Healing heat

Steam and massage are part of an ancient purifying ritual.

By Debra Ollivier

Published May 14, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

The Med Hammam is located in a nondescript building on the dense northern fringes of Paris, where immigrants from disparate countries have settled. It is one of several hammams experiencing a renaissance among the weary, beauty-conscious French, and this is where I've dragged my body, neglected as it is in the junkyard of daily stress, in search of relief. Little-known or maligned in America, hammams are in fact part of a strangely interconnected filiation of ancient healing practices that span cultures as different as the Finns and the Native Americans, uniting them in a sort of holy reverence for the spiritual virtues and restorative properties of sweat. ("Hammam" means "spreader of warmth" in Arabic).

Long before modern medicine cleaved mind from body, people went to hammams to heal body and soul. For Muslims and Jews, Romans and Byzantines, hammams were community spaces for purification rites before marriage, puberty or worship. They were sanctums of repose and womb-like serenity, as well as centers for exchange and conversation. In the "Iliad," Ulysses performs ablutions in a hammam. In "A Thousand and One Nights" they are described as paradise on earth. Throughout the Middle East and the Mediterranean, the body was purged of its impurities in hammams to better shine with the divine emanations of the Light. The hammam was, in short, a place where cleanliness really was close to godliness.

But for centuries hammams were also, and continue to be, celebrated for their therapeutic values -- to treat rheumatism, degenerative joint and spinal problems, respiratory illnesses and all the accumulated aches and pains that enfeeble the body. Some even attribute increased fertility to them (as body temperature rises it's said to affect the ovaries and testes). They are an oasis where the body -- with its dauntless muscles, tendons, bones and arteries -- is revitalized in a sort of thermal Elysium.

When I enter the hammam I am greeted by a woman whose job it is, beyond the dispensing of towels and keys, to extol the virtues of the hammam. She is particularly exhilarated to find out that I am American. "You American women have forgotten how to take care of yourselves," she says. "You are either hard like men, or your bodies fall apart. Here, we Muslims and Europeans pamper ourselves. This is where we return to the womb. This is a vital necessity for women who love their bodies. You must go in. Every woman must go to a hammam." Her insistent enthusiasm is almost disturbing. I have both contempt and admiration for women who've made as a priority the careful preening and primping of the body. And yet while I sit dutifully in the glow of my computer, inflicting on myself the more dubious pursuits of the intellect, I still fret over my own anatomy: my seat-bound butt, my sedentary legs, the woeful lack of sweat in my life.

My hammam experience begins in a dressing room where I am given a pareo (a piece of brightly colored cloth to wrap like a skirt) and plastic sandals and am told to disrobe. I am then escorted downstairs to a dimly lit tiled grotto -- little ficus trees miraculously vibrant in this subterranean world -- and led into a steam room. For a few seconds it is almost impossible to see. I find a tiled bench, lie down and try to get my bearings. The spectral forms of two women are barely visible in the half-light. The air is so thick with steam that it practically funnels into you. It doesn't knock; it breaks down the door and enters, laced with aromatic eucalyptus and laurel, and travels down your pharynx, into your thorax. My clogged respiratory passages immediately open wide and swallow shafts of hot, scented steam. I realize that until this moment my breathing has been shallow: feeble inhalations, indiscernible exhalations. Stop breathing for two minutes and your life is over; the prodigious metronome stops. Here I am obliged to breath deeply, to gorge my body on oxygen, to feed the persistent valve that is my heart, the reckless driver that is my brain, all the blood-pumping circuitry that keeps me alive.

Almost instantly, I am covered with little beads of perspiration. They seem to appear without any exertion, but in fact the tiny, coiled, tubular sweat glands in my skin -- roughly two million of them -- are working on overdrive. Every organ in my body is active, flushed with heat. Sweat works its way through my blood and cells, excreting heavy metals and toxins, drawing out excessive salts and lactic acids. My pores and capillaries dilate; my blood flow increases and accelerates the pace of my heart. Juices flow. Our bodies are made largely of water. Our largest organ is our skin. Sweating is the vital, sensual interplay between the two.

Being here is strangely like going underwater and listening to the amplified sounds of your own body -- the muffled, thudding beat of the heart, the queerly astral whirl of blood. I am reminded of all the cultures for whom sweating is sine qua non: The Finns, ultimate voluptuary sweat hounds of the North. The Native Americans, whose sweat lodges, now part of a booming New Age market, were sacred shrines that healed the body while embodying the properties of fire, transformation and rebirth. The Ayurveda, the oldest known medical document written in Sanskrit, considered sweating so fundamental to good health that it prescribed 14 methods for inducing sweat. This has to be good.

I move in and out of the steam room, punctuating it with moments of repose on a large thermal brick. I don't have the courage to plunge into the cold blue pool, to give my system and its vasodilators that radical jolt so dear to Nordic sauna lovers. When I can barely tolerate the heat anymore, when my skin feels like tenderized meat ready to splay off the bone in buttery strips, an Algerian woman named Nadia lays me down on a vinyl table and starts scrubbing my naked, water-logged body with a black mitt. Made of wool and goat hair in days of yore (and like a loofah nowadays), Nadia's mitt wanders everywhere; it scrapes the upside of my butt-cheeks, the curve of my inner thighs. There is nothing implicit or illicit here; it is all body-work, hard strokes, efficient peeling and cleaning away of life's impurities. Within seconds, Nadia throws small pieces of gray matter on the table. They look like pieces of dead chewing gum wrenched from under a classroom table.

"Usakh," she says in Arabic. "Your dead skin." She continues scrubbing, then hoses me down. It feels like she has removed an entire layer of my skin, performed an ecdysis -- a molting of the hard outer integument, a stripping off.

In fact, I have stripped off more than my skin here. I have stripped off all the accouterments that conceal my body, that communicate an image that may or may not be me. Being naked is a fundamental part of the hammam experience, and in the hammam we are all equal and distinct in our nakedness. Jew and Arab literally drop their guards and press the flesh. Appearances shift dramatically. The striking blond with big hair is actually frail and vulnerable. The ordinary-looking matron is suddenly sexy, with solid haunches made for marauding or having babies. At first I am self-conscious about my own body. I haven't been publicly naked in 20 years, since my body was young and untired, when my friends and I would skinny-dip at late night pool parties and feign indifference as we strained, through the broken refractions of water and light, to catch a glimpse of a testicle here, a breast there. The hammam says to us that it's okay to look. Not long ago, women in North Africa went to hammams to seek out wives for their sons.

I am surrounded by small European women here, women with "tits." I have "boobs," and am suddenly reminded of Steve Martin and Dan Aykroyd as two Czech brothers gyrating over "big American breasts." But like the rest of me, my breasts need the respite, the pampering. They've been stolid in fulfilling their role as mother lode. For almost a quarter of a century they've been shrouded in the laced interstices, elastic guardrails and spindly underwires of innumerable bras. They, too, deserve this luscious break I am giving my body. I soon forget my own nakedness. We may come in various states of undress but modestly, over time, we are willing to expose ourselves, to "let it all hang out." Many of us are rarely naked outside our own bedrooms or baths. "I recommend walking around naked in your living room. Feel free," sings Alanis Morisette, as a reminder.

Thoroughly husked, I am taken into a white marble alcove where Nadia plunges her hands into a bucket of mud -- argile in French, tfal in Arabic -- and pulls out a dripping mass, slaps it onto my sternum, my breasts, up and down my inner thighs, in my hair. "Mud from Tunis," she says. "Trhs bien." Whatever tiny trace of toxins is left under my skin is drawn out and absorbed by the mud. Outside the alcove, a mass of steamy air hovers like a phantom cloud bank, perfumed with sage.

As I wait to dry, there resurfaces a distant memory of playing, at age 10, in the mud of our disheveled garden in Los Angeles after a rain, of paddling through the sod where flowers strain to see the light and worms bury, little root shards caught in my hair. Mud is a naturally delicious and healing medium. Children know this instinctively. In the New Mexico shrine of Chimayo, people eat the dirt; they mix it with water and drink it and spread it on their bodies to heal themselves from paralysis, blindness and other afflictions. In the Dead Sea, mud is an elixir for body and soul. People pay good money to languish in peat moss and mud bogs all over the world. "There's an increasing sense," according to ethnobotanist Wade Davis, "that certain ancient and esoteric healing practices, long ignored by Western science, may in fact represent profound insights into the very nature of well-being."

The grand finale, the icing on the flesh cake, so to speak, is a massage. I cannot imagine more body work because I cannot imagine my body at all. It is in a buoyant, empty state, a fully euphoric feeling that is perpetuated in this happy inferno by the presence of so many negative ions. (The rapid converting of water to vapor releases the same kind of electrically charged atoms that dance around our earth's crust and oceans and basically keep planetary depression and free-floating anxiety at bay.)

My masseuse is a French woman whose name, perhaps because at this point my brain has parked the car in neutral and walked away with the keys, I cannot recall. This is not a masseuse who gives you a sheet and discreetly leaves the room until you've covered yourself; nor is this a masseuse who works carefully not to expose your butt cheeks or your pudenda, because everything's exposed in the first place. This is full frontal and rearward massage; this is leeward and windward massage that is not for the underwear coveters of this world. Once known as "medical rubbing," massage -- or the power of touch -- is one of the most ancient of the healing arts. Throughout history, the greatest masters of medical rubbing were the blind, their sense of touch heightened by their lack of sight. My masseuse has good vision and even better aim. With each touch of extremity -- hands and feet, crown and forehead -- my entire body vibrates with a sort of achy release. Every organ is implored to relax. Babies crave touch. Adults crave massage.

By the time she's worked me over I am almost unable to move. There is nothing left to do now but rest in the hammam lounge, chill out (literally), and prepare for reentry. Two women come in, looking lost. They could be anyone: the strangers on the Metro, the women buying pumps at the shoe store. They clutch their pareos and walk carefully across the wet tiles, self-conscious knots sitting lightly on their brows. They have no idea what's in store for them.

"Increasingly," says Davis, "(Western) medicine will draw into its fold new possibilities, lessons derived from other types of healers who, lacking the technical ability to dissect the human body, chose instead long ago to embrace the human being as a whole."

I promise myself that I will come here more often, particularly when the morose continental winter bears down on us, turning us all a much lighter, sickly shade of pale. Outside, a haze of diesel dust and invisible flotsam obscures the horizon, waiting to settle on my new, open-pored, fully purged skin. On the Metro, I notice that a stranger sitting on the adjacent seat is looking at me. Or, more precisely, at my ear. He has the curious expression of someone trying to suppress an embarrassing or disturbing thought. When I finally get home I realize that, like a conch shell filled with sediment, my ear, in all its delicate fluting and curves, is entirely packed with mud. I hesitate a moment and then slowly, very slowly, begin to pick it out.

Debra Ollivier

Debra Ollivier, a contributor to Mothers Who Think: Tales of Real Life Parenting, is the author of "Entre Nous: A Woman's Guide to Finding Her Inner French Girl." Her work has appeared in numerous publications including Harper's, Playboy, Le Monde and Les Inrockuptibles.

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