Molten Mineral Has Its AdherentsRock Renowned for Healing Qualities Sets Some Saunas Apart
by Kim Hoo-ran (Contributing Writer)
Dressed in white, the people lie around in a huge room with posters on walls that say "Radiation Room." The people are apparently exhausted from the heat. To seek relief, some sit next to the floor-to-ceiling window, looking out at a large man-made waterfall. Everyone looks flushed. Perspiration glistens on their foreheads. A woman says over the public announcement system: "Newly heated stones will come out of oven number two in a few minutes." The people stir back to life, walking with anticipation towards a pit with a guard rail on three sides.
Red-hot stones, stacked about a meter-high, roll out of the oven on a miniature rail track. The people move toward the stones, elbowing each other to get closer. Their arms stretched upward and spread wide, they stand facing the stones. There is a sudden hush. No one speaks. Within minutes, the people are again drenched in perspiration.
Are these people followers of some strange cult that worships stones? Watching men and women in white standing in front of stones heated to 800 Celsius, one might well suspect this is a religious rite.
Although it may look bizarre to the uninitiated, the scene is typical of any Makbansok, or Elvan sauna around town. The faithful are convinced that special properties in the naturally occurring Elvan stones, can alleviate, if not cure, many ills. The stones are a quartz-based igneous rock which contains about 40 minerals said to be beneficial to the human body.
"I come whenever I feel the aches, which is almost every day," said Chang Young-hae, 67, from Puam-dong, Seoul, taking a break from the sauna at Harim Naemongo McVansuk in Buam-dong.
Ms. Chang who has had arthritis for several years, knows the Elvan sauna will not cure her. But she says she believes it is a better, more natural alternative to conventional medicine.
"The arthritis medicine really upsets my stomach," she said. "The medicine can't cure the disease, so I might as well try the sauna to relieve the pain."
Her neighborhood friend is drinking a bowl of shikhye or rice punch during the break, a common ritual. She said she has had a stomach problems for days.
"I was here yesterday, too, and it feels a little better today," she said.
Much has been made of Elvan's supposed health-giving properties. Proponents claim the infrared rays reach deep into the tissues, stimulating circulation. The invisible rays give a warm sensation on the skin.
"When the rays go in deeply, they raise the body temperature, which improves circulation," said Harim business center chief Cho Ki-hoon. "The rays also help rid the body of waste products and toxins."
These are some of the reasons Elvan sauna is said to ease muscle soreness and help heal wounds. But why the white clothes? White is believed to be the best color to absorb and retain the deep heat. "White cotton is recommended for optimum results," said Mr. Cho.
But Elvan sauna is not for everyone. Lee Seung-hyunn, 36, a housewife from Pundang in Kyonggi province, noticed her acne had gotten worse since she began going to the sauna regularly. "A dermatologist said I should stop because the heat was aggravating the inflammation," she said. So much for claims that the Elvan sauna promotes beauty.
Indeed, there have been no scientific studies on Elvan, except for the writings of a 16th century Chinese medical scholar, which say Elvan can cure many diseases because it is hot and non-toxic.
Although middle-aged women and elderly people make up most of the faithful, some younger people are also enthusiastic.
"I felt almost weightless afterwards," said Kim Yoon-kyung, 29, who works for an Internet venture company. She was passing an Elvan sauna on her way home after a particularly stressful day and decided to try it.
"It felt as if all those toxins that had built up inside my body had oozed out with the perspiration," she said. "My stiff shoulders were actually gone." She now recommends Elvan sauna to her colleagues.
In fact, Elvan sauna is quickly catching on with young professionals, who find it a pleasant way to unwind. "On an average day, we get about 300 customers and we've been getting more young men and women," said Mr. Cho. "Even foreign tourists are coming to these saunas. We've been having a steady stream from Hong Kong."
But without any scientific proof, not everyone is a ready to convert to this "religion of stones."
"Isn't this heat unhealthy for these elderly people?" asks Tracey, 43, a retiree from Hong Kong, who is on a 90-minute tour stop at Harim. Even after having the Elvan health theory explained, she remains skeptical. "I don't see how this hot air can be good for the complexion," she said. "I imagine it would just be very drying."