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Social Steaming Feature: The Shvitz and Schmooze

Is your social life starting to feel a little “been there, done that?” Has your posse dominated at Tuesday Trivia Night one too many times? Have you microbrewed with the dudes, latte’d with the ladies, karaoke’d with the crew, and you’re craving a change? Perhaps it’s time to open your mind (and your pores) to something different: the social steam. It’s not a new concept, but it’s gathering steam, so to speak, among millennials and whatever you call the people slightly older than millennials. As an old-school New Yorker might say: why not have a “shvitz and schmooze?”

You’re already familiar with the serene, meditative steam bath, where you close your eyes, drift away on your own mellow trip, and maintain a studiously polite distance from anyone else you might be sharing the room with. This is not that. A social steam is a communal experience, a social event; conversation is definitely encouraged.

Early Schoozers: The Romans

Back in the Neolithic Age, humans were already entertaining themselves with steam baths. They’d trek down to a natural hot spring to soak and socialize, perhaps discussing the finer points of stone weaponry or the latest mastodon recipe. Evidence of early steam bathing has been found in the Indus Valley and Mesopotamia. But when it comes to steam bathing as a social affair, the Romans really raised the bar.

Perhaps in an attempt to outdo the squeaky-clean Greeks, the Romans built sumptuous, sophisticated bathing emporiums they called thermae. According to Haley Mowdy, author of The History and Importance of the Roman Bath, Roman bathing houses “were the centers for gossip, trade, commerce and politics… There was always shopping to be done, food and drink to partake in and even sometimes a massage booth.”  

Take, for example, the Baths of Caracalla, built between 211 and 224 C.E. and still existing as ruins today. The ancient Romans coined the phrase, “go big, or go home,” (okay, they probably didn’t) and this bath was BIG: four levels, adorned with mosaics and statues, with enough activities to keep a Roman bather busy all day long. An enormous calidarium, a hot room for steaming, featured a new technology for the era—glass windows, which admitted a diffused daylight akin to modern frosted glass. The facility also boasted an Olympic-sized pool, a hair salon, two libraries, a perfumery, and the inevitable waterfall. 

Roman society revolved around public bath houses, where upper and lower classes intermingled in a social exchange that simply didn’t exist elsewhere in their culture. Men could conduct business, schedule meetings, squeeze in a workout, curry favor with politicians, and hire a painter, all at the bath. For women, the bath houses were used for religious ceremonies, but also served as a rare opportunity to gather in public, where they could plan future social events and exchange the latest tidbits of gossip: “You would not believe what Emperor Caracalla was wearing at the Temple of Portunus…”  

Baths of Caracalla

The Shvitz and Shmooze

Fast forward two millennia, and the Romans would feel quite at home in America, once they got a handle on zippers, iPhones, and the difference between a venti and a grande mochaccino. Because in most major cities in America, you can find relaxation, connection, and society in a steam room that looks not-so-different from what they knew in la città eterna.

On a busy night at West Hollywood’s VodaSpa, for example, clusters of friends move from the dry sauna to the steam room to the plunge pool to the café—and back again—for hours on end. In the Big Apple, Russian and Turkish Baths built before the dawn of the 20th century draw a lively cross-section of hipsters and retirees clamoring for an authentic, no-frills steaming experience and a bodacious bowl of borscht. The Russian and Turkish Baths are popular with both tourists and diehard locals, which means you’re bound to talk to some very interesting characters.

In America’s heartland, men gather at Chicago’s Sweatlodge. There you’ll find a Turkish Wet Stone Sauna, a Russian Dry Cedar Sauna, and an Artic cold-water plunge pool. Steamers sate their appetites with Eastern European comfort food, such as marinated herring with sour cream. (I feel comforted already.) Or they order calamari and a side of guacamole, because Americans aren’t shy about cultural mashups.

Physical Health Benefits

Many social activities are popular despite their impact on your health—jello shots and mechanical bull-riding, we’re looking at you—but a visit to the steam room is all upside, socially and physically. To wit:

  1. Heart health. Steam heat may improve circulation, according to a 2012 study aimed at improving cardiovascular health in older people.

  2. Lower blood pressure. Sweating also removes excess fluid from the body, which may decrease blood pressure, according to a study in the American Journal of Hypertension.

  3. Clearer skin. Steam may help clear up your complexion, especially for those prone to oily skin and acne like symptoms, by opening the pores and sweating out the impurities.   

  4. Reduced stress. Prolonged stress suppresses the immune system, reduces sex drive and, according to Stanford research, can damage the hippocampus of the brain. Steam has been shown in research to promote the reduction of stress symptoms. You might not even realize you’re experiencing stress—until you start to feel it melt away.

So, steam it up. Your hippocampus will thank you.

Strengthening Social Bonds

You know who enjoyed steaming with his buddies? Frank Sinatra, that’s who. Comedian Don Rickles once described the Rat Pack’s daily routine as so: After a long night of debauchery, they would sleep until 5 p.m., then “We’d meet in the hotel steam room, lock the door, and steam our brains out.” Oh, to be a fly on that tiled wall.

Even if your pack isn’t packed with hep cats like Sinatra and Rickles, hanging out with pals in a steam room is a great way to revive and maintain social bonds. As the steam relaxes muscles, loosen limbs, and chases away worries, it also leavens the communal mood, making conversation flow (as Sinatra might put it) like vintage wine from fine old kegs, from the brim to the dregs. Shrouded in a curtain of warm steam, people open up, speak more freely, and connect in deeper ways.

Wanna Try It?

Look for a spa or traditional bathhouse where hobnobbing is encouraged, rather than a meditative environment where talking is likely to have an attendant shushing you. The Russians and Koreans know how to do it, so check their neighborhoods first. Once you’ve found the right place, here’s what to expect: You’ll leave your belongings—and your troubles—in the changing area. Shower off before entering the steam room. Depending on the venue, bathing suits or nudity might be de rigueur—just do as the Romans do. You’ll sit on a towel, or wrap it around yourself, and then relax. If the steam room has tiered benches, start on the lower level, where it’s cooler and move higher when you acclimate to the heat. When you’ve had enough, seek out the nearest cold plunge (every spa worth its salt has one) and slip right in. Don’t think about it too much—just go for it. Rinse and repeat.

At a Russian spa, you might don felt hats and take turns whacking each other with platza: little bundles of oak branches and leaves used to stimulate circulation. At a Korean jimjilbang, summon your courage and submit to an aggressively restorative pummeling at the hands of a Korean masseuse. And when the time is right, head to the spa’s restaurant for a cold beer, a hot bowl of noodles, or other tasty refreshments. It might just be the best time you’ve had with your friends in ages. Sure beats poker night.
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Topics: Social Steaming