I WENT TO THE BANYA the other day and got thrashed with branches. Have you heard about this place? Archimedes Banya, out Hunters Point way. It’s a great, fairly new facility that incorporates bathhouse traditions from many cultures (thankfully, excluding the distinctly American version of the sleazy gay bathhouse), with an emphasis on the Russian.
I rode my bike out there in the rain the other day for a friend’s birthday gathering, and even the ride was interesting, what with it being in a part of town I rarely find myself in. It feels like this place was dropped magically into the middle of nowhere.
What makes it special is not just the facilities — pools ranging from ice cold to very hot, impressive double-decker saunas and steam; the thrashings, scrubs, and massages on offer; and a nice restaurant with good, healthy food — but the fact that everyone, men and women together (yes, the whole place is co-ed), seems to be having a really good time. Don’t get me wrong, I like the Zen quality of places like the Kabuki Springs & Spa. Sometimes that’s just what you’re in the mood for. This, however, is a place where you can laugh and chat and carry on, naked or clothed — there are distinct sections for either option — with friends. It’s fun, in other words. And it feels really good.
In typical San Francisco style, there was a pretty good representation of ages, ethnicities, native languages, sexual orientations, genders, and body types in the mix when I was there, all coexisting perfectly nicely and non-sexually. Nobody was creepy.
Some people I’ve told about it were put off by the gender-blending. I thought it was great. It felt very natural. But then, that’s me. I’ve always liked taking my clothes off, and now that I can’t really do the beach thing anymore, this makes for a pretty decent sunless option. (And for sun worshippers, they have a great rooftop deck with views of the Bay!)
So, back to these branches. This service where you get thrashed with scented leaves in a very hot sauna has a name: venik platza. And I loved it. I’m not sure if it was the heat or the flogging or the leaves themselves that did it, but I got a little high, in a very pleasant way. It’s hard to explain, but my friend who also got the treatment had the exact same reaction. So, that was something.
I also got some insight into S/M culture. Stick with me on this. You see, there’s something about lying there literally and figuratively naked, at the mercy of someone else, and not knowing what’s coming next — how or where on your body you’ll next be touched or whacked or whooshed by the hot wind — that put me in mind of the best of good sex…or massage, for that matter (or tickling, I suppose, though I don’t think I’ve been tickled in about 45 years, so I can’t quite remember).
That element of surrender and not knowing what to expect next, this platza thing being a new experience for me, was kind of thrilling. I used to go to a very good masseur many years ago, and no two of his massages were ever the same. It’s easy to get addicted to something like that. He’d also have me riding the edge between pleasure and pain, and this thrashing was like that as well, though discomfort or intensity would describe it better, since there was no actual pain involved.
So, I liked it, a lot, and part of what I liked was that it was uncomfortable…which just goes to show, you can choose to like or dislike your experiences. I also liked, in a strange way, getting all kinds of interesting medical procedures done last year, some of which were painful. Though I didn’t like the pain itself, there was something about the experience of exploring my limits around pain that I did like. And, being able to be present with one’s feelings makes them somehow more manageable, as I learned in a good talk by Jon Kabat-Zinn I went to last week.
Plus there’s that endorphin rush. I think there are several elements at work here: abandoning control, trusting, vulnerability, and allowing oneself to feel in the moment; experiencing something new and unpredictable that works in a way you don’t understand; playing with our limits of pain or discomfort and extremes of temperature. All of a sudden, BDSM makes a little more sense.
On the other hand, I am not crazy. I dislike pain. I’ve always hated that stupid “no pain, no gain” thing, as does any personal trainer worth her or his salt. Pain in the context of fitness is just stupid. I think even Nike knows that — they probably meant to say discomfort, but the word didn’t test as well in focus groups since it doesn’t rhyme with anything. So, I won’t be getting publicly flogged at the Folsom Street Fair this year. Sorry. But, if someone there offers venik platza, we can talk.
Also reviewed on Yelp!