Credit: Nathan Dumlao for Unsplash

Boric acid suppositories, “feminine” wipes, and Vagisil all claim to provide users with fresh, healthy vaginas. Although the vagina is a self-cleaning organ, there’s a looming pressure to maintain a desirable atmosphere below the belt with new solutions hitting the market each year, and some practices dating back generations. 

More mentions of vaginal steaming have been present on social media thanks to apps like Tik Tok, with users saying steams have improved their smell, eased cramps, or increased fertility. And while to some this may seem like another ploy to uphold women to an unattainable standard, practitioners claim that the benefits of steaming go beyond cosmetics, offering health and even spiritual benefits.

V-steams, or yoni steams, refer to the practice of sitting over steaming water, usually with added herbs, so that the steam can travel up through the vaginal canal and into the uterus. 

Shannon Costa is a doula and owner of Coastal Crescent Doula Services. Through her doula services she shares knowledge she’s gained about birthing and women’s bodies, especially with those who share her Muslim faith.

Costa leads a teaching session on the benefits of vaginal steaming | Credit: Shannon Costa

“I’m just trying to bring it to women and specifically women in our community because they feel a little bit more heard and related to when it’s someone within our community and who understands aspects of faith, especially ones that pertain to purity,” said Costa.

During menstruation, Muslim women are exempt from ritual prayer and from fasting during the holy month of Ramadan. While this is encouraged, issues arise for menstruators with prolonged or irregular periods which can be difficult to track, causing them to refrain from participating in the practices that mean so much to them.

“They’re having prolonged bleeding for almost half the month and they’re like ‘This is the most special month, I want to be participating. What’s going on?’ So a lot of women come to me right before Ramadan and they’re like ‘How can I make my Ramadan work?’” said Costa.

Klarque Denman, owner of The Golden Flower Esoteric, says that as a doula, vaginal health benefits are important to her but she chooses to steam regularly for spiritual hygiene.  

“The spiritual side is it helps you cleanse your womb. Your womb is really your center for a woman, your ideas can come from there. A womb cleansing can really help you get back aligned with yourself,” she said. 

Spiritual baths – the act of using oils, herbs, milks, perfumes and/or more to cleanse one’s energy – have ancient roots in African Traditional Religions and Mesoamerican healing rituals. Denman says that while taking a spiritual bath, she’ll prepare water on the stove to steam right after.

“I kind of just meditate with what just happened in my spiritual bath, any thoughts that may have come to me, anything that I need to release… I really just let that energy flow through me and my womb and I feel like a new person every single time, it’s so clarifying,” she explained.

So how does it work?

There are variations in methods and herbs that may be used, but the basis of a yoni steam is hot, steaming water poured into a bowl, placed under the person getting the steam. They can sit on a yoni chair or box, examples of which can be found on Etsy, use sitz bath basins to hold water in the toilet, or stand or squat over the pot used to warm up the water.

Christine Malesky, Social Media and Education Manager at Chicago Family Doulas, has been steaming for about four years. She stresses the importance of testing the heat level of the steam before sitting down.

“You shouldn’t have any sensation of burning at all,” said Malesky.

Steamers can sit for anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes. Malesky says steaming can help ease hot flashes caused by perimenopause or menopause, but for those already experiencing elevated body heat, she recommends being mindful of the water temperature.

“So I actually wouldn’t want to add too much extra heat. Like I wouldn’t do it for 30 minutes with a hot plate. I wouldn’t wrap myself,” she explained.

Steaming is also not recommended for people in the early stages of pregnancy, but some doulas utilize v-steams for labor preparation.

“It helps the body get ready. It’s not an induction, it’s like a gentle way to increase the circulation, to increase the moisture, to increase relaxation and those are all the things you need to get a natural, healthy labor going,” Costa said.

For those doubtful of the health or spiritual benefits of yoni steams, the stillness and warmth can simply serve as a stress reliever.

“If you set up your space right, it’s just a really relaxing treatment. You know, just like a shower or a bath is warm and relaxing,” said Malesky.

Costa shared similar sentiments. 

“It’s like taking a hot bath for the first time in your life. You’re like, ‘Oh my God, I needed so much care and I didn’t know I could do it like this.’ It’s really warm and it’s kind of like waves of warmth because of the steam and how it kind of comes up,” she explained, mimicking the movements of the steam with her hand.

In all, these doulas feel it’s important to share that there are alternatives to modern medicine.

“People think oh, this is like a hippie thing. It doesn’t work. Like it’s just essential oils or whatever, but I mean it’s herbs the same way when you drink certain herbs, they can be healing,” said Malesky. 

“I had cramps my whole life until I started steaming. I don’t have any cramps anymore, ever,” said Costa. “I’m really trying to spread awareness that these things are possible and good, and they’re aligned with our religion in terms of really putting the woman first.”