Lindsey Bro on the Cathartic, Humanizing Effect of Bathing Rituals

The California-based author of “Thermal: Saunas, Hot Springs & Baths” discusses the universal allure and healing power of sweating and bathing.

By Ekin Balcıoğlu
September 26, 2023
14 minute read
Published by the Slowdown

Lindsey Bro. (Photo: Laura Austin)

The California-based multidisciplinary creative and writer Lindsey Bro—known particularly for her book, Thermal: Saunas, Hot Springs & Baths—has, throughout her career, embarked on odysseys within the realms of bathing culture, exploring its allure and cultural importance. Thermal guides readers through the storied history of global bathing traditions, weaving together the rich tapestry of cultures and societies that have embraced the practice of immersing oneself in warm waters and cold plunges, and freezing, sweating, and schvitzing. Here, Bro discusses the core elements of bathing culture, illuminating how ancient wisdom—from the enduring traditions of the Turkish hammam to the transformative Japanese onsen—coexists with contemporary well-being practices. 

How did you come to be immersed in the bathing world?

I’ve always been passionate about things with universal meaning: Why, across cultures, across time, are we so consistently drawn to warm waters? I have a Norwegian background, so a major part of it started with curiosity about my ancestors. Why is it especially important for Norwegians, as a people, to have these warm spaces where we sit in communion, in togetherness?

When I entered a sauna for my very first time, there was a powerful sense of coming home, of connection. It’s so interesting when you find things in the world that line up with something already inside you. I had to find out more. I was so curious. How could I not be? [The experience] was so beautiful and poetic and simple, and yet there were so many distinct variations. As I continue to learn about saunas and bathing, discovering all of the different ways that people and cultures have made these their own, it allows me to draw lines of connection from our past to our present, and from the modern [industrial] world to the natural.

Could you share an example of a bathing tradition that bridges ancient wisdom with contemporary well-being practices?

In certain cases, the continuity is embodied in a traditional space that has existed for centuries. When people use it today, they are physically making a connection to the past, carrying out the different rituals and steps just as their ancestors did hundreds of years before. The Turkish hammam is the quintessential example. Or the Japanese onsen. It is fundamentally human, the tradition of making a pilgrimage to warm, healing waters. Hot springs appear in the earliest history books. But the act of sitting in warm water becomes ritualistic when you enact different steps—for instance, first sitting, then lying down, or moving from one pool to another in a certain order.

I like your idea of this very essential, core element of bathing traditions, which different cultures have developed in multiple directions.

I believe there’s a universal cultural ancestry that we as humans hark back to, evolutionarily. But, at the same time, I absolutely love tracing and identifying and recognizing and honoring individual bathing cultures, whether we’re talking about warm waters or a sauna, or a more modern iteration, such as the infrared sauna, which uses light to make heat. That’s an example of modern science brought to an ancient tradition.

I forget who said this, but science is just explaining magic, right? Today, we spend tremendous amounts of time trying to find replicable ways in which to heal or cure or understand the body and, so often, it involves returning to ancient practices that worked, even though at the time people might not have known exactly why. Just as sunshine has always been known to be healthful, water, whether ingested or in the form of the sauna or the hot spring, has always been known to have healing or outright medicinal capacities. Hot and cold waters stress the cardiovascular system in a positive way, strengthening it. Even if you’re not suffering from a physical ailment, a sauna can still replenish you spiritually, energetically. Feeling generally depleted from the stress of modern life is an ailment.

Absolutely. And I love that these spaces are so un-digital.

Sometimes I wish I had a sauna in my home. For a while there was an infrared place close by, and I liked going there and getting that sense of community. But it closed, and every single one of the remaining sauna spaces near me has a TV. I don’t need to say more, do I?

Ugh, I hear you.

I mean, I get it—you have to meet people where they’re at, and a lot of people have trouble sitting quietly with themselves. So maybe at first they need to have a distraction in order to endure something as taxing as a sauna. But part of the benefit—the gift, really—is sitting without interruption, without any other stimulus.

In many bathhouses and saunas, sweating is both a ritual and a form of physical and mental release. How does sweating encapsulate the essence of letting go? What psychological benefits can it offer in today’s fast-paced world?

People generally don’t move through the world intentionally, with meaning and hope, with the idea of forming connections to ourselves and to nature. I was just watching a video of a guy who said he was “into nature,” and I thought, That’s a bit like saying a fish is “into water.” We humans are all part of nature. We all came from nature. Yet we continuously remove ourselves from natural rhythms [and] natural cycles, and in that we pull away from knowing ourselves. Immersion in nature heals our neural patterns. Choosing to take the time to sit down and do something that doesn’t immediately feel great can be a difficult hurdle to get past. As you know, there’s a physical endurance aspect to a sauna. But when you realize you can do something hard in one space, you realize you can do something hard in another. I think the sauna is great training for life.

Let’s talk about nakedness. Bathing often requires shedding clothes, and with that, societal norms. Can you delve into the psychological and emotional impact of being naked in the presence of others, and how it can foster a unique sense of vulnerability and thus authenticity?

You already hit on the answer within the question. Nakedness has always been optional at pretty much any bathhouse or hot spring or sauna I’ve visited. There is a valuable vulnerability to be had from shedding clothes. It can be a kind of spiritual work to shed your armor, whatever ordinarily creates distance between you and the next person, whether acknowledged or unacknowledged. There is a symbolic element to it as well, as in, the shedding of the outside world, your outside identity, your outside ego, and choosing to step into a place often seen as representing rebirth. You are leaving behind the modern world and entering a warm space that mimics the womb. It’s almost a death of self—an ego death.

And yet, a real aliveness results from feeling the sweat on your body.

For me that comes when I step out of the sauna, or the warm waters, and feel the cold air on my body—that’s the moment of trigger. It charges something in my lizard brain, some primitive sense that makes me feel more alive, more alert. It’s very elemental, very primal.

In addition to the obvious vulnerability of being naked, there’s all our perceived societal ideas that associate nakedness with shame. I’m a big believer that bodies hold no shame. Whatever the shape, whatever the appearance, the body is innately divine, innately perfect. To be able to hold that belief within ourselves, and then somehow project it from the inside out, is so beautiful. Sometimes, when I’m in a bathhouse or a sauna or any space where there’s the option to be unclothed, I remember that my choice to be vulnerable may be the permission another person needs in order to step into that journey. What a gift it is to overcome that stigma.

Also, it can be just about realizing, Hey, no one’s looking at me, I may as well be myself.

To me, it feels like people are so equal in those spaces.

The sauna, the bathhouse, the hot spring—they’re some of the most truly democratic spaces. Because we are all quite literally stripped down to what makes us human.

These spaces can also be deeply transformative. Could you share an example of a bathing experience that served as a catalyst for a profound personal transformation, either in your own life or in the life of someone you have encountered during your research?

As they say, you don’t fall in love over the big things; you fall in love over, like, making eggs in the morning with somebody. The most profound thing, the most catalyzing thing, is often the simplest.

When it comes to hot springs, I very actively choose to only share managed locations, rather than wild or primitive springs, because we have to protect our natural spaces. And so, the space that I’m going to speak about, I’m not going to name, and it’s also not in my book. But it was one of the first hot springs I ever visited. It was the classic picture: a crystal-clear night, a big starry sky, the air slightly cold. There was nothing notably unique or profound about it, yet it imprinted on my soul—sitting in the warm waters, against natural rocks, feeling the still earth beneath me. Matching my energy to the energy of the earth. Matching my heartbeat to the water. Feeling that there was no difference between my body, my soul, my spirit, my energy, the water, nature, the sky above. It was this profound moment of oneness, a moment of realization of how small and how big and how connected everything is. Sometimes, when I’m reading Mary Oliver, and she’s talking about a moment sitting by a stream, I get a similar feeling. Anyway, that night I was overwhelmed with an incredible sense of gratitude. I felt it all coming together and was wondering if I could even hold all the gratitude that was in my body.

I felt as if I was in that very pool while you were describing it. There’s something magical about water. Energy spreads faster in water.

That’s an interesting idea. For me, it’s something more like calibration. Perhaps it’s related to the fact that our bodies already are so much water. How can bathing not feel like coming home? When we sit in warm pools, or swim in the sea, how can it not feel like returning?

Bathing rituals often carry a sense of ceremony and of the sacred. Can you elaborate on how the ceremonial aspects of bathing culture contribute to a deeper connection with the self, nature, or spirituality? Does any specific bathing ceremony come to mind that exemplifies this profound connection?

I hesitate to call out any one specific ceremony or tradition, but I do absolutely agree that many rituals can be very spiritual, very profound. Even a simple house rule that you must shower before you enter the body of water, because it’s respectful. You cleanse, and then you warm the body. And then you cool the body, and then you rest. And then perhaps repeat. For me, each repetition becomes a meditation, a mantra, almost a prayer—prayer being essentially just focused thought, right? This connects to what I said before about the necessary cyclicality of being human in the world.

As in yoga, you work the body so as to work on the mind. By creating a healthy and vibrant and exhausted body, we no longer twitch mentally; we find ourselves in a mental space that is quiet. And it’s in that space of quiet that we are offered reflection or insight or connection. It may simply be a connection to your own breath. But that is extremely powerful. I find that the more I connect inward, the more I am able to connect outward.

These practices demand presence, which can be so difficult. It can be so hard to focus. But with repetition, it becomes more automatic. You’ll be able to keep and carry around that prayerful, mindful equanimity. Complete presence is that space where you’re able to have complete connection. It’s beautiful.

To finish, what to you, Lindsey, is the good life?

My greatest hope for myself is to live as expansively and joyously as possible. For me, that comes down to feeling like I’m living a life of my choosing. I choose to live from a place of gratitude that experiences life as a great gift. And one of the simplest things I can do that reminds me of the purpose of it all is to sweat as much as I can—at least once a day. To get that done, I have to move my body. But I want to do so in a way that feels like a choice, or like play, not like work. So my genuine recommendation is: Find a sauna, find a bathhouse, find a warm rock to lie on, whatever, and make it something you do often. As a ritual. Benefits and lessons accrue over time.

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