By Darren Buford
Originally published in Body Sense magazine, August/Winter 2005.
When you’re exercising or working diligently, you probably give little thought to the perspiration your body is emitting (except for acknowledging the need for a shower afterward). But behind that odor and sticky shirt are immeasurable benefits for body, mind, and spirit. Perhaps that’s why for thousands of years cultures around the world have tried to harness the power found in perspiring.
As Americans, when we think of sweating, we usually only consider the active experience brought on by activity. But in many societies, sweating is a sought-after passive experience induced through various mediums known as sweat bathing.
Take for instance the Finnish saunas, Native American sweat lodges, and Russian banyas. These facilities are not only means for cleansing the physical body, but are seen as instruments for relaxation and as symbols of transformation — a cleansing of the mind as well.
Sweat bathing has even been hailed by traditional medicine as a way to prevent or control certain ailments such as acne, arthritis, psoriasis, and colds and flu. In addition, sweating can also help create a lush complexion, stimulate the cardiovascular system, and flush toxins from the body.
“The sweat itself is filled with contaminants,” says Mikkel Aaland, author of Sweat. “It’s a great way of ridding the body of things such as lead, mercury, and nickel that wouldn’t otherwise be eliminated through other processes.”
How Does It Work?
The ancient physician Hippocrates claimed, “Give me the power to create a fever, and I shall cure any disease.” This artificial fever of which Hippocrates speaks is achieved by raising the body’s temperature above its normal 98.6 F. At higher temperatures, the body experiences mild hyperthermia, which increases the circulation of blood throughout the body, increases lymphatic drainage, and increases white blood cell count, thus empowering the body’s immune system.
Pulse rate increases from 75 beats per minute to between 100–150 beats per minute during a 15–20 minute sweat bath, according to the International Steam Therapy Association. “This increases blood circulation but not blood pressure, since the heat also causes the tiny blood vessels in the skin to expand, accommodating the increased blood flow.”
From Finland to Russia
• Sauna. If you’re looking for ways to indulge in sweat bathing, look no further than the most popular and abundant facility in the United States, the sauna. This familiar wood structure heated with rocks over a single stove is often something found in spas, gyms, and recreation centers. Aaland says more heat is drawn out of the body during a sauna session than a steam room session because it is drier. But a sauna is not to be confused with a dry room. “That’s an anathema,” Aaland says. “The idea of going into an extremely dry room with no humidity is not acceptable in Finland,” where the sauna originates. “It’s just not healthy. Your mucous membranes dry out and you can damage tissue.”
One important trait of all saunas is the combination of low humidity through dry heat with bursts of high humidity, which comes from throwing water on hot rocks. (If your local sauna has an electric heater, do not throw water onto it, as it may damage the equipment. Instead, humidity can also be created inside the sauna by intermittently throwing water against the walls.)
• Sweat Lodges. These dome-shaped structures made from willow branches and tarpaulins are heated using stones placed into a fire pit. It’s fairly common for the ceremony to last four rounds, often taking anywhere from two hours to half a day. But the sweat lodge most differs from the sauna in its symbolism and spiritually transformative properties. Peter Blum, leader of a sweat lodge at New Age Health Spa in Neversink, N.Y., says, “It is not only a physical purification but a sacred ceremony handed down. It’s a place people go to pray, for vision, for clarity.”
• Banyas. The banya has more in common with the Finnish sauna, but also combines a steam bath and massage in order to provide an intense body cleanse. Treatments begin with a brief sauna warm-up, followed by a steam room where aromatics such as lavender and eucalyptus are used for respiratory purposes. Then, dried oak and birch leaves are used to tap against the client’s body to stimulate the skin, followed by the application of pure honey to the body to provide protection. After the honey is washed from the body, a bodywork session follows. Finally, the body is cleaned by the application of cool water to wash away all that has been released through the pores.
A Word of Caution
Each person takes to sweat bathing differently, so it’s important to understand your limits. “I would caution people who have respiratory illnesses not to overdo saunas, or if you have extreme heart conditions,” Aaland says. “Whenever the body is under the influence of illness, and the body is weaker, you’ll want to modulate your bathing and contact your doctor first.”
Counter to what most physicians say, Aaland suggests that while it is fine for women who are pregnant to enter the sauna, time must be considerably shortened, with most women only enjoying the sauna for less than 10 minutes at a time. Aaland also recommends not sweat bathing immediately after eating or drinking alcohol. Also, children should not enter a sauna without adult supervision.
Overall, sweat bathing is a terrific complement to massage and bodywork. Together, circulation can be improved, dangerous toxins can be eliminated, the skin can be cleansed, and the body can relax. For rejuvenation of mind, body, and spirit, it’s hard to beat a good sweat.