How steam will heal the pandemic of loneliness of the present

Boris Ryabov
8 min readApr 13, 2021

Koli b ne banya, vse by my propali
If there was no banya, we all would have perished
(Russian proverb)

The origins of steam

Most anthropologists will agree that control of fire is perhaps the single most important human invention over the history of civilization. Processing grains or curing meat, heating or fighting all seem to be facilitated by the knowledge of fire. There is a doppelganger of fire which is least researched, though: the steam.

The earliest known stone-made steambaths are estimated to be over 4'000 years old, however little doubt exists that considering the technology, the still existing cave-built steambaths of Japan or Mexico could have been used for many thousands of years before that. After all, having mastered the fire, you just need to splash water onto hot rocks in a cave, to have the steam and its effects.

Pedra Formosa Briteiros, a ritual pre-Roman steam bath in Celtic Iberia, 8-3 c. BC

Of course, steam culture is connected to hot springs and bath, but for the purposes of the article we will focus on steam and heat: the process of temporary application of hot air and water steam to a person or a group for health or ritual purposes. Herbs, sound and bodywork are often an indispensable component of this process.

It is as well no coincidence the omnipresence and similarity of steam cultures in both Americas, Eurasia and parts of Africa. Use of building materials differs with climate or environment or pattern of seasonal migration, but generally traditional village steam has a lot in common across different ethnicities. Its general importance in myths and tales, in cosmology and ritual indicates similarities in societal role and function, not much researched until this moment.

The value of steam bath is based on its knowledge or tradition. We can certainly point to a uniform steam culture, i.e. a culture of knowledge which is preserved, developed and passed to the further generations. The ones who were bearing the knowledge were the same healers and elders, who were carrying out ritual and healing duties for the tribe, thus making steam an integral part of communal life.

Urban revolution created a novel breed of communal steam culture, now seen as a precursor to urban wellness: the thermae of Roman, or the hammams of Asia. An urban steambath amplified hygienic and communal functions of a village steam, but on a larger scale and therefore involving better planning and standardization, taking away the ritual and some of the healing component. From there on, the civilization paths of urban and village steam cultures part: here we will more focus on the traditional village steam culture.

Finally, the ritual and spiritual aspect of village steam made it a competitor to the church, as much as the priest in Europe replaced the village healer. This added to decline and marginalization of healing steam culture in most of European civilization, except for far North and far East. Instead, a secular culture of bathing emerged and spread, until modern utilities completely replaced its main hygienic function. Far East Asian and Native American culture of steam stayed pretty much intact, however.

The current revival of steam culture reflects that some of the functions and properties of steam culture are still relevant, perhaps even more than before. Let’s consider what they are.

Properties of healing steam & heat

Heat and steam aren’t the most funded areas of medical study. Having said that, in the last 30–40 years there is an ever growing body of research, partly due to Finnish and Japanese ethnomedical studies, partly related to the interest in thermoregulation aspects of human body.

Generally, it is observed that the impact of heat & steam on human body is vast. It is affecting all major systems including respiratory, lymphatic, cardiovascular, immune, neural, digestive, but as well muscle, bones and connective tissues. It has both short-term and long-term effects, and studies show that most of the effects of careful application of steam & heat are beneficial for physical health. Furthermore, steam and heat are shown to induce changes in neural activity: large-scale effects on nervous system, as much as changes in neurochemical activity of the brain. Overall, there are studies showing both mental and physical health benefits coming from regular application of steam, particularly in Finnish sauna culture.

Finally, active steam culture is coincidentally connected with communal health, as observed in the healthier Nordic and Far Eastern communities. Steam might not be the only component of a better communal bonding, but strikingly important as a pacemaker for a healthy communal lifestyle in many cultures, despite the superficial differences between, say, Finns and Japanese. It is quite resilient as well: although never welcomed by the church in Central America or Russia, steam culture successfully survived and preserved at least some of its healing knowledge.

With few exceptions, steam and heat are accepted as physiotherapeutic tools in Western healthcare, mostly connected to balneotherapy, i.e. as supportive tools for or after main treatment. Of non-European healthcare systems, Ayurvedic medicine makes fair use of swedana, and so does the native Mexica/Aztec tradition of temazcalli, to name a few. Non-European medical traditions make less of a boundary between somatic and mental health, and steam is used as one of the versatile tools and foundations for a variety of other methods and medicines.

Contemporary Ayurveda Swedana

What is striking in the non-European traditions of steam is the aspect of guided application of steam and heat, i.e. not a sporadic, random process, but a treatment based on knowledge and applied in a particular healing sequence. We’ll focus on the functions of guided steam and heat in some more detail to understand its functions from several perspectives.

Functions of guided steam

For a temperate or cold climate, steam used to be the one of the first survival and individual healthcare tools. Arguably, once the human tribes left to the colder or elevated places, both heated shelter and space of steam would co-emerge as an evolutionary instrument. To wash wounds, facilitate birth and postpartum healing, fight diseases of cold nature (as they’re usually understood in most traditional medicinal systems), activate medicinal action of herbs: all that would need hot water and hot air, and at least some degree of medicinal knowledge. Only a few Far Nordic tribes haven’t used steam or bath, developing a different adaptive mechanism to extreme cold and deficit of fuel.

Beyond the widespread use of medicinal herbs, many traditions came up with topical application of steam using herbal or wooden branches. Some of the more elaborate methods of this work are present in banya and pirtis traditions of Russia and Baltic countries, however similar approaches are present in Mexican temazcalli as well.

Secondly, by impacting circulation and triggering a thermoregulatory response of CNS, steam induces an altered state of mind: trance. From a physiological perspective, this explains the basis for ritual or spiritual applications of steam. An experienced guide can control the extent and flow of trance of steam session participants using water and ventilation. Furthermore, the flow of trance can be managed by burning or steaming special herbs and resins. The uses of medicinal trance are multifold and range from what is used by the means of contemporary psychotherapy, hypnotherapy in particular, all the way into traditional shamanic perspective of healing.

Women’s banya: a popular print, Russia, XIX c.

Thirdly, a communal ritual function goes beyond the domain of contemporary understanding of healthcare. Ritual purification of all constituents of human being, sense of symbolic but vividly experienced rebirth and communion are a common feature of most steam traditions, even if expressed in different terms and concepts, from the inipi of Lakota to the banya of Russians. This function is remarkably dependent upon qualified guidance.

The knowledge transfer process for both individual and communal steam guidance is an integral part of each ethnic culture respectively, generally reflecting the subtlety and power of the methods used. So, an inipi guide in the Lakota tradition would need to be trained over years to obtain necessary perception and skills to be able to lead the ceremony; it takes however just weeks to prepare a Russian banshik to be able to facilitate a simple veniki (branches) treatment; and minimal prior knowledge is required for the usual steam practitioner. To master any of the traditions, the path is lifelong, but to enter, the barrier is low. An important part of the knowledge transfer in all steam cultures happens to occur through the experience itself, rather than intellectually, indicating the participatory nature of steam culture.

Re-discovering healing properties of steam

The post-industrial world is a formidable challenge for mental health and lifestyle of us humans. What is manifesting as the pandemic of loneliness, is but a beginning of a deeper crisis encompassing defunct individual stress coping mechanism, the collapse of industrial urban model, the imbalance of digital culture and the sensible degradation of overall ecology. In short, we need to question the way we relate to ourselves, to the close and far ones and to the planet, all at the same time.

Re-discovering the healing properties and specifically the knowledge of guidance of steam might be a great contribution to develop (or recall?) our ability to face the change and adapt. Quite literally, the physical and emotional entrainment which is facilitated by heat and steam is a great coping mechanism for a range of environmental impact factors, from immune system attacks to digital intoxication.

On a larger scale, ‘communal immunity’ can be fostered by developing a pattern of communal steam sessions, which is the way it works in most traditional environments. The more knowledge of guidance is embedded in the sessions, the more valuable they become. In that way, a precedent of future post-urban culture will be set up: communities need their public healing spaces.

In the broadest sense, the way we live together and relate to each other can be restored once the culture of cleansing and rejuvenating our relationships will be restored. No less is important that this culture is restored in a networked, participatory, grass-roots way, rather than in a ‘client-provider’ mode.

Solar-powered steam bath of KADMON: a concept for Fly Ranch / LAGI competition, 2020.

About the author:

Boris Ryabov is co-founder of Steamology Institute, a practitioner of banya tradition of healing steam and an apprentice in Shipibo healing tradition.

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Boris Ryabov

Co-founder of Steamology Institute and Essential Steam, venture investor and healer.