SAUNA CAN SAVE THE WORLD

The Bath House recently hosted Mikkel Aaland, film maker, photographer and the author of “Sweat”, a pioneering study of the history and culture of communal bathing traditions first published in the 1970’s. 

Mikkel is a passionate advocate of the benefits of bathing and a leading player in “Sauna Aid”, an international initiative sponsored by the International Sauna Association (ISA) to provide movable sauna facilities and supportive services to people facing natural and man-made disasters. Inspired by the Fukushima disaster in Japan, Sauna Aid is raising money to deploy mobile saunas to places like Ukraine.  

When a massive earthquake and tsunami struck Japan in 2011 it caused severe damage to the Fukushima nuclear power plant and many people in the area lost their homes or were displaced as a result. In response, the Japanese Sauna Association set up a tent sauna in one of the affected areas.It allowed several thousand people to wash and provided some measure of comfort during a difficult time.

Sauna Aid is doing something similar in Ukraine where it is sending both tent and container saunas. The health benefits of sauna are obvious but it’s not only about public hygiene. The sauna or banya is also a place where people can be healed. As Mikkel says, there is no war in the sauna and the spiritual side brings people together. While the focus is on Ukraine at the moment, this type of humanitarian assistance could be relevant elsewhere in the future. You can donate to Sauna Aid via their website.    

Mikkel was also in London to showcase “Perfect Sweat,” a series of 7 documentary films based on his book “Sweat.” In it he explores the growth of communal bathing and the benefits it brings to individuals and communities across the world. Look out for the release of “Perfect Sweat” on streaming services later this year.  

Please watch the video for more. 

 

Aunt Sara then appears with some veniks and “in that steam heat began to birch me, very lightly at first…and then harder and harder…until I began to yelp. More steam came belching up, and she turned me over and began to work on my chest and stomach. I was fairly interested by now, for mildly painful though it was, it was distinctly stimulating”.

I will leave the rest to your imagination or you can search out the book. Flashman concludes that “the Russians have some excellent institutions” and that Sara was “undoubtedly my favourite aunt”.

There is no bad time to visit the banya – you can go alone or with friends, you can celebrate, commiserate or meditate there. I moved to Moscow in 1999 and by this time I was generally using the banya to recover from the night before. I usually visited Kransopresnenskaya banya which was most famous for an incident in 1994 when a notorious Georgian gangster was shot by a sniper as he walked out onto the street. S Legkym Parom indeed!

Wherever I travelled for work in Russia or nearby, I would sample the local banya, from small shacks in the countryside to grand urban complexes like Sanduny in Moscow or Arasan in Almaty. I also began to think about opening somewhere back in the UK and, when I moved to London in my 30’s, I researched the contemporary bathhouse scene. There wasn’t much to get excited about. My favourite was probably the Porchester in Queensway had a glorious kidney shaped pool and beautiful tiled rooms with a range of temperatures ranging from the coolest (Frigidarium) to the hottest (Laconicum), but none of them offered the same rejuvenating experience as banyas in Russia.

 

The Bath Houses of London

At the same time, I learned that London had a rich history of bath houses. These included an opulent Oriental bathhouse opened in 1862 on Jermyn Street by a former British diplomat in Constantinople and a Russian banya on Brick Lane called Russian Vapour Baths, set up by emigree jews who had fled the pogroms of the Tsarist empire for East London.  There were also numerous “bath houses” or laundries where people could go to literally take a bath and do some washing. Look carefully around the city and you will see examples like this one in Kentish Town.

The Bath House – Banya London opened in 2019 and we hope it is a worthy addition to that history.