If you can’t get away to the beach this summer, here’s a unique way to escape from it all: Put yourself in a concrete room that’s 200-plus-degrees Fahrenheit, lie face down against the boiler and get swatted with two huge bundles of oak leaves drenched in hot suds—over and over again, by a man wearing a wool hat—while all you have to cool down with is a small cold towel draped over your head. Sound relaxing?
Welcome to the Russian room, ensconced in the basement of the Russian & Turkish Baths on East 10th Street in New York City, which has been boiling away New Yorkers’ bodily tensions since 1892. Banya, the Russian word for public bathhouse, is like no other spa technique you will ever experience—or, maybe better stated, endure.
I love to go in August, the hottest month of the year. Here’s why: When you lie down on the outdoor deck of the Russian & Turkish Baths in 94-degree weather with 90 percent humidity, it feels like you’re lying out on a wonderfully crisp, refreshing fall day. Maybe that’s because when you’re sweating your brains out in the Russian room itself, it feels like your blood is actually going to boil. And given that water boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit, if you stay in the Russian room a bit too long, it just might.
I can handle about 15 minutes in the room, and the only way that I make it that long is because every three to five minutes, I (like everyone else in the room) pour a bucket of freezing cold water over my head. When I can’t take the heat any longer, I scurry out of the room (as fast as my wobbly legs allow) and jump into a 46-degree pool (that also feels freezing cold). When I finally collapse by the railing of the pool, I have no thoughts or feelings in me at all. I’ve become a brain stem.
Perhaps the greatest contributor to that feeling of “zing” from a sauna session comes from improved circulation, explains Holly Phillips, MD, a New York City general internist and a CBS News medical contributor. “Exposure to extreme heat increases your heart rate and dilates small blood vessels in your body,” Phillips tells LivingHealthy. “These changes result—like exercise—in a temporary boost in cardiac output, where your heart moves blood through your body more forcefully and with greater efficiency.” According to Phillips, relaxation isn’t the only reason you’ll leave the Russian spa with a smile on your face. “The increased circulation gives you a physical and mental energy boost and releases endorphins, which are ‘feel-good’ chemicals in the brain—all of which leave many people in a state of near euphoria, post-sauna.”
If you really want to push your body to the ultimate edge, add in the Platza Oak Leaf treatment ($40 per session), which gets you beaten by oak leaves soaked in hot water and soap. The key here is to know when you’ve hit your limit. One time, while I was lying on a wooden plank in the Russian room (which, by the way, is lit with a single 60-watt light bulb) and getting my Platza Oak Leaf on, the room got so hot that my body started to get the chills. Not good. For the record, this has only happened once, and it occurred when someone stupidly threw a bucket of water directly on the furnace, which shot the temperature another 20 degrees higher.
While Phillips notes that spending time in a sauna can boost your immune system and “lowers stress and stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline,” she also cautions that Russian spas’ extreme temperatures can be dangerous for some people. “Those with pre-existing conditions like heart [or] kidney disease could be setting themselves up for damaging dehydration, irregular heart rhythms or worse,” she explains. “Many people lose up to a pound of fluid in a sauna session, along with important electrolytes like potassium, sodium, magnesium and calcium.”
So you might just be asking yourself one very important question: Why the hell would I—or anyone else, for that matter—ever want to do this? Well, when I hit the sidewalk afterward, I feel like I’m floating on air, with not a single worry or concern in the world. Oh, and one other thing: My skin feels like a newborn baby’s bottom. That’s because, Phillips says, “pores and sweat glands open up and your blood rushes to the skin’s surface. It’s impossible not to walk out—even if you’re walking weakly—without glowing skin.”