In Cold Climes Across the World, People Have Sauna Culture. Why Doesn't Vermont? | Culture | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

Arts + Life » Culture

In Cold Climes Across the World, People Have Sauna Culture. Why Doesn't Vermont?

By

LUKE EASTMAN
  • Luke Eastman

As I approached the glass doors of Balnea, a spa and bathhouse tucked into a mountainside on the shores of Lac Gale in Bromont, Québec, my first thought was: This should be a lot more expensive. For less than $30 each, my partner and I had purchased three hours in which our only task — can we ever stop thinking in terms of tasks? — was, essentially, to raise and lower our body temperatures. 

After we changed into our white robes, we went out to the stone terrace to join the other bathers, who wafted around each other like polite ghosts. Every few feet, signs informed us, in French, that talking would disrupt the very important project of relaxation unfolding all around us.

We marinated in silence in the heated outdoor pool alongside a pair of teenagers, who appeared to be on a rather solemn date, and an interchangeable assortment of mindful-looking bros with tattoos and graying man buns. Nobody spoke. Every so often, a black-uniformed employee would materialize, then disappear, trailing incense smoke in his wake. "This is weird," my partner observed more than once. 

But in the underground sauna, a stone cave built into a hillside, the point of the experience evinced itself. Pore by pore, we started to sweat, until our bodies seemed to be literally melting into the air. When we couldn't stand it anymore, we jumped into an icy pool, as shocked as if we'd just emerged from the womb. But after my nerve endings recovered, I felt euphoric, almost insane, with the sensation of life. Every organ in my body was going gangbusters! My mitochondria were wide awake!

Countless cultures around the world have developed some form of sweat bathing as a means of physical and spiritual purification. In Finland and other chilly northern European countries, hanging out with your friends in your neighborhood sauna, then dunking in the nearest cold water source, is a form of self-care as routine as brushing your teeth; one of Burger King's Helsinki locations even has its own branded sauna, where you can eat a flame-broiled Whopper while also broiling yourself.

In the public banyas of Russia and the hammams of Turkey, some of which have been in use for centuries, people congregate in steam baths and loofah each other's backs while engaging in casual banter. And just across the Canadian border, at Balnea and a handful of similar establishments within a two-hour drive of Burlington, bathing culture seems to be alive and well.

And yet this tradition hasn't taken off in Vermont, or in any other northern New England states. Surprising? No. In a society governed by capitalism and Puritan neuroses, the notion of being idle and unclothed in the presence of others feels totally absurd; instead of basic affordable health care, we have a $50 billion wellness industry. 

But more than a year and a half into the pandemic, with another six months of cold darkness almost upon us, our psychological capacity for isolation has reached perhaps its lowest point yet. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's latest bimonthly Household Pulse Survey, more than one in three adults between the ages of 18 and 49 has recently experienced anxiety or depression, the highest rate since the beginning of the pandemic. 

The sweat cure is no panacea for this collective malaise, but if several millennia of human history are any indication, it might help us feel a little better. Some limited research has linked regular sauna use to better sleep and decreased levels of cortisol, the hormone that the body produces in response to stress. One study, published in the American Journal of Medicine in 2016, found that in 338 people with major depressive disorders, a single sauna session had an antidepressant effect that lasted almost six weeks. 

"Right now, people are dealing with a lot of mental health issues, and there's this incredible feeling of loneliness and separation," said Jovial King, whose line of herbal tonics and digestive bitters, Urban Moonshine, was acquired in 2017 by the California-based wellness tea brand Traditional Medicinals. "Warm water really helps to unify a lot of people." 

Eight months before the pandemic, King began seeking investors for a botanically themed bathhouse in Burlington. "I was watching the trend of social clubs popping up around wellness, which was very exciting to me," she said. "And we also need more gathering places, and bathhouses, historically, have served that purpose — as a beautiful space and a sacred space."

Last week, Burlington's Development Review Board gave the green light for King's project, a 15,000-square-foot, plant-filled fantasia called Silt, to proceed as a health club, the first step in the zoning and permitting process. Within the next couple of months, King hopes to secure a location for Silt in the South End, with the goal of opening in the fall of 2023. Her current plan calls for a heated outdoor pool, three saunas, a steam room, a greenhouse, a wine bar, a tea garden, an outdoor pergola with hammocks, a dedicated napping parlor and, according to King, "more than 20 well-paying jobs," though she declined to specify what those wages might be.

King, a bathhouse devotee, has deliberately avoided using the word "spa" in Silt's promotional materials. "As Americans, we think 'spa' and we think luxury," she said. "But in other places, like in Morocco, there's a bathhouse in every neighborhood, and everyone goes there."

King has yet to determine what she might charge for day-use passes and memberships, but she did suggest that Silt would offer "pricing for locals" and reduced rates in exchange for volunteer hours. To encourage people to steam and soak alongside their neighbors, King said, she's exploring the idea of running zip-code specific deals on rotating days.

"This is a big vision, and it's brand-new," she said. "In Canada, if you said, 'Hey, I'm opening a bathhouse,' everyone would be like, 'Great! I'll be there Thursday!' But here, I'm like, 'Will people come?'"

King isn't the only entrepreneur looking for a toehold in the bathhouse market. In January, Nicole Sweeney and her husband, Dave Nelson, moved from San Francisco to Sweeney's parents home in Jeffersonville, where they started Savu, an off-grid sauna available to rent, by appointment, for $60 an hour. (Jeffersonville has no zoning ordinances, which has allowed them to operate without a land-use permit.)

Sweeney, 35, who first encountered sauna culture while she was an architecture student at the University of Copenhagen, built the propane-fueled sauna and the shower house, which sit on a deck overlooking the slopes of Smugglers' Notch Resort. In the evenings, a crackling firepit and strings of outdoor lights provide the requisite Instagrammable touches. 

While Sweeney was in Copenhagen, the couple traveled throughout Scandinavia, sampling every public sauna they could find. "We just saw this huge gap between wellness there versus here in the United States," said Nelson. After Nelson was laid off from his job at Uber in May 2020, he and Sweeney went on a cross-country rock-climbing walkabout before they ended up in Jeffersonville, where they came up with the concept for Savu. Their sauna, Sweeney explained, is a prototype for what she and Nelson envision as a scalable operation: a network of off-grid spas throughout Vermont and northern California.

"The point of being off-grid is that the saunas can be immersed in nature, which gives people a different kind of wellness experience from your high-end resort, which can be alienating to people, either because they can't afford it or because those places are kind of soulless sometimes," Sweeney said.

There are other benefits to the pop-up model, too: Because the saunas aren't permanent structures, the zoning and permitting process is generally less cumbersome. After months of high demand — according to Sweeney, the sauna was booked at 90 percent capacity in September and October — she and Nelson closed the Jeffersonville sauna in early November to focus on launching a Savu outpost sometime this winter in an as-yet-undetermined spot along the Burlington waterfront.

But in the quest to bring bathing culture to Vermont, the financial and logistic hurdles of opening a bathhouse are only part of the picture. The pandemic has made people squeamish about the prospect of sharing air in hot, enclosed spaces, which is precisely what saunas are all about. Alivia Bertolini, the owner of WilloBurke Boutique Inn & Lodge in East Burke, shut down her inn's wood-fired saunas and hot tubs in March 2020 over concerns about operating safely.

"It just wasn't cost-effective for me," said Bertolini, who runs the inn by herself. "What if we had to change the water in the hot tub between guests to make sure that it was safe? Well, it takes us almost 12 hours to get the wood-fired tub to the perfect temperature. That's just way too labor intensive."

Bertolini has no plans to reopen anytime soon. "The Northeast Kingdom has the highest rates of COVID right now," she said. "I would feel awful if keeping my business open meant I was responsible for any transmission."

Pandemic considerations aside, the harder sell, as King noted, could be the concept of bathing culture itself. In 2019, Montpelier naturopath Casey Ellison, along with her wife and two friends, purchased an 18-acre parcel on Barre Street, near the Caledonia Spirits distillery, hoping to transform it into a communal bathing and healing destination. From the beginning, Ellison and her business partners, all of whom identify as queer, set out to create a welcoming environment for people who don't always feel comfortable in traditional spas. 

As Ellison and her team solicited feedback on their project, they found that their constituents had disparate and occasionally incompatible needs. What one group of people wanted — for instance, gender-specific times and spaces — would leave other people feeling ignored, said Ellison.

There were other complications. When Ellison and her partners engaged the services of a geomancer to make sure the land was energetically receptive to their plan, she said, it was revealed that the Earth had quibbles with the initial placement of the bathhouse. "We had three zoning hearings just to put the bathhouse where it pleases the gods," said Ellison. 

Meanwhile, she was growing disillusioned with the economics of creating something that would be both affordable and aesthetically pleasing. "I believe that people need bread and roses — like, why, if you're not economically privileged, can you not have beauty? But the reality is that it costs a lot of money to use clean building materials, to not use chlorine, to do things in a way that would be good for people and the environment," Ellison said. "Most investors and banks just aren't interested in that." (In addition to the bathhouse, Ellison has ambitions to develop 40 units of affordable housing on the parcel.)

Despite a relatively hassle-free approval process on the municipal front, Ellison said, she's also been dogged by what she calls "an unseeable inertia," a low-frequency apathy that seems to emanate from everywhere and nowhere in particular. When the pandemic struck, Ellison and her partners put the bathhouse project on hold.

"I think for us, the pandemic was a representation of not knowing the right move, of feeling worried about moving forward while people are suffering and lost," she said.

"It's really confusing in this community," continued Ellison. The town, she clarified, has given them all green lights, and few people have voiced any opposition to the project. But residents of the neighboring property didn't want to share driveway access with the bathhouse, she said, which has frustrated their plans.

"Then you're dealing with the fact that you need 37 parking spots, but the neighbors don't want a parking lot, and you can't cut into your own land because of the topography," Ellison explained. "One thing after another keeps piling up, and meanwhile, the bathhouse itself is, like, this delightful creature who just wants to be born."

Until at least one such delightful creature graces us with its presence here, we'll have to make do with a two-hour drive to Québec.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Sweat Equity"