Sweat culture can get tribal.
The Finnish sauna. The Russian banya. The Turkish hammam. The Japanese sento. The Korean jimjilbang. The Native American sweat lodge.
The architecture — the rituals — reflect the culture and personality of a people.
The farther a bath culture spreads from its origins, though, the more it changes. And the more it changes, the more some try to preserve what was. The words “authentic” and “traditional” become code for what's better and worse, what’s right and wrong — not that, but this.
But why take sides when so much unites us?
All great baths make us healthier. All baths make us equal, humble, before the elements — air, fire, water. All baths make us feel not merely clean, but euphoric.
To me, each of the world’s great baths is a path to the same destination.
Besides, in sweat culture (like every culture), things aren't always what they seem. What we think is unique to one culture, sometimes, is not.
Take the Finnish smoke sauna, or savusauna, the very root of sauna culture. As it happens the legendary bath is long rooted, too, in Russia, even carries a similar name — the black (chyornaya) or smoke (kurnaya) banya.
Both baths are primitive steam rooms with primitive stoves, without chimneys.
Finns aren’t sure where the savusauna originated. Russians aren’t all that sure where the black banya originated, either. (The Russian Academy of Sciences traces the banya to the Baltic Sea region, to the northwestern territories between Lake Ilmen and the Western Dvina, or Daugava, River. Nearby, sauna cultures evolved — and endure — in Estonia, Finland and Lithuania.)
Most Finns don't know this. Most Russians don't know this, either.
Many are stout guardians of their respective sweat cultures — even though the baths at the core of each culture are, in fact, the same.
I love when history, and identity, are unclean — when fictions move narratives closer to true.
I love, too, when connections drift, steam-like, across cultures.
Tribalism is antithetical to such connection; it's a different energy.
I'm grateful that the North American Sauna Society favors connection over separation, and has given me the opportunity to share with readers of its blog an excerpt from my book, With Light Steam, a memoir about Russia through the lens of its banya culture.
What follows is the beginning of the chapter during which I travel to Chuvashiya, an agrarian republic along the Volga River, to steam in the near-mythical granddaddy of the banya...
… and, as it happens, the sauna!
— Bryon MacWilliams
We would be resting between steams, our hair wet, our skin flushed, our backs slumped against benches, our chests rising and falling with a slow, pleasant fatigue from swings in temperature, hot to cold to hot to cold.
We would talk about our jobs, and our loves. We would talk about ourselves, too, when we were able to see ourselves as independent from work, or women.
Sometimes we would talk about what we were feeling, not emotions so much as the physical sensations common to our chosen bathhouse in Moscow. Was the steam dry enough, soft enough, light enough? Were our senses aroused more, say, by the aroma of beer with reassuring overtones of mustard, or that of wormwood with slashing accents of peppermint?
Sometimes, when the steam was just right, we would not talk at all. Great steam, like great art, has the power to bring on quiet.
Such moments, for me, were a rejuvenating confluence of communion. With myself. With others. With the divine. Every so often, though, these spells of good feeling would be broken by declarations from other bathers, always Russian, that what we were experiencing, in fact, was not special.
“You call this a banya? This isn’t a banya, this isn’t a banya. There is only one true banya, one true Russian banya — the black banya!”
“The steam here is good. I won’t dispute that, I won’t. But you’ll never know what steam truly is until you’ve steamed in a real Russian banya, till you’ve steamed black-style!”
Most of it was hearsay, I knew. More Russians have seen the yeti than have steamed in a black banya.
Black banyas are nearly extinct. They just barely exist. They are the truest link to the ancient Slavic steam baths of another millennium.
Black banyas are black because they do not have chimneys. Literally, they are black: the ceiling and interior walls are caked with soot, from smoke.
I have never appreciated being ripped out of a moment by someone telling me that there was a better moment, elsewhere to be had. Over time, though, the remarks of other bathers caused the vision in my mind of a dingy, soot-encrusted black banya to shimmer with the enchanting sheen of myth. Over time, I came to regard my appreciation for the Russian cult of steam a bit like Cicero regarded his history: “Not to know what happened before one was born is always to be a child.”
Knowledge and awareness are not peers of experience; like the dismissive remarks of the other bathers, they are only so much hearsay.
I decided to find a black banya, and to steam in it.