Inside San Francisco’s Co-Ed Russian European Spa

…so there I was, lying naked in a Russian sauna with other naked people around me, while the practitioner beat my body with wet tree leaves…

This is not an excerpt from some European erotic novel. This was my actual experience at San Francisco’s Archimedes Banya, a unique Russian-European bath house offering a variety of services and treatments to revitalize the body and mind. This place isn’t your typical spa because it blends the ancient traditions of Greek laconica, Turkish hammam, German thermen, and Russian banya in a communal, co-ed environment. And while it’s not mandatory, almost everyone goes fully nude – both men and women. Bathhouses and spas have been around for thousands of years among many different cultures, so when I was given the opportunity to check out a co-ed European spa in the convenience of my residential city, I had to go for it.

While I’m personally very comfortable with my body, it can still be unnerving to be naked in front of strangers – especially the opposite sex. At the same time, I’ll pretty much do anything in the name of wellness and prefer getting the most complete experience at a spa.  Hesitant and armed with a bathing suit just in case, I was pleasantly surprised with how comfortable and non-threatening the space was.

Navigating Through the Bathhouse:

Upon checking in at the front desk, you exchange your ID for a locker key and book any additional services. Archimedes offers a diversity of treatments such as massages, facials, hydrotherapy, wraps, exfoliation, and their famous “platza” treatment – naturally, I opted for the most intense one. Once inside the gender separated locker room, you will find a fresh towel, robe, and slippers in your designated locker. I hesitated on whether I should wear a bathing suit or not and at that same moment a young woman reassured me that it’s invigorating to go in the buff and “I would love it.” Sold. Back in the locker my bathing suit goes! Wearing just a robe and slippers, I walked out into the communal spa unsure what to truly expect.

I felt immediate relief seeing naked women and men of all shapes and sizes and colors walking around freely and comfortably. Which then led me to wonder why Americans have such a big issue with nudity and why we can’t see it as a natural, accepted occurrence like Europeans do. It didn’t feel sexual at all and everyone was super respectful in not staring or gawking at each other. I was very impressed with how they were able to create a friendly, inviting space, but I must admit being in liberal San Francisco helps.

Before entering any room or tub, everyone has to shower in the private, curtain covered stalls to maintain a clean facility. Once showered, the exploration begins! You can choose your own adventure between cold pools, an ice cold plunge, jacuzzis, dry heat sauna, humid saunas, and aromatherapy steam rooms. Overwhelming? At first, yes. But eventually you get the hang of it and bounce around depending on what you want to try. Personally, I loved testing my thresholds between the dry sauna, humid Russian steam room, and the ice cold plunge because these are the best ways to help reduce inflammation and muscle soreness. I get more detailed on the health benefits of these different treatments below.

The Platza Treatment:

The Platza treatment was unlike anything I’ve experienced, but I think everyone should try it at least once. Imagine entering an unbearably humid steam room filled with other people. Everyone is naked and so are you.  My platza master told me to lie face down on a towel in the steam room and breathe deeply while he went to grab the wet birch leaves. I forgot about the other people in the room and found it quite meditative focusing on my breath and getting into a purely focused state. Once the practitioner returns, he starts hitting my body with the wet leaves (venik) and then pressing them into my body. It was a weird sensation of both pain and relaxation. At some moments I would laugh out of shock and other moments I would yelp in pain (in which he would immediately stop and ask me if I was okay). Then he had me flip over, face up. At this point I was so hot and spaced out to even care that my naked body was exposed to everyone. He continued lashing my body with the leaves on the front of my body and then had me sit up and bend over my knees to give me one more lash on my back.

These are the birch leaves used for the platza treatment.

This whole experience sounds crazy right? Why would anyone pay someone to beat their naked body with wet leaves in a hot steam room? All I have to say is, try it first before you judge it. You have to go into this kind of treatment with an open mind and a sense of humor. The platza master was extremely respectful and immediately stopped anytime I flinched. It was oddly meditative and the treatment actually has health benefits. The heated leaves and vigorous tapping helps relieve sore and tired muscles by increasing heat. As the leaves hit the skin, blood flow and circulation improves, as well as releasing the plant’s phytoncides – natural substances that boost immunity in our bodies. In addition to the lash marks, I walked away from the experience feeling a lot more confident in my body being able to handle that intense of an experience – both the lashing and being so openly naked.

What are the Health Benefits?

For thousands of years, humans have been sweating in thermal rooms, soaking in tubs, and plunging into cold temperatures for their restorative and healing properties. Heat promotes blood flow, circulating fresh oxygenated blood throughout the body to promote healing. Cold constricts blood vessels, provides instant relief for pain, and shocks the body into hormesis which forces an adaptive response by the cells in the body to become stronger and more resilient. Pair them together and you have a time-tested, all natural way to slow aging, reduce inflammation, boost your mood, and strengthen your immunity. A more noticeable benefit is the sleep quality after spending a couple hours here. In addition to my personal experience, many studies have shown the benefits of sauna, steam, and cold pools in helping reduce stress and promoting high-quality sleep.

Quick Tips For Your First Time:

  • Bring your own water bottle. They offer tiny cups and water inside, but I prefer bringing my own stainless steel bottle to fill up more water and avoid paper waste.
  • Keep track of your belongings. Notice where you put your towel, robe, and slippers as you go from room to pool to room. Not that anyone would purposely steal, but everyone’s robes and slippers look the same and it’s easy to pick up someone else’s things if you’re not paying attention.
  • Try not to eat right before. Our body needs to devote energy to digestion so if you expose your body to the stress of heat/cold shortly after eating, it affects your body’s ability to regulate body temperature and reduces the overall healing benefits.
  • Replenish. Afterwards, restore the salts lost in your body from all of the sweating. Sounds like the perfect excuse to grab chips and guac!

Where It’s Located:

Archimedes Banya is in Hunters Point, in a pretty isolated spot in San Francisco. It’s about 15 minutes south of downtown with ample street parking and protection from the fog to enjoy their rooftop deck for tanning/yoga on a warm day. I’m linking to their Google Map location here as well for convenience. They’re open everyday except for Tuesdays and stay open as late as midnight for late night spa goers.
Questions? Let me know in the comments below!

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