Under my byline

Sweat the good stuff

Posted in Architecture/Design, Health, Living by Rrishi on 19 August 2007

Illustration in a late 1800s/early 1900s Swedish encyclopaedia, the Nordisk FamiljebokThe sauna, or steam bath, is a healthful Finnish tradition that Indians should adopt

A bath is no longer a ritual event for us Indians, unless we’re standing in the Ganga or a temple kund. In earlier times every daily activity, not being as easy, was performed with the appropriate ritual attention, from cooking to counting money. Nowadays we hop in and out of showers in the morning, all alone and thinking of office work.

The purpose of modern bathing is mainly to stay clean: to avoid germs and, since smell has become so important to us in our enclosed environments, to not smell sweaty. Respectable labour is mental, not manual, so everyone must now smell like an aristocrat, not a peasant.

Yet, in the West there is still a model for the bath-of-many-functions: the ritual bath. It is the communal sweat bath, and it happens in the Islamic hammam, the Native American sweatlodge, the Russian bania, and, most recognisably, the Finnish sauna.

The Finns are fanatical about their saunas — it’s a national pastime. Every weekend, reliable sources indicate, the countryside echoes with the sounds of happy Finns leaping out of steaming saunas into cold water, or gently flagellating themselves in the saunas with bunches of birch leaves. As with all rituals, various beneficial effects are claimed, some of them sustained by health specialists and some not quite.

Physiologically, sweat is a way to regulate body temperature, to expel toxins from the blood and clean and condition the skin. Getting rid of excess salt through sweat helps those who suffer from hypertension.

There are claims that heavy-metal toxins such as copper, lead, zinc and mercury, absorbed by the body in polluted environments, are expelled by heavy sweating, in a sauna for instance, although some scientists say there’s no firm proof of this.

Sitting in a sauna doesn’t sound like a workout, but what the heat does is create an artificial fever in the body, which heats the pituitary gland, which secretes hormones to raise the metabolic level, which pushes the internal organs into action, simulating physical exercise.

This is because the skin gets so hot that the blood has to dissipate the heat inwards; therefore the heart pumps harder, giving it exercise. Hippocrates, the ancient Greek physician, said that fever could cure almost any disease; and in fact, raised temperatures make the body inhospitable for certain pathogens.

This hectic internal activity boosts the amount of oxygen the body needs by as much as 20 per cent; so steam bathers breathe harder, which clears stagnant air from the lungs.

At the same time, heavy sweating cleans out the skin, clearing pores that are not unclogged by soap and water. Steam and heat also mitigate respiratory problems like bronchitis and asthma; and are claimed to sort out colds, joint pains, headaches and hangovers.

The body has a finely balanced system for regulating temperature. Extremes of heat or cold therefore stress it, and at least one study says that regular sauna bathing can reduce male fertility. But this is far from a consensus view.

After a sauna session of between five and 15 minutes, the typical Finn dives into cold water, has a cold shower, or rolls in the snow. Once cool, he returns to the sauna. The process is repeated four times or more. One should not eat or drink for at least four hours before bathing, but afterwards, the body needs rehydration with a water-and-carbohydrate power drink.

News a few years ago that negative ions occur in sweat baths thrilled Finns. Some research says that negative ions in the environment are good for health, checking respiratory disease, infections and even some cancers.

Too many positive ions, in enclosed AC rooms and cars, can lead to fatigue, anxiety and tension, apart from rheumatism, headaches, allergies and asthma. There are studies disputing this, but Europe seems convinced — negative-ion generators are installed in various public places.

Some saunas are heated electrically, some with gas burners; but by far the best loved are wood-burning ones. In these, round stones of a particular kind are loosely packed above the fire in the stove. Once they are hot enough, and people have gathered in the sauna, water, often infused with herbs, is thrown on them. It instantly evaporates, and creates a wave of heat and steam known as a löyly (pronounced loulu). This is done periodically.

Some expensive apartments in India offer small saunas. These may be wood-lined but are usually electrically heated. In such cases remember that too much dry heat can damage the throat and lungs. Humidity is important.

The numerous dos and don’ts, the list of benefits, and the fact of communal bathing, almost always in the nude, bring the ritual into the experience. There is, obviously, sauna etiquette — one does not speak contentiously when the aim is relaxation, yet the sauna is like an adda.

Indians, evidently like the Finns, are highly attuned to their bodies, and pay close attention to their daily functions, as the psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar has pointed out in his books on Indian identity. Public saunas, or rather hammams, sound like an intriguing new forum for urban citizenship, and a solid new business opportunity in India.

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