No kissing in the chill zone

The newly opened Asha Urban Baths mixes ancient and modern ways to practice self-care during surreal times

Cori Martinez, owner of Asha Urban Baths, leans on the rail of its still, warm pool.

Cori Martinez, owner of Asha Urban Baths, leans on the rail of its still, warm pool.

Photo by Jon Hermison

You can soak and steam at Asha Urban Baths (2415 27th Street) from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday. Call ahead if you roll deep with five people or more: (916) 837-3290.

For the last 27 years, interior designer Catherine Reon has luxuriated in hot springs and cultural bathhouses from Austria to Calistoga—taking a break from the ritual only while she was pregnant. So when business owner Cori Martinez commissioned an interior designer for Asha Urban Baths, Reon took the lead, drawing the blueprints for the ideal space to practice her favorite hobby.

“It’s just an incredible way to get completely centered and relaxed,” said Reon, co-owner of CRKW Studio. “To me, it’s a requirement of sanity. Taking nine months off of soaking two times was a big deal.”

Admittedly, spending hours in warm water can seem a bit kooky. Asha fits into a nationwide wellness trend: Businesses like yoga studios or meditation retreats purport to increase mindfulness and soothe stress, an ailment as vague as it is recurring—and, therefore, profitable. Soaking may also feel a bit ineffective or self-indulgent as a solution, considering the fresh crop of horrors scrolling through our screens everyday.

But Martinez said she opened the bathhouse because she believes the ancient practice uniquely combats modern pressures. She first started soaking in college with a friend at a three-story health club where the two used only the sauna, steam room, cold pool and jacuzzi. Now, she’s recreated that experience in a reclaimed brick building and offers access for only $25 per visit.

In our political climate, the demand for de-stressing and self-care has been notably high. After opening in November, Asha attracted 400 new guests in its first month. They doled out dozens of gift certificates during the holidays, established a core base of regulars and welcomed 450 additional guests in January.

Blending traditions

Asha is Sacramento’s addition to the bathhouse scene that’s popped up recently in trendy cities like Seattle and Portland, but has existed in New York and San Francisco for decades. By blending cultural influences, mandating swimsuits and banning PDA, Martinez has crafted an entirely new model that bucks some underlying misconceptions about bathhouses.

“We are not a gay sex club,” she said with a laugh.

Asha’s model is distinctly American. The exposed brick and wooden beams cultivate a reclaimed warehouse vibe similar to Sacramento’s hipper spots to eat and drink. And that’s how Martinez wants her customers to see Asha—not as some super-luxurious bi-yearly treat, but as a meeting place that’s cost-comparable to purchasing a couple of rounds.

Culturally, she wants to balance a few styles. Borrowing from the Kabuki Springs & Spa in San Francisco, her warm pool forsakes jets for calm waters, but she allows quiet conversations as opposed to the Kabuki’s code of silence.

“In Japanese tradition you tend to be very, very quiet,” she said. “Whereas in Russian culture, you can be playing chess or having business meetings. In Korean culture, your whole family could be there and kids could be running around. We’re trying to find a middle ground.”

Like all bathhouses, there’s a ritual. Guests change into swim trunks in locker rooms, rinse body oils off with a shower and choose either the sauna or the steam room. Then they take another shower to rinse off the sweat, dip in the colder-than-it-sounds 58-degree pool and finish with a soak in the still, warm waters. They can repeat and mix-and-match as much as they like.

Each step reinforces the others. The hot rooms help guests sweat out toxins, the warm pool soothes aches and encourages relaxation, and the cold pool improves circulation, reduces muscle inflammation and sends a jolt through the entire sensory system.

“If all you do is the hot stuff, you can leave a little lethargic or drained,” Martinez said. “But adding the element of the cold plunge is going to balance out the overall experience, so you leave enlivened, but still calm.”

Reon, who has a Japanese soaking tub in her home, prefers warmth, calling herself a “turkey” when it comes to cold-plunging. She can count the amount of times she’s done it on one hand. But Dr. Marla McMahon, a psychologist, instructor of yoga and meditation and Asha frequenter, notes that the plunge reboots the parasympathetic nervous system, responsible for unconscious or “rest-and-digest” activities.

Human reset button

Mindfulness has become more integral to health now that humans are tethered to “these mini-computers that are beeping every few minutes,” McMahon said. She said that the constant interruptions from messages, social media and second-by-second news trigger our nervous systems’ flight-or-fight response, keeping us on unnecessarily high alert throughout the day.

“We go into sensory overload,” she said. “It’s too much for the system. Just like with the computer, you have to recharge it, reboot it. If you use it too much, there’s going to be burnout.”

On the day-to-day level, McMahon feels “people have forgotten how to relax.” Workers log long, hard hours, then take breaks by checking social media, which only maintains the feeling of being on high alert and produces unhealthy results. Perhaps the most extreme case is blogger Andrew Sullivan, who quit media after getting four bronchial infections in a year, partially due to spending his life online, updating his blog every half-hour, all day, every day, for nearly a decade.

“We as a busy society don’t stop and just breathe,” she said. “Asha is great for that.” Inside the bathhouse and beyond, McMahon recommends a free method: Take three to five minutes every hour to notice your breath.

At Asha, to keep things relatively affordable, Martinez doesn’t offer plush white robes, ritzy lotions or other pricey accessories. Guests must bring their own suits and are encouraged to bring their own towels, and that’s all they need to soothe themselves at the baths.

“It’s about indulging in the simplicity,” she said. “It’s down-to-earth.”

Martinez echoes Dr. McMahon’s calls for unplugging, adding that relaxation doesn’t need to be about binging on cheap pleasures or medicating with prescriptions, alcohol or other drugs. If we can disconnect from the unnatural postures and states-of-minds encouraged by the digital age, then perhaps all we need to reboot is a little time, space and water.

“Maybe one day we will evolve to sit in a desk all day,” she said. “But we haven’t … yet.”