and cold is rejuvenating and thus prefer it during the day. *
Saunas are becoming ever more popular throughout the world, especially in hotels and sports facilities. A word of caution: Unfortunately, in some countries the term “sauna” is used to designate certain places of prostitution. Hence, make sure that the sauna you visit is a real one, used for decent purposes.
In some places saunas are not operated properly. For instance, if a stove does not have an adequate amount of rocks and water is thrown on it, this could result in a rapid surge of steam that could prove uncomfortable. Also, the water could leak onto the fire or electrical coils and eventually damage the stove. Hence, always make sure that the manufacturer’s instructions are followed and that the sauna is kept clean and is properly ventilated. If you have access to one that meets these requirements, you may wish to try this ancient yet modern bath.
^ par. 14 If you are elderly or pregnant or have heart problems, consult a doctor before taking a sauna.
[Box/Pictures on page 23]
Tips for Sauna Bathing
● Avoid alcohol and heavy meals before the sauna.
● Begin with a shower.
● Sit on a towel.
● Remember that the lower the bench, the cooler the temperature.
● Adjust humidity by throwing small amounts of water on the stones of the stove.
● Do not engage in competitions in which bathers dare one another into enduring extremely high temperatures or dangerously long sessions.
● Finish with a cool shower.
[Picture on page 21]
Baths of Caracalla in Rome
Courtesy of James Grout/ Soprintendenza Archeologica di Roma
[Picture on page 21]
A “temescal” sweat bath