Perfect Sweat Summit, an international congress of bathing experts and fellow travelers

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As mentioned previously, an exciting event happened recently in San Francisco at Archimedes Banya. This was the Perfect Sweat Summit, a gathering of sauna/banya/spa/sweat-lodge experts from around the world. Here are some thoughts and impressions on the Summit.

Back in 1978 Mikkel Aaland published a unique and important book: Sweat. This was a era when saunas and hot tubs were something of a fad along the same lines of water beds, pet rocks and roller skating. Mr. Aaland's book certainly exploited a trend but it pioneered new ground on something much more meaningful. Sweat wasn't simply a how-to book on saunas or hot tubs written for the benefit of pleasure-seeking baby boomers. It delved deeper and was the first book that really created a synthesis of an idea. This was that sweat bathing (and I think Mikkel gets credit here with popularizing this term) is a wide and, at least historically, surprisingly ubiquitous human tradition. He showed us that sweat bathing traverses the globe and is a integral part of many cultures on almost every continent. Hot tubbing and saunas may have been trending in the U.S. in the 1970s but the movement tapped into deep roots of what it meant to be a human. In many instances these practices had been forgotten as our world modernized with quick-and-easy morning showers.

Just as Carl Sagan (coincidently working around the same time Sweat was written) integrated up-to-date scientific information from a wide array of sources to show us the "big picture" of how we fit into the universe, Mikkel synthesized diverse knowledge to tell us an important story: sweat bathing is part of how many cultures have traditionally cleaned themselves, communed socially, and reconnected to being alive and human.

Tinygogo--as you, my dear reader, know--exists to evangelize these truths. But we are not alone. There are many who want to help rekindled these practices. And so, 36 years after the publication of Sweat, Mikkel Aaland used a similar holistic approach in conceiving the Perfect Sweat Summit. This time, instead of writing a book, Mikkel invited key thinkers/players from different disciplines to create a "think tank." These were folks whose practices may or may not intersect but still orbit around the same topic: sweat bathing.

We gathered at Archimedes Banya in San Francisco. It was an ideal setting (and I will discuss the facilities in a later post.) All of us just managed to squeeze into the cafe/bar area. We met for two days. Each morning after a light breakfast, we'd listen to a full-day's schedule of speakers. Every talk would be followed by questions which tended to turn into colloquium-style discussions. There was a lunch break, more talks, and in the evening we reconvened in the banya itself, getting down to the real stuff--the actual practice that we had been talking so much about.

To me, sitting quietly in the banya was where we really broke bread. There may not have been too much meaningful discourse but I think all of us shared "aha" moments. We were silently reminded that this was really what it was all about. It added strength to our conviction about how awesome sweat bathing can be. And this is important. 

The practice is such an intangible commodity. Weight loss? Not so much. It won't give you golden skin or rip your abs. Even for the initiated, it's hard to market an experience. You only know it's happening while you experience it.

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There would be too much to discuss here if I went over each individual speaker. (An annotated attendee list is here.) Instead there were some broad categories of discussion. The first and generally best represented, were the high priests of the sauna orthodoxy: the Finns. There was the president of the Finnish Sauna Society, the head of the International Sauna Association, a historian on Finnish sauna culture and the co-director of a movie of Finnish Saunas (Steam of Life.)

But there were also representatives of other sweating traditions: banya, hamam and sweat lodge. There were experts from the ancillary disciplines of balneology, hydrotherapy and spa therapy. There were scientists and academicians. There were authors. There were reporters, bloggers and enthusiasts. And there were owners and representatives of other West Coast public bathing facilities. (One from Russia too!)

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On the patio of Archimedes Banya with a couple of world sauna rock stars:
Mika Hotakainen, co-director of Steam of Life and Michael Nordskog, author of The Opposite of Cold
Some of the speakers were maybe more illustrious and/or experienced than others but I found that without exception every talk was beautiful and interesting. The warm congenial atmosphere made it easy for everyone to open up and share.

Mikkel, as chair and MC, gets credit for this but he had a tough job. He was constantly working to keep the discussion on track given time constraints, individual passions and full agenda. He handled it admirably, with kindness and alacrity and certainly a sense of vision as to where to direct discussion. 

I do want to mention a couple of speakers. These two were chosen to speak early in the schedule. To me they helped set the tone for what followed by providing an overall aesthetic, historical, and spiritual context to the gathering.

The first was Phil Cousineau. Phil is a well-established protégé of Joesph Campbell, best known for his film biography, The Hero's Journey. His discussion centered around some basic Joesph Campbell "101" hero's journey stuff but he tied this in with how humans have historically gathered around the fire. This to me really hit a nerve. It spoke to deep truths as to why many of us are attracted to the heat.

The other was Leonard Koren. When I first heard about the event I was particularly excited to read that Leonard Koren would be speaking. Mr. Koren is something of a personal hero and inspiration for this blog. He is perhaps best known for Wet, and the famous byline: The Magazine of Gourmet Bathing. But I also appreciate his later books, Undesigning the Bath, Wabi Sabi, and How to Take a Japanese Bath. In his talk, we were reminded how bathing is a space for quiet introspection and reflection. The sensual experience of the bath creates a mood of contemplation. Amen!

Behind our lofty enthusiasm there was another purpose for the Summit. This was to help launch a film series on world sweat bathing. It will have the same title as Mikkel's book, Sweat. Many of the speakers where individually interviewed on camera for the series. Maybe some of this footage will be used in the show? Maybe ideas will be harvested for use as building blocks for episodes?

What the series will be and how it will turn out is unclear. My sense is that a production crew will travel the world and explore--in some sort of documentary narrative--how different cultures sweat bathe. I'm pretty confident that after the Perfect Sweat Summit it won't get bogged down on "prefered sauna procedure" or with trendy lifestyle stuff. I'm really looking forward to it since it could rekindle a movement and, dare I say, awaken the consciousness of it's viewers.

My only hope is that Mikkel Aaland is a spokes person. In an homage to Carl Sagan, I picture him opening the series on a rocky California coast--perhaps while soaking in an open-air hot tub--expounding poetic on how a good sweat ties us in with deep currents of our human heritage.