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‘Your vagina is my business’

Sultana Steam offers alternative treatments for ‘womb care’

Illustration by Morgan Welch

When Melissa Williams and Meashalik Knox opened Sultana Steam in Tulsa last April, they weren’t really aiming to start a business as much as they wanted to try something new.

“It originally started because we were curious,” Knox said.

Sultana Steam is the first franchise of a Houston-based peristeam hydrotherapy practice—vaginal steaming, to put it more plainly, although the practice is also known as v-steaming and yoni steaming. Knox and Williams like to refer to it as “womb care.”

Modeled after ancient Eastern and African medicine, yoni steaming involves sitting over a bowl of hot water, to which various herbs have been added, and allowing the steam to waft upward toward the reproductive organs. The practice garnered some attention a couple of years ago when celebrities like Gwenyth Paltrow and Chrissy Teigen started blogging and tweeting about it.

Proponents of the practice claim it helps to regulate menstrual cycles, heal infections, reduce cysts and fibroids, aid with healing after childbirth, increase fertility, alleviate symptoms of menopause, decrease depression and anxiety, and more. (Most claims are subjective; so far, no formal research on the practice has been published.)

Williams and Knox were mostly looking to try it out when they got in touch with Knox’s friend, Sultana Nailor, who lives in Houston and owns Sultana Steam. At the time, no one in Tulsa was offering v-steaming; a spa in Edmond was the only place in Oklahoma to have it done. So Nailor offered to come to Tulsa and help the two women throw a “peristeam party,” a service offered by Sultana Steam where women gather in groups of three to six and steam together.

But the more Williams and Knox learned about the practice and its benefits, the more they started to think about finding a way to offer the service to other people in Tulsa.

“The history of gynecology is traumatic,” Williams said. “Women’s bodies were test subjects—especially black women. And so to know that we can help with some of the same issues women go to the doctor for… especially if you’ve ever been victimized sexually, a pap smear can be traumatic. So for me knowing that women can come here and have their needs met, and it doesn’t need to be a traumatic experience, is just a blessing in and of itself.”

Both Knox and Williams are full-time therapists—they book v-steam appointments during their lunch hours, after work, and on the weekends—and they approach the practice as a “body, mind, spirit process,” Williams said. They feel like this sets their service apart from others.

“It’s a partnership. We feel like whatever plan or goal that you have, we want to be with you step by step,” Knox said. “It’s more to us than just ‘steam and bye.’ It’s a relationship.

“It’s also peaceful—a time to reset, gather your thoughts, process your feelings,” she said. “A time for you.”

Knox and Williams begin each of their sessions by offering clients a warm mug of herbal tea, made with some of the same herbs used in the steaming process. You fill out an intake form that lets the practitioners know what womb issues you may have—fibroids, endometriosis, heavy or painful menstrual cycles, etc.—and what goals you have for the session. Knox and Williams offer each client a small journal to make notes in, or to set an intention for the steam session.

Then you change into a terry cloth robe while they prepare the steam bath based on your answers to the questionnaire. For instance, they may use basil, chamomile, and calendula to help regulate your cycle, or basil, mugwort, and raspberry leaf to treat fibroids and cysts.

When it’s ready, you’re led into a dimly lit room to a wooden box with a hole in the center that’s been draped with sanitation paper and padded with thick white towels. You break a hole into the paper with your hand, then sit down over the hole in the seat. They lay a blanket over your lap and leave you with an eye mask (if you want it), your journal, and your thoughts. The journal isn’t mandatory—I used mine to scribble down notes for this story—but they do encourage you to relax.

At first, the steam was really hot, and I had to sort of squat over the seat and let some of it release. After a couple of minutes, it cooled down to a comfortable temperature and I was able to sit and relax.

There were essential oils diffusing and nature sounds playing. Tapestries hung over the windows blocked out most of the sunlight, and a couple of salt lamps were turned on. I brought a friend with me, who finished steaming after 10 minutes. (People with IUDs aren’t allowed to steam any longer than that; they don’t want to risk dislodging it.) My session lasted 20 minutes.

I didn’t feel completely changed after my session, although some say that’s what they experience, but I did notice some increased softness—sort of like how your skin feels after you’ve had a facial. And I slept really well that night.

Williams said results differ for everyone, and she loves hearing from clients afterward. “People will send a message and say, ‘I wasn’t enjoying sex … and now I am, or I was having an odor or some discharge and now that’s clearing up for me,’” she said.

Knox and Williams both said clients tell them things they won’t tell their mothers or closest friends—mostly because of the stigma they associate with talking about their reproductive systems.

“During this process, we learned how uncomfortable women were with their bodies,” Knox said. “I don’t want to whisper ‘vagina.’ I want to yell ‘vagina!’ We actually made shirts that say, ‘Your vagina is my business.’ We want to normalize that word and have the conversation.”

“And let’s put away the misconceptions,” Williams added. “There’s a lot of shame that a lot of women carry—about vaginal odors, for example—when it’s really something very simple.”

Knox continued: “We’re all about empowering women, letting them know there’s a place that genuinely cares about your whole wellbeing.”

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