Your Birthday makes you do crazy things. Some people party, and others want to be smacked with an oak tree branch in a sauna. To each to their own, and “my own” was the latter.
Located somewhere in San Francisco is Archimedes Banya, a day spa where you can get a relaxing massage, a soothing hot tub soak, a hoppy beer with a $17 cheese plate, and a fantastic view.
Oh yeah, you can also get a Venik massage. That’s where you lay down on a bench in a really hot sauna, and then someone takes an oak leaf branch soaked in steam and slaps you with it. Naked. Sounds like fun, right? I thought so, too. That’s why I decided to try it.
Before I made my way to the spa, I obsessed over the ultimate question: should I do it naked? Is that weird? I mean, I know the website says you can, but like…is it the kind of thing where they say you can bare-ass it but then in their heads they’re like, wtf?
It’s tough. After watching a few videos on owning my body and after I had a Big Daddy IPA, I was like, screw it. I’m turning 28 today. I’ll go in my Birthday Suit.
When it was time to disrobe, I changed my mind. Well, sorta.
I wanted to know what it would feel like to be free of restriction, to feel one with nature, to be able to release myself of social expectations. I wanted to do that, but in my underwear. (Side note: if you’re going to try a clothing-optional day spa and you’re not sure if you want to be naked, bring a bathing suit jic. I didn’t do that, so I ended up having to wear my Hanes underwear through the whole thing which is technically fine because it’s the breathable kind, but still. I’m sure the practitioner had a chuckle).
I wrapped myself up in a towel and followed a girl my age into the sauna filled with a few older Russian men. When we got to the top, she told me to lay face down. I dropped my towel and sheepishly climbed on to the bench.
It was hot. Really hot. It’s a sauna, so of course it’s hot, but I just want to emphasize that it was only getting hotter by the second. She sprinkled a little bit of hot water on my back, I flinched and giggled at myself. A moment later, the therapist slowly rocked the oak leaf branch across my back. It was great! Oh, this is nice. I thought. For a few more moments, she gently caressed my body with the steam-drenched leaves. It was pretty relaxing. I drifted off to a nice place.
All of a sudden, she swipes the branch across my back with a force! I flinched again, this time, no giggle. Swipe, swipe, swipe, the branch touched my legs, neck, and my back with impact. It wasn’t relaxing anymore. She pressed the branch leaves against my body for three whole seconds, a borderline burn. “Is this too hot?” she asked. I nodded, unable to understand what was happening. She let the branch cool a little, I flipped over, and she did it all over again. Finally, it was over. Sort of.
I put my towel back on and she lead me to what looked like a hot tub, only it wasn’t a hot tub. It was actually an ice bath. “I want you to get in there,” the practitioner said.
I laughed, she smiled, but she nodded to confirm my worst fear. “Yeah, you need to get in there. Make sure to fully submerge your head three times.” She walked away and I stood there, contemplating. This has already been an experience, I thought. I can go home, now. I think I’m good. Do you think they’ll notice if I slip out of here? A woman came up behind me, waiting for me to do my thing so she could make the same horrible choice afterward.
Onward, I dropped my towel with the Fear of God instilled in my bosom.
I slowly walked down the steps into the ice bath of Hell realizing that that was the worst possible way to do it, so then I plopped right into the center of Hades. As I dunked my hair under the flow of freezing water, I looked across from me and saw an old creepy guy watching me bathe. Then I remembered I was topless and looked around to find other topless women to make eye contact with so that she could confirm that he was being weird and that it was okay for me to be bare chested, but, nothing. Every other woman in there had a bikini on, and that’s when I died. Right then and there.
Finally, I worked up the courage to crawl out. My Venik Platza therapist beckoned me over to another bench, ready to wrap me up in a towel and save me from the torture. I closed my eyes, and she gently massaged the small of my back while I recovered from whatever the hell just happened.
Then, she dumped a bucket of ice cold water over my head.
Unsure if I was supposed to deal with it or start a fight, I sat in shock, after which she poured a bucket of warm water. Then, another bucket of ice water. Then warm water.
I just about lost it. I was about to stand up to Irish Goodbye the Russian experience, but then she gently massaged me and the strangest thing happened: I felt hella chill.
It was like my body felt numb.
Suddenly, I was the most relaxed I had ever felt.
These crazy Russians, I thought. They’re evil geniuses!
I sat and meditated through the wave of calmness, and then it was over.
The next day back at work, someone asked how the experience was.
“Horrible” I said. “It was awful in the beginning. It was way too hot and then it was way too frickin cold. But at the end of it, it was actually really amazing. I can’t wait to do it again!”
They didn’t understand and neither do I, but hey, it’s the kind of thing you have to try out for yourself to see what I mean.