Thursday, February 08, 2007

What health clubs were before health clubs were gyms

Two weeks ago, I went to the Tenement Museum and saw what life was like for downtown New Yorkers back around the Turn of the Century (by which I mean, the late 1800's to the early 1900's). The next day, it was the more-than-100-year old Katz's Deli. Yesterday, I paid a visit to the Russian & Turkish Baths at 268 East 10th Street. They opened in 1892 and haven't been renovated since. And that's just fine.

I must confess that until earlier this week, I was not even aware that such things still existed in this day and age. But on Monday, following practice, a few of us went to B Cup (a.k.a. East Village Cafe) for a little chai and sympathy regarding the bitter, biting cold biting cold spell to which we have been subjected of late, and there, the idea was tossed about that perhaps a trip to the baths would be good for dispelling all that "vata" that's been building up in our bodies. (if you don't know what vata is, then for these purposes, just think about how your body feels when you are continuously subjected to brutal, bitter cold: your joints stiffen, your muscles feel rigid, your skin feels dry, you feel dehydrated, depleted, less vibrant, less energized)

Most days, the baths are co-ed (and most definitely not naked). Two days of the week are reserved for men's only and ladies' only. Sunday's is for men only. Wednesday is reserved for the ladies. I can't tell you what goes on on Sundays, but I can tell you that on Wednesdays, it's a big ole droopy boob fest. And that is just fine. More on that later.

So, for the uninitiated, what exactly ARE the baths? Well, traditionally, the baths were a place where people who didn't have showers and bathtubs in their tenement apartments could go and get good and clean: sweat, rinse, repeat. But in this day and age, I would have to say that the baths are a place to sweat without working out. So first, you have what I like to call "Hot". Hot is what is referred to as the "Swedish Steam Room", except that it more closely resembles a modern sauna: wood paneled, electric heat, not terribly hot. Then there's what I can only call "Hotter". By "Hotter", I am referring to what the Bath House calls the "Turkish Steam Room", which again, more resembles a modern sauna than a modern steam room. Although the walls are tiled, the benches are made of wood. So, unlike a fully-tiled modern steam room, you can lie down comfortably and enjoy the scent of eucalyptus mingled with the clean semi-dry heat. Although the heat is intense, it's bearable, and even moreso after a quick dousing under the cold shower, which you operate by pulling a string.

And then there's the Oven. Well, that's what I call it. The Bath House calls it the "Russian Sauna". But seriously, it really is like a giant pizza oven - cavelike, wall to wall, floor to ceiling stone, and with heat so intense that as I walked in the door, it felt as if my corneas were burning, and I hadn't even taken my hand off the door. Across the room, women were filling up white buckets with ice cold water they poured from faucets built into the walls. It's not a large room, but it felt like 100 miles stood between me and those faucets, and from the second I walked into that room, my only task at hand was getting myself to those faucets so I could fill up a bucket, douse my towel and wrap it around me, like a turkey, to keep my skin from browning too quickly.

The "ladies" that I came with had been to the Baths before. They showed me how you go from room to room, and in between, you sit by the ice-cold dunking pool and cool off. No one was in the dunking pool, although I did dip my feet and slather some of the water on my wrists and neck.

Just to be clear, nothing at the Bath House looked like this:

And you know that Sex and the City episode where the girls take a sauna together, and Charlotte is embarassed to remove her towel because she doesn't like her body? Well, it wasn't anything like that either.

The vast majority of bodies around me were gloriously imperfect. And naked as a jay bird. Except for me and my two shala mates, that is. We three were the only women who covered our bits in bikinis. Well, there was the one young woman whom I met in the Oven who wore a bikini bottom.

Most of the women were much older than me. Most had breasts that drooped towards their waists, their nipples pointing downward towards the floor. But I didn't see a single mastectomy scar. Not a one. Nor did I see anyone who didn't even HAVE nipples. I wondered if I could bear to be fully naked in a room where nakedness is not a big deal but not having nipples still might be (I still plan on getting nipples one of these days, but I haven't gotten around to it yet). It's a terrifying thought - me being the only woman, in a room full of naked imperfection, who might be seen as freakish by the others.

But enough about that, let's talk about the bikini line. Most of the women sported, shall we say, the full bush. I can't remember the last time I've seen a full bush. But there you have it, alongside the landing strips, the soul patch, the Brazilian. Every variation of bikini wax or not. And then there were me and my shala mates - dressed for the beach. I can't see that changing. But then, I've been known to be wrong.

I should mention that at the Baths, you get a bathrobe, flipflops, unlimited towels and a locker. Now, don't go thinking that the bathrobe is by Frette, the flipflops are terrycloth, the towels are soft, fluffy and white and the locker is, well, anything like what you think of as a locker. Instead, the bathrobes are like the kind you get at the hairdresser, the flipflops are rubber, the towels are brown and scratchy and the lockers are wooden, with faux-parquet floors. Not that I'm complaining. If it weren't this way, it would be Exhale. Or Ajune. Or the Sports Club/LA. And, well, been there done that. Luxury is nice. But the Baths are somehow a more visceral pleasure.

And then there's the deli counter. That's right. The deli counter. Well, actually, it's called "Anna's Restaurant". But all I remember from the display case were the Snickers and the Twix bars and some big-ass vats of what looked like lemon and raspberry ices. I believe they also sell traditional Russian foods like blini, borscht and stew. But I guess I'm just a bit too "modern" in my tastes to even imagine eating a big, steaming bowl of borscht after a trip through the Oven.

Ah...just found this photo of Anna's. And there are the big vats of juice or ice or whatever it was. No Snicker or Twix. But I can assure you, they were yours for the asking.

The delightful epilogue to the whole experience was that the next day - today - I felt like a million bucks in practice. And a pimple forming on my left cheek is now completely gone.

I think a repeat visit is in order.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

i went to the russian baths quite a few years ago, and what i always remembered was, how so not self conscious the women were about there bodies, they just WERE, untouched by the knife, their glorious selfs.

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About Me

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Northern Westchester, New York, United States
I live by a duck pond. I used to live by the East River. I don't work. I used to work a lot. Now, not so much. I used to teach a lot of yoga. Now not so much. I still practice a lot of yoga though. A LOT. I love my kids, being outdoors, taking photos, reading magazines, writing and stirring the pot. Enjoy responsibly.


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