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Pain Is Beauty: Three Intense SF Wellness Rituals

Photo by Laurent Darmon

The path to inner and outer beauty is paved with small discomforts. Explore some of San Francisco’s more exotic (and intense) rituals.

RUSSIAN BATH, Archimedes Banya
In a Russian sauna, there’s little room for either lucid contemplation or modesty. But lying prone in a 190-degree room dripping with Amazonian humidity, two distinct thoughts bubbled up. The first—which arose as aromatic birch leaves began brushing, tapping, and scraping over intimate stretches of skin—was how physical discomfort evidently trumps embarrassment. As ancient and respected as venik platza may be, it boiled down to Dennis (a 20-something Belarusian) whipping my naked body with tree branches while others watched. Having been instructed to turn over and expose myself as a basting chicken, I wondered: “But will he notice when I die?”

Apparently, just opening my eyes was a signal that my system had reached its brink. The sweat streaming from my pores was hot enough to brew tea; my scalp felt afire. Seconds later, I was waist deep in a plunge pool as 38-degree water poured over my head. “Fire or ice?” asked a great poet. Apparently, deep detoxification requires a healthy dose of both.

Akin to an Ironman workout for the circulatory system, Russians attribute their long life expectancies and resistance to disease to the regular practice of banya. The payoff? A glowing complexion and enduring sense of bliss—best enjoyed wrapped in a robe atop a rooftop terrace overlooking the bay. —Hilary Belle Walker // $60 at Archimedes Banya (Hunters Point)

KOREAN SCRUB, Imperial Day Spa
Halfway through my full body scrub, I began thinking of my skin as a crusty old pot and the underwear-clad Korean masseuse as the determined housewife dedicated to make me as good as new. Wearing some kind of magical yellow glove and with an impressive amount of elbow grease for a woman of her miniscule stature, Hana spent the better part of 30 minutes scrubbing every crease, nook, and cranny—from my scalp to my toes and everywhere in between—with an insistency and thoroughness that nearly made me cringe. Faced down and up, on one side and the other, I had shed all but the most pristine layer of epidermis.

Then, in a luxuriously restorative gesture, came the deep tissue massage: Hot towels, warm oil, and deep, primal moaning (mine). “Too much?” she asked. “No, I’m great,” I answered. And I was. While perhaps not the most relaxing of massages, intricate knots were loosened and tension supplies emptied. Bliss arrived with a pore-penetrating facial mask of cucumber pulp followed by a hot milk body wash that Cleopatra would envy. The payoff? Skin that’s almost illegally soft for an adult woman, even after a week. —H.B.W. // $90 at Imperial Day Spa (Japantown)

THAI MASSAGE, Suchada
I couldn’t help but feel a bit ridiculous as I indicated my achy body parts by circling the appendages of an illustrated naked man on the laminated menu at Suchada. But anyone who’s answered the question of how much pressure you like in a massage with a Sharpie-d ring around the word “Hard” knows this 1,000-year-old therapy, based on pressure points along energy lines in the body, is no joke.

For two sado-masochistic hours, a 4-foot-something woman with a laughing smile and pure schadenfreude pumping through her veins walked all over me and contorted me like a human pretzel, stretching muscles I didn’t know I had. She didn’t so much rub my neck as she did massage my brain stem. Her hands, elbows, knees, and toes performed an anatomy lesson: Yes, those are my kidneys you are kneeling on; oh, please stand on 
my arthritic hands and tired liver. It’s all awake now. 
I will either leave here paralyzed or utterly reborn.

Exactly 120 minutes later, I felt like I’d returned from a week-long vacation in Thailand. My limbs were weightless and my gait easy. As my shoulders unhinged from my earlobes, my neck felt long like a ballerina’s. And what was that blush of youth in my newly plumped-up cheeks? Oh, it’s called circulation. —Chloé Harris Frankeny $65–$125 at Suchada Thai Massage (two locations, SoMa)