The Mysterious Origins of Vaginal Steaming
by Jen Burd
January 18, 2015
Hey, gals. Ever worry about your yoni, that nasty, carcinogen-ridden creature that lives between your legs? I know I do. After all, that thing must be loaded with toxins. Well, I have good news. For only $75 you can steam your troubles away, along with those pesky toxins.
Don't have time to go to the spa and your vagina is overflowing with radioactive sludge now? Purchase a home kit for $150. Or make your toilet into an impromptu health and relaxation station for the price a few varieties of herbs and a scalded butt cheek or two.
Vaginal steaming, also known as V-Steam, chai-yok, or bajos, is primarily a spa treatment intended to cure a wide variety of ailments, including menstrual cramps, vaginal and urinary infections, cysts, hemorrhoids, and infertility. Advocates claim that the treatment aids circulation and cleanses the vulva and uterus.
Spas that offer vaginal steaming seat participants in a chair with a hole in the center of the seat. A boiling pot containing herbs such as mugwort and wormwood is placed inside the chair, and the participant sits there for approximately 20 minutes, waiting for the yoni magic to happen.
Advertisers do not agree on when or where vaginal steaming originated. Candidates include Central and South America, ancient Greece, and ancient Korea.
The earliest references to vaginal steaming in the news occurred in the Los Angeles Times in 2010 when Niki Han Schwarz, a 45-year-old woman, became pregnant after trying vaginal steaming. Schwarz and her husband, orthopedic surgeon Charles Schwarz, own a Santa Monica spa that offers the treatment. Schwarz told reporters that vaginal steaming was an ancient Korean practice she had learned about from visiting spas in Koreatown. All subsequent articles point to Schwarz's quotes.
I have not found any evidence to back up Schwarz's claim that vaginal steaming originated in ancient Korea, or even in Korea. The phrase "chai-yok" means nothing in Korean. "Chai" mean "tea" in Hindi. The closest approximation in Korean is "cha-yak," or "tea-medicine," which is apparently an unfamiliar phrase to Korean speakers. Neither eastern nor western medical journals contained references to the practice.
Having arrived at a dead end, I decided to consult some kind Korean strangers on online language-learning forums (very scientific, I know). No one had ever heard of the phrase or the practice. One commenter wrote "It doesn't seem popular in Korea, nor does it seem to be much more than a Los Angeles ?? [Korean] creation."
The process shares some commonalities with the traditional Chinese treatment of moxibustion, which involves burning incense near or directly on the skin during acupuncture. In such treatments, the acupuncturist may burn incense on the abdomen above where the uterus is located, but not in or near the vagina as in vaginal steaming. Vaginal steaming may have originated among Korean American health spas in LA, but has apparently never been popular in Korea. All roads lead back to Niki Han Schwarz.
Some more recent alternative health websites and advertisements have attributed the miracle of vaginal steaming, or bajos, to the ancient Mayans. "Bajos" means "low" in Spanish, and often refer to geographical regions known as "lowlands."
Again, results for inquiries into the Mayan history of bajos led back to one source, "naprapathic physician, herbalist, international lecturer, author and teacher of Maya medicine," Rosita Arvigo, DN, who offers vaginal steaming as a part of her Mayan massage therapy package. Arvingo claims that "midwives and healers of Central America agree that most female troubles are caused by the wandering womb," a condition theorized by ancient Greek thinkers who had no contact with ancient Mayans. Arvigo can both treat and prevent the dreaded wandering womb with a $200 Mayan massage.
Which brings us to the third candidate, the ancient Greeks, who were responsible for theories like hysteria and humorism. Thanks to theories of humorism, western doctors treated most common ailments by purging, bleeding, and vomiting patients until well into the 19th century. Until relatively recent improvements in medical technology and education, standard western medicine was based largely on ancient Greek theory. We've tried it already, and now that we have things like microscopes, medical schools, and global networks of scientists, we've learned a few things that make ancient Greek medicine look downright silly. Almost as silly as vaginal steaming. And of course, I came up empty handed from a search for ancient Greek references to vaginal steaming.
After a week of research, I have given up on finding a solid lead into the mysterious ancient origins of vaginal steaming. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that some person or group of people somewhere at some moment in history had boiled some herbs under some women on stools, but I haven't been able to locate them.
I did, however find a handful of studies that mentioned vaginal steam baths used in modern day Sub-Saharan Africa, particularly in Mozambique and Suriname. These reports bore little resemblance to the posh and organic-minded spa advertisements associated with chai-yok or bajos.
Researchers associated Sub-Saharan vaginal steam baths with cleansing, but also with the more dangerous practice of "dry sex," or removing lubrication from the vagina using household cleaners and other devices. This is said to tighten the vagina after childbirth, or before or after sexual intercourse.
Dry sex is based on the erroneous belief that sexual intercourse causes the vagina to loosen. Some women use harmful techniques, like coating the interior or exterior of the vagina with products containing bleach, in attempts to make their vaginas appear tighter and more youthful. It is dangerous and extremely painful.
Some study participants reported using vaginal steam baths as a tightening treatment by converting household detergents or vaginal tightening products into a vapor and sitting above the steam, while others used herbs similarly. A few participants also reported vaginal irritation, including pain, itching, bleeding or sores, and painful intercourse.
Dr. Manny Alvarez, gynecologist and health editor at FoxNewsHealth.com, also cited vaginal irritation as a potential danger of vaginal steaming, particularly with regard to precancerous conditions, when asked about the new spa offering. Research, unsurprisingly, does not support claims of the benefits of vaginal steaming. "It sounds like voodoo medicine that sometimes works," said Dr. Vicken Sahakian, medical director of Pacific Fertility Center in Los Angeles.
That the vagina needs cleaning at all is a common misconception in America as well as the rest of the world. The vagina is a mucus membrane, more like a nostril or an eyeball than an armpit. And like a nostril or an eyeball, you shouldn't clean it out with soap, a douche, herbs, or household detergents. It is a self-cleaning organ. The vagina maintains a delicately balanced pH level, and when this level is disturbed due to anything from over-the-counter medications, to bathing suit bottoms, to wiping forwards, to well-intentioned soaping, a yeast infection will occur.
This is not a mysterious or recent medical development, yet we keep thinking of new reasons to tinker with an orifice that is best left to its own devices.
by Jen Burd
@Skeptoid Media, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit