Friday, February 11, 2011

A Prude Newbie's Sauna Experience

"Don't worry, nobody will be staring at you. Everybody minds their own business.", Lynn's friends assured her.

She received the holiday gift card from her fellow nurses for a whole-day stay in a Korean sauna in College Point, New York. A day of pampering. The brochure promised a day of relaxation and rejuvenation. The nurses gushed about the soothing experience of hot sauna, full body scrub and massage and brushed away her questions about nudity. They cited the health benefits of saunas: improving micro circulation, reducing vasoconstriction and hypertension.

In European and other Asian cultures, saunas were regarded as an important part of daily life. A high-end spa website offered "an ideal environment for a rejuvenating spa vacation for both the body and spirit and for rediscovering the peace there is to be found in silence." So before Lynn went to her spa treat, she envisioned a totally relaxing encounter. Peace and quiet, no assault to the senses, just the soothing and deserved pampering.

The Korean spa is not frequented by celebrities but still is an impressive, state-of-the-art facility with high ratings from its customers. Lynn was met with valet parking and friendly receptionists who handed her a tacky but cute peach-and-yellow top and shorts ensemble. A high-tech wrist bracelet for the locker and for additional purchases in the restaurant and other services reminded Lynn of the wrist bracelets that her hospital uses to keep the wandering patients from absconding.

Lynn was directed to a row of lockers just off the reception desk. The receptionist handed her two small hand towels, not the beach towels that can cover just about everything. The towels were about 18 inches by 24 inches, not meant to be cover-ups, but more to pat yourself dry. Modesty be damned. Huh??? Just a portent of things to come. Not a place for the shy.

As she was standing by the lockers, some Korean girls claimed the locker nearby, and without even any sign of self-consciousness, proceeded to take everything off. Butt-naked and not bothering with any covers, they sauntered off to the pools.

Lynn was not easily intimidated, but the idea of walking through the open hall without a stitch on is something she never thought she would ever, ever do even though this is a female-only place. The place was huge. Immediately to her right were the stand-alone showers. A few steps away were the heated swimming pool.

Lynn had erroneously thought that there would be private jacuzzis and massage areas where she would only drop the towels just as she quickly jumps into the pool or climb onto a massage bed. Lo and behold, three Russian ladies in their 70's passed by, nonchalantly going on with business and made Lynn realize that she was the only one with a "deer-in-the-headlight" look. Everyone around her was oblivious to all the nudity. Forget the neon lights, her stilted walk and her firm grasp on the hand towels to cover strategic areas might as well have labeled her as a Newbie.

This is a place where inhibitions are forgotten, and where average women can enjoy the benefits of the sauna, to reclaim the right to shine alongside the skinny models of today. Unlike the young, her body had succumbed to gravity. Lynn tried to psyche herself to the inevitable unveiling, "Isn't this what we want all along, that society accepts women of all sizes, warts and all, and in my case, bulges and all? A place where Reubenesque figures hold court, where there's no shame in imperfections and there's freedom from constraints of society's idea of perfection. Should be liberating, right?"

But first, she needed to work on liberating her personal hang-ups and inhibitions. Born and bred in an ultra-conservative family in the Philippines where showing cleavages were frowned upon, this sauna experience is a test of how liberated she had become. Growing up, women with "Walang K" (loosely translated as "no right to flaunt") received scathing glances and sometimes disrespectful catcalls. Problem is, Lynn's Prude gene was very dominant still, even though she had spent her summers in water parks like Splish-Splash where people paraded around with skimpy clothing that paid homage to misplaced and more-than-generous curves. She stayed away from form-hugging clothes and plunging necklines.

Lynn mustered the strength to shower alongside the women, mindful of prison etiquette. She darted quickly to the pool, dropping the towel to the side only as she dipped into the heated jacuzzi. The pounding jet of water calmed her pounding heartbeat; distracted her from the shame, and eventually relaxation took hold. Bliss on earth. It was like that stress-reducer Calgon tv commercial from a long time ago, "Calgon, take me away". Her muscles loosened, she thought, "If other women are enjoying their sauna experience, despite their less than perfect bodies, who says I should be cringing every time something jiggles."

Feeling more courageous and adventurous, Lynn ventured over to the full-body massage section. She expected private rooms but instead the huge room featured several slabs of concrete. Exfoliation come courtesy of stone-faced middle-aged Korean women attired in two-piece bikinis with loofahs which they wielded with professional insouciance. Not knowing what to expect, Lynn meekly lay prone on the concrete slab, closing her eyes in shame, to close off the visual of naked women in slabs just like meat in a slaughterhouse. The worker expertly massaged her tight muscles on the neck, back and all over and all her aches and pains went away. Lynn sighed with pleasure, "Ahhh, Heaven."

Then the masseuse started to do chiropractor work: stretching, pulling, snapping, and cracking. Lynn panicked. The image of EMS crews responding to her 911 call of a fractured back came to mind. Would they recognize her as the triage nurse who gave them hell every time they turn in an incomplete ambulance crew report? ? OMG, would they just run her off to her hospital as a Trauma Team? Would the ER people recover from the initial shock then will take turns to offer foley catheters? Arggghhhh!!!! Lynn was traumatized by the specter of embarrassment.

Freaked out by the experience, Lynn decided to abandon her plans for a facial. She might be that unlucky one trapped underneath a mud masque or held hostage by the one-hour seaweed treatment while her grumbling stomach threatens with diarrhea. She did not want to push her luck.

Lynn survived. No cracked spine, no embarrassing trip to the ED. She half-wished that the spa sells those "I survived" t-shirts. She spent a few minutes deep-breathing to recover. To her surprise, her joints felt loose and her muscles tingled with appreciation. Her body sizzled with energy, as if the masseuse had released the demons of sluggish inactivity and awakened heretofore forgotten cells. Her muscles felt like 25 years old. Thanks to the exfoliation, all the dead skin cells were washed away with warm water. She was a new woman, with reddened but baby soft skin.

The next hour was spent enjoying the hot and cold sauna, especially the clay room with a sea of clay balls. With the awkwardness gone, Lynn felt sophisticated and a woman-of-the-world as she imagined her body responding with improved micro-circulation. Those healthy anti-oxidants were enjoying a free rein inside her body. She was alone inside the sauna, and there was peace in silence.

The restaurant food was pricey, but tasty. Energized and now dressed with the peach and yellow garb, Lynn downed a few California rolls and a refreshing strawberry smoothie. Tucked in one of the comfortable chaise lounges just off the restaurant, she spent the next hour enjoying Dean Koontz' latest book. Lynn thought, "What a life! So this is how pampering feels."

Except for the initial awkwardness and the momentary terror with the pseudo-chiropractor, she enjoyed the experience. Exhilarating in its uncomfortability. It was humbling in the sense that it exposed her vulnerabilities. It was also a triumphant adventure because she learned to operate outside her comfort zone, accomplishing the unimaginable. Yay! She had shed her inhibitions... and much more. She had successfully accomplished her objective to push her boundaries. She's a new sophisticate. No longer a prude. Buoyed by the experience, she was ready to take on the world.

At the end, Lynn learned that the third floor is unisex, and of course, no nudity. All that agita for nothing. Hah.