It’s hardly a jump into a frozen lake, but try telling your body that as you step into the 55-degree “cold plunge” at the new Asha Urban Baths after a 120-plus-degree sauna.
The idea of alternating hot and cold temperatures on the body isn’t a new concept. From Japan to Sweden, cultures around the world have explored the concept’s benefits. Naturopathic doctors, who aim to bring more natural remedies into treatments, use hydrotherapy for ailments such as intestinal problems and unexplained headaches. Modern sports medicine is also big on using cold water to restore vitality. Some Sacramento Kings basketball players regularly take a cold plunge after games.
“You can use hydrotherapy for a ton of conditions,” said Jina Ethelbah, a trained naturopathic doctor who practices out of the Balneology Association of North America’s Sacramento center. (Balneology is the science of the therapeutic use of baths.) “It’s an amazing tool to get people’s strength and vitality back,” she said.
Hydrotherapy is believed to help at the cellular level, with hot water increasing blood flow, while cold water causes the cells to constrict.
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Unlike Western medicine aimed at a specific ailment, hydrotherapy is a more generalized treatment for an assortment of ills, but it can take time, Ethelbah said.
Sacramento sports massage therapist Peter Ibarra encourages athletes to use ice baths after deep-tissue massage to force lactic acid out of muscles. He typically uses water closer to 35 degrees.
Despite their benefits, bathhouses are still considered a niche offering in the United States, where they’re found mostly in big cities or connected to natural hot springs. The free-spirited lifestyle associated with bathhouses and hot springs can also be a deterrent for some people.
While Dennis Holding, president of the North American Bathhouse Association, told VICE magazine in 2014 he wants to make gay bathhouses cool again, Cori Martinez of Asha Urban Baths said she wants to cultivate a different experience.
Asha, which celebrated its grand opening Saturday, aims to balance serenity and community in a cultural fusion group bathhouse. Day spas dot the Sacramento region, but the new business is one of few public bathhouses in the area.
The new venture builds on Martinez’s successful Asha Yoga studio. Much like yoga, alternating between hot and cold environments promises to relive stress and promote health.
“Asha Urban Baths is a place to come where you can slow down and relax and just get into the experience of enjoying life,” Martinez said.
Asha is a co-ed and swimsuit-required facility. She said people come for wellness, relaxation and community.
After taking a shower (in a swimsuit), guests are encouraged to first enjoy a wet or dry sauna for five to 10 minutes before taking a transitional shower and then stepping into the cold plunge. After a few minutes in cold water, guests take another quick shower before immersing themselves in the hot pool. At $25 a visit, guests can stay as long as they like.
Unlike day spas, the volume of a group bathhouse lets Asha charge a low enough price that most people can afford to make it a regular part of their lives.
Guests are required to turn off their digital devices. While visiting with friends is welcome, chatter should be kept light, Martinez said. The barriers to interacting with strangers fall away after 20 minutes of being in the spa.
As for public health, such bathhouses present little risk of bacteria or other problems so long as the water pumps are working and the daily logging of chemical levels are maintained as required, said Kelly McCoy, who heads Sacramento County’s environmental health division. They’re probably better maintained than a spa at an apartment building or fitness center, McCoy said.
“If the body of water, whether a spa or a pool, is monitored and maintained as it should be, there is no risk,” McCoy said.
Kathy Nelsen, spa director at Kabuki Springs & Spa in San Francisco’s Japantown, said she’s seeing a bathhouse renaissance.
“It’s a really old thing, but (bathhouses are) coming back,” said Nelsen. “So many of the old bathhouses in the United States have turned off their mineral water.”
Kabuki offers other services built to support the communal baths.
“For us, the quiet is part of the experience. You really can be meditative,” said Nelsen. “It lets you turn off your cellphone. You really get to be by yourself.
“There is not a lot of places you get to do that.”
“People are re-realizing how important it is,” Nelsen said of the relaxation provided by the bathhouse experience. “It is an inexpensive way to have stress reduction.”
Asha Urban Baths
New bathhouse offers sauna and hot and cold tubs.
Location: 2417 27th St., Sacramento
Contact: 916-837-3290, ashaurbanbaths.com
Pricing: $25 for drop-in (day use)
Other bath options
Oasis Sauna for Men
Authentic Korean-style sauna
Location: 9345 La Riviera Drive, Sacramento
Contact: 916-539-4226, sacramentooasis.wixsite.com/oasis
Pricing: $25 (day use)
Miyazaki Bath House
Historic traditional Japanese bathhouse
Location: 1250 B St., Walnut Grove
Contact: 916-776-4290, facebook.com/miyazakibathhouse/
Pricing: $70 for two hours, two-person minimum