Hell, there were several times during hot yoga that I thought I was going to die from heat or exhaustion; or both. There were a few times during cold baths that I thought I would shuffle off this mortal coil if for no other reason than my entire body tried to climb into my belly button to get away from the cold. In any real sense, a lot of these things are plain uncomfortable. But none of them felt dangerous. I guess I mean that I never thought I was going to actually die; not like dead dead anyway. This one felt dangerous.
I guess what i’m saying is that this was a harsh physical lesson that i learned while totally exposed to the entirety of the world
In this case, however, it might be closer to say that I would have preferred death to what I was actually experiencing. I didn’t know what it meant to pray for death until I experienced this. The person who was rubbing my entire body raw had a name. I simply called out to him in the only noise I could make at the time; the bleating sound of a dying goat. He understood that I meant “keep going.” I don’t think I had a firm grasp on what I was trying to communicate to him in those moments, but it was decidedly not “keep going.” It was probably closer to “stop please, I have money I will give to you,” or “please do not take your anger out on me, I have children who need me.” I was fearful that our language barrier might encourage him more should I continue to beg for mercy, so I just laid still and imagined this treatment being visited upon all of my enemies whether real or imagined.
Yes, you have to take a shower first. Yes, it helps quite a bit to sit in the pool of steaming hot water first before. Yes, it also helps to sit in the sauna first for a while contemplating your exit routes and how quickly and quietly you can recapture your clothes and personal effects from the lockers at the front of the building. All that to say that this was one of the more terrifying experiences that I never thought I would have to endure.
It’s physically uncomfortable but also emotionally uncomfortable and also somewhat aesthetically displeasing…
A number of different thoughts occurred to me during my intro to what this would look like as an experience. I think the most important thing that you don’t want you to leave here without understanding is that this is not for the faint of heart. And I am decidedly faint of heart. I wish I had known what was coming. So let me be your eyes and ears on this one, friends. If you choose to follow me down this path, you will leave a different person. If for no other reason than the fact that they will take the first two layers of your skin off with a sloughing gloves and leave both sets on the floor.
I should also take a few minutes to point out a couple of things about the experience. I said it above but it bears repeating: You will absolutely be naked. Stark naked. There will be nothing between you and the cold, pink, plasticine picnic table covering. Nothing between you and the scrubbing gloves of a grumpy acerbic grandpa who doesn’t care to speak your language. He’s going to lift your legs and arms. He’s going to contort your body into positions you neither like, nor want, to replicate. And he’s going to scrub places you cannot reach on your own in the shower. It’s going to feel like he’s purposefully violating the Geneva Convention. It’s going to suck. You’re going to hate it. And when it’s over, you’re not going to regret it one bit. Because you will emerge anew. Whether you like it or not.
A few things about a Korean Spa first.
A few things first here. If you’ve never been to a Korean Spa, it can be completely disorienting. There are large written signs to direct you, of course. Most are written in Korean which makes complete sense. Some use English subtitles, the effect of which is even more confusion. Most confusing is the number of doors that seemingly go nowhere and everywhere at once. There are signs for the laundry, signs for the massage rooms, signs for the pools, and nude areas and family areas and saunas. They must have spent a fortune on hinges alone when the build out was complete. But the worst part of the experience is that everyone else seems to live there full time and has a full working memory of where everything is and where they’re going at all times. I even followed a poor man into a toilet stall thinking surely he must know where the hot tubs were located. He was very gracious about the mix up but the language barrier prevented me from explaining myself and so I apologized as best I could and promised we wouldn’t have to make eye contact again during my visit.
Another disorienting problem with Korean Spas is that upon entering the facility you are handed a set of clothes that resemble a prison uniform. They’re allegedly cotton, but I’ll be honest, it felt like they might have been made from angry hornets. You get one v-necked shirt that’s at least 4 sizes too big and one pair of shorts that are dangerously close to feeling like slacks. They’re faded orange and do absolutely nothing for your skin tone. They do not fit well and they have certainly been worn by at least 200 people before they ever get to you. And everyone is wearing them as a uniform. Literally every person you see for however long you stay will be in one of two things: 1) ugly orange prison uniform complete with shank, or, 2) their birthday suit.
There is no such thing as modesty inside one of these places. It does not exist. It’s a trace of a bygone past like antebellum mansions or a respectable presidency. It’s not anything outside the norm of a gym locker room, I suppose. We’ve all been around to see the old men drying their balls underneath the hand dryer. I hope one day to be the old man drying my balls in the Dyson Blade hand dryer. Just drop them in there like a toaster. The fact that no one seems to care about the nudity is frankly pretty cool. The mens and womens sides of the spa are completely separate and so there’s no chance of somebody’s grandma sliding in while you’re powdering your decolletage. And keep in mind, most of the bodies you’re going to see are just like yours. Some fat, some skinny and some oddly disproportionate. And none of that matters one bit. It’s actually quite freeing to notice that nobody else sees your body for the disaster you assume it to be. They don’t have the time or inclination to give your rig more than a slight glance and then move on.
But. And there’s always a but, yes? The most disorienting thing about the Korean Spa experience is that there are people sleeping everywhere. Now look, it was 7:30 am when I we arrived. I get it, that’s early to some folks. But inside the facility were entire rooms filled with hard plastic chaise lounges with literally dozens and dozens of people sleeping. Some in blankets, some dressed in their spa issued pumpkin suits and some covered only in what appeared to be hand towels. It was a sight to behold and felt alarmingly dystopian. Oh, and here’s one more little nugget you might want to tuck away for later use. The front desk person is going to give you a plastic bracelet that you will wear the entire time you’re inside the spa. It contains your locker key, your billing number and probably at least 3 communicable diseases.
Once you’ve put your shoes in one locker and your clothes in another (yes, I said what I said), you’ll hop into your prison romper and make your way out of the locker room and onto the sauna floor of the spa. You’ll make at least 3 wrong turns and gaze upon the same blank faces as you walk through another wrong door. Everyone here knows where they’re going but you. But once on the floor, things get somehow even weirder. People are sleeping everywhere AGAIN. Up against the walls of the saunas. On the pool deck. In the booths at the little food court area! Wait, did I not mention that there was a food court next to the saunas? There’s a damn Sbarro in this place 8 feet from superheated sauna room and alarmingly close to ALL OF THE PEOPLE SLEEPING ALL OVER THE FLOOR OF THIS PLACE WHAT IN THE WORLD IS HAPPENING RIGHT NOW.
My wife, who graciously agreed to join me for this particular ride, took all of this in stride. I have several questions about her childhood that flow directly from the relaxed look on her face while she stepped lightly over dozens of seemingly lifeless bodies. I on the other hand, knowing full well my penchant for screaming when touched unexpectedly, zig zagged my way around all of the corpses on the floor and prayed that my skin wouldn’t make contact with anyone else’s along the way. My wife, all 6 feet of her, managed to make it from the locker room to the first sauna in roughly twenty steps. It took me an hour and forty minutes like a rat in a science experiment hitting dead ends and turning back over and over. Finally, we reached the door of the first dry sauna and stepped inside.
We were alone. Well, we were almost alone. One poor soul was asleep inside the sauna and was breathing so shallowly that I thought about nudging her to make sure she hadn’t chosen this particular place to make her exit from the world. I was concerned. My wife on the other hand, was already meditating and lost in a blissful trance. I shuffled away from the apparently sleeping figure on the floor and chivalrously put my wife in between it and me. One thing about these dry saunas. They’re huge. They have no benches to sit on; only grass mats. There’s nothing between you and the boiling hot floor except a couple knots of seagrass. Now look, the seagrass certainly dissipates some of the heat. It’s not that they’re hot. It’s just that they’re so warm that its objectively disquieting. Speaking of quiet, this place is preternaturally quiet. No one speaks above a whisper if at all. It’s just one set of prison coveralls after another silently shuffling from one place to the next trying to figure out which door leads where and trying not to step on the bodies on the floor. It’s just a damn scene to behold.
After several minutes laying on the floor, our sleeping friend was roused from her slumber and shuffled off to have a reflexology treatment or massage or eat a piece of pizza. I don’t know and I wasn’t going to ask. It was then that I realized that the only safe place to be really was inside the saunas themselves. There were three on the main floor. The first was a gem sauna with the walls covered in beautiful stones artfully arranged to resemble a bonsai tree. It was calming to contemplate. The second sauna was a salt sauna and was at least double the size of the first and at least 50 degrees warmer. I think we measured the second sauna at roughly 200 degrees. It, too, was empty and no one appeared to join us for our entire 30 minute session inside. The last and final was a gold spa wherein each of the wall’s seams were painted gold. The room was extremely bright. But again no one joined us on our journey. Where were all the people who were supposed to be enjoying the amenities you ask? Why, of course, sleeping on the floor just outside. I have never in my life…
One more thing about this place. The lights. The lights were yellowish. They looked to be infrared maybe. Or like warming lights at a fast food place. I definitely felt a twinge of roast at mother’s day brunch. Everything was bathed in a warm orange-yellow light that made me feel like a taquito on a gas station rotisserie. The whole thing felt… just…off. There’s no way I can describe it to you subtly. I think you just have to see it for yourself. And I encourage you to do so. And when you do, please write to me at Iknowyoudidntbelievemebutnowyousee@yahoo.com
Anyhoo, once you’ve thoroughly creeped yourself out on the main floor, it’s time to dig a little deeper and get in the pools. Look, there’s nothing extraordinary inside. It’s just men in various states of undress getting ready to head in or ready to head out. There was only one nude man doing burpees that concerned me, but nobody else seemed to notice him so I decided to play along and stay as far away from that kind of confidence as I could. I don’t need that rubbing off on me, literally or figuratively. There are hot tubs and cold tubs, steam rooms and wet saunas. Plenty of places to shit shower and shave and then a very strange set of what appear to be sit down showers with mirrors and hoses. I didn’t understand those and I wasn’t about to strike up a conversation to ask what kind of person would be prone to use something of that nature. I had enough questions already. I wasn’t about to go looking for more at this point. I gritted my teeth and headed for the main event. After fumbling around trying to present myself to the right person for my body shampoo and cementing several very strange new friendships, I arrived back at the pool deck from which I had originally departed. There was small button much like a doorbell and a small sign that said ring for service. I rang. And I stood. Naked. And waiting. And silently dying inside. I didn’t want to leave for fear of missing my window. I didn’t want to hop in a near by pool only to have to emerge glistening like an out of shape bond girl. And I certainly didn’t want to step into a sauna and then present myself to new best friend sweating from every pore on my body. So I stood there. Naked with a hand towel while the world moved on around me. I have been in come uncomfortable situations, but nothing like this before. I’ve never even had dreams that made me this uncomfortable. And so I did what I always do when I’m totally out of my element. I hop from one foot to the other while pretending the stretch my back. I like to think it masks the insecurity I’m feeling. In reality, it probably makes me look like I’m far too eager for this show to get on the road. And when you’re nekkid in a room full of men, that sort of confidence gets you a stern warning letter from the management or a date. I wanted neither. I simply wanted to disappear. I was not that lucky.
Korean demadi is sometimes referred to as a body shampoo. If someone tells you that lie, they are not your friend and you shouldn’t hang out with them alone. They’re either plotting your demise or secretly filming you so they can release the footage on the internet. What it is, is painful. And I’m here to make sure that you’re aware just how painful it is. Now, I can’t speak to every Korean Spa in America. I’d be lying if I said I had been to more than one in my life. The truth of the matter is that I wasn’t prepared because no one prepared me. And so I’m here to offer you the olive branch no one bequeathed unto me.
There are, I’m certain, rules of engagement when it comes to a spa of this nature. There’s not gonna be anyone around to answer those questions for you though so you’re gonna just have to fly blind for a little while. And maybe that’s the point of this book. I’m going to take the bullet first so you can be uncomfortable with me and then realize that the apprehension you feel is either entirely well grounded or just a silly by product of ego. In most of the items I’ve addressed, my ego and fear of the unknown are what made me the most nervous. The experiences themselves were all fairly innocuous. This is the one where I should have listened to my head, my heart and my colon.
I’m at best a purist. I’m convinced that football should be played outdoors in the open on a field made of beautiful green grass. I’m also convinced that baseball should be played outside in the open. And I am 100% convinced that something called a body shampoo should not be performed on the pool deck of a men’s spa in full view of the entire goddamned place with no covering and not so much as a shower curtain for privacy. And yet, here I am staring at 4 massage beds sitting basically on the concrete surrounding the hot and cold tubs. I remember the horror spreading through my body when my brain transmitted the following Amber Alert: “Oh my god, this is where this is going to happen isn’t it?” It never occurred to me that this was the body shampoo area. I thought maybe they were just for more people to sleep since they are sleeping on every other square inch of this god forsaken place. But to have beds set up right outside the area where I’m going to have my taint exfoliated? Jesus, I know we don’t talk much but could you lend me a hand here. This can’t have been created in your image.
I want to set this scene for you and I’m not sure that I’ll ever do it justice. My adrenaline was off the charts at this point and I contemplated running away. Just Forrest Gump the fuck out of there immediately. But no, I’m committed to this endeavor for you and for me and so I stayed. You owe me. You really owe me. The four massage tables are covered in a pink plastic shower curtain looking material. They look slick as hell. This is a slip and slide. There is no way I’m getting on this table and letting anyone, male or female, scrub my entire epidermis while the entire cast of Rent looks on. And as I turn to leave, he sees me. A new player has entered the arena. My grumpy korean grandfather has arrived and he is angry to see me. I’m not prepared for what happens next.
It’s 9:05 and I can see why he might be upset to find his first client of the day standing naked and sweating inside his office. He tells me that he needs five more minutes to get ready and begins filling 55 gallon barrels with hot steaming water and muttering to himself. I’m desperate to hear what he’s saying but I’m scared to death to find out he’s discussing all of his life choices that led him to a place where he has to scrub my entire naked body for money. I’m only worried because I’m having that exact same set of thoughts. What must he have done in the past that this is the job he has at this stage in his life.
And at once, he breaks the spell and hollers “FACE UP” at me from very close range. He must have closed the distance between us while I was day nightmaring. He pointed to the one bed in the center of the area. I motioned for perhaps the bed in the corner that at least wouldn’t be center stage but he apparently had his heart set on embarrassing me thoroughly out in the open. What came next will haunt me for the rest of my life. He threw an entire bucket of hot water on the pink plastic material and hollered again “FACE UP!” This time he was a little more emphatic and the entire population of the pool room took notice and craned their necks to assess the comotion. I couldn’t begin to tell you how gently I tried to slide onto the table face up while meekly reminding him that I wasn’t actually hard of hearing. I think, but am not certain, that my ass had barely made contact with the surface of the table when I felt particularly strong hands push me back and mold me into an extremely exposing and entirely unflattering position. I was entirely snake out at this point. I’m no shrinking violet but this was too much. And whether rightly or wrongly so, I’m certain my dangle down took notice and decided this was the time to crawl back into his shell. I tried sucking my stomach in to make matters appear larger, but I’m certain that only made it worse. Mercifully, my companion must have had a plan in place because what came next could not have been thought up on the fly. With a practiced hand, he dunked a towel in hot water, draped it deftly over my exposed meat and veg and wrapped it up neatly into what I can only describe as a cock dumpling. I looked down to find a steaming soup bao where before only my hang downs had been. I was too shocked to say anything; honestly I don’t know what I could or would have said regardless. He had, without a hint of effort, transformed my favorite pals into a dim sum cart. It was clear who was in control. I was only here for the ride after that. He laid a steaming towel over my eyes and began.
At first, my new friend used what felt like a brand new sea sponge on my body. I had a general idea that this was the preamble and that things might get more difficult later. He worked first on my arm and shoulders; turning my head vigorously from side to side to make sure he got all of my neck and behind my ears. Then he moved on to my chest and stomach. I’m not ticklish per se, but this seemed like the worst time possible to start giggling. So I laid still and stifled it. I can’t imagine what he must have been thinking at this point but I decided to try to make conversation. Nothing would come out. I willed my lips to move and was met with a stony wall of silence. I was prepared to learn about his family and how he enjoyed his work and all the other questions that queued up inside my brain. Literally no words would form. I was a mute.
And then he did something completely unexpected. He moved my dumpling. He wasn’t harsh. It wasn’t violent. It was simply so unexpected that I flinched. Remember I’m on a slippery table wearing half a loin cloth in front of god and all of his creation. There is zero room for error here. But he definitely moved my noodle. He was, I guess, trying to get to my inner thigh and couldn’t get the angle he wanted without maneuvering my hard boiled eggs away from my leg. And so in his head, he simply removed the barrier and kept going. I want to stop here to compliment his pornigami. The towel wrapped about my hey diddle diddle did not move. And when he was done on one side he moved to the other and repeated the maneuver with the same amount of success. I have never been more amazed in my life. This was high art. Truly.
I relaxed now certain in the belief that nothing, absolutely nothing, would bring me any lower than what I had just experienced. I needed only wait two more minutes before he spoke to me a third time. “Side!” he yelled, just loud enough to make sure everyone in the room was reminded of my presence, naked and afraid. I removed the towel from my eyes and quizzingly asked “Side?” He motioned for me to flip onto my side and walked away. I know I’ve told you this before but I am not a graceful man. I move in fits and jerking motions and do my best to not be noticed for anything other than my humor. Alas, this was not to be.
The plastic, slick with water in some places and tacky in others, held onto every pressure point I wanted to use and refused to let me go until I completely committed to the act of movement. I’m sure I looked like an albino walrus trying to move about the table. I dared not make a sound so as to not draw anymore unwanted attention from those watching this calamity from literal feet way. I got to one elbow and established a base. I then rolled slightly to my side and tried gamely to swing one leg over the other. As I did, the plastic underneath my ass and hip gave way with a great giant slick sound and suddenly I was in real danger of sliding naked onto the floor with only my won ton willy to help me break my fall. I made a sound that must have sounded like real fear as I felt the steadying hand of my overseer meet my hip and push me gently onto my side. I was grateful for him then. I lost that feeling shortly.
He moved my legs backwards and forwards so that he could make sure not a single micrometer of my body went untouched. Dead skin flew in all directions. The act, divorced of the pain, was spectacular. I could only imagine how satisfying it must have been to watch all that detritus fly. And then he ordered me onto my “OTHER SIDE!” and we repeated at act of falling with style. It was almost comical. If I hadn’t feared his reaction, I might have begun to enjoy the ridiculousness of the circumstances. I thought to myself, we’ve covered three of the four sides and nothing on the fourth side has anything I wouldn’t particularly care about being seen or touched. Boy. When you’re wrong, you’re wrong.
I had drifted off into my own thoughts when I felt the soup dumpling loosen and disappear. I snapped too pretty damn quick at that point. I thought to myself, if this sumbitch tries to make my sack look like a shaved sugar glider, I’m going to lose my shit. That thought was quickly displaced by a very loud “FACE DOWN!” I knew better than to question him, I simply flipped. It was one fluid motion at this point. I had conquered the fear of sliding onto the floor. Because I knew that if i slipped onto that floor in front of all of those people, I would simply curl up and die on the spot. There would nothing for me to worry about because I would be dead from humiliation. There would be nothing left of me but my corpse after I ascended into heaven on the wings of pure unadulterated shame.
But I had made it. I was 75% of the way done and I had the lead in the clubhouse. My back was scrubbed and I imagined all of the parts of my back I can’t reach screaming out in pure ecstasy. It was glorious. My feet got a scrubbing. My achilles were cleansed. My calves and thighs were brought back to life. Everything was coming up milhouse. And then he touched my butt. Nothing wrong with that I suppose. It’s part of the skin. It needed some exfoliation. But I was not prepared to fight the battle of the taint. I had had enough at this point and clenched. I clenched hard. I clenched so hard my soup dumpling reappeared on the other side and would have made me proud if I wasn’t laying face down trying to be demure about the last and final frontier. This was the Northwest Passage and I was a hard frozen winter. We are not going to cross northern Canada by boat this year friend. It’s not gonna happen.
I think he finally understood that I was good to go and didn’t need an exploration of box canyon. He hollered once more “FACE UP!” I made my way unto my elbows and then side before he pushed me over and began slathering me in soap. It was actually relaxing. I figured the worst was over and I was right. We finished up mercifully ten minutes later and I was a new person. I had conquered a fear. I had lost a couple layers of skin. I had made a new friend AND enemy. And I had learned a little about myself. One – I didn’t need to do this again for a long while, but that I would definitely do it again at some point. Two – the previous statement wasn’t about the act, it was my own feelings about my body and had exactly zero to do with any health benefits associated with the episode. And Three – I probably needed to make peace with my body at forty two years old. It’s mine. All of my choices have brought me here. And I am in charge of what I look like and how I make changes going forward. I vowed to spend more time in yoga classes getting flexible rather than at bars. I told myself I was going to eat more salad and less bar-b-q. I even made a promise to myself to forgive a little more. No one in that entire room had noticed me even one little bit. All the wounds I had imagined were entirely self inflicted. People generally don’t notice you until you make them do so. And if they do notice you, it’s entirely in passing. I’m reminded of a comic I say recently that has a figure looking sad with the caption “No one gives a shit.” The bottom half of the cartoon is the same figure with a smiley face repeating the phrase “No one gives a shit.” Might as well go on and do what you want when you want to. It’s really true. Because if you were that close to me on that table during that experiment and didn’t laugh, then you truly didn’t care about what I was doing. And maybe that’s the best take away. Nobody gives a shit. Might as well start living like it.