FROM THE TURKISH HAMAM TO THE KOREAN JJIMJILBANG, modern saunas have roots in ancient cultures and civilizations from across the globe. In rooms filled with wood, water, fire, and steam, people gather to warm the body and relax the mind. When I was first invited to a sauna, the idea of stepping into a heated room for the sole purpose of perspiring sounded much less enticing than a trip to the spa for a cleansing facial or deep tissue massage. But I soon learned that the physical and mental benefits are worth a sweaty look inside.
The cyclical process of warming and cooling the body is at the heart of the sauna experience, but the atmosphere and traditions vary from sauna to sauna, culture to culture. My first trip to the sauna came while I was living in Seoul. My mother and younger sister were visiting and invited me to indulge with them. In East Asian cultures, sauna guests are typically separated by gender. Men in one area, women in another. In the enclosed, all-female area of the sauna, we were directed to remove our clothes, much to the horror of my sister and - admittedly - myself. Growing up in North America, nudity is primarily confined to childhood and the bedroom. Our comparatively prudish sensibilities were about as out of place as our Western bodies. In the jovial and lively atmosphere, the Korean women stared openly and I slipped abashedly from my robe into the sauna as quickly as possible.
A few years later, while living in the Netherlands, I learned that Dutch sauna goers take a comparatively solemn view of the space. Swimsuits are not permitted and the ubiquitous nudity results in a more private attitude. I soon became accustomed to shedding my clothes without a thought. When everyone is naked together, there is a sense of respect and relaxed ease that prevails over age or physical shape. During my many visits to Germany, I learned that German saunas are similarly hushed during off hours and more conducive to a more meditative experience, but during peak hours, they can take on a lively, social atmosphere. Larger facilities offer visitors a multitude of options from saunas of varying temperatures to steam rooms and infrared saunas. Some even have swimming pools for children in a separate clothed area, providing activities for the whole family. In Finland, saunas are wholeheartedly embraced as part of daily life and seen simultaneously as a relaxed and revered activity to be collectively enjoyed by family, friends, or even colleagues together.
Enter a sauna for the first time and you are likely to be struck by the ritual that permeates everything from the method of sitting on the wooden benches to the act of washing off after leaving the sauna room. Step-by-step instructions are often found in the changing area. But once the procedures are understood, the rhythm of the sauna encourages visitors to relax into the process of heating and cooling.
When I step into the sauna room, the heat brings my physical body to the fore. The air is warm and dry, pleasant at first, but gradually the heat settles deep within my skin and perspiration rises as I focus on taking deep, even breaths. The sensation of pleasant warmth steadily grows to an intense heat until I need to cool down and breathe fresh air once again. The process of cooling is integral to restoring equilibrium in the body temperature, but it was one of the aspects of the sauna experience that I had the most difficulty embracing. Immersing myself into cold water, as recommended after a few minutes at room temperature, was a tremendous shock. I’ve always been a toe dipper, but the saunas have buckets and cold showers that required me to take the plunge. I found it difficult not to gasp as my breath was taken away, but eventually learned to welcome the residual sense of vitality, especially when followed by a warm foot bath.
While the health benefits are still being researched, regular visits to a sauna have been linked to improved circulation and blood flow, cardiovascular benefits, increased white blood cell production, and the relief of rheumatoid arthritis, congestion, and musculoskeletal pain. One of the most immediate benefits can be felt in the skin. The process of sweating cleanses toxins and bacteria, leaving softer, smoother skin. In addition to the physical benefits, saunas improve sleep and relieve stress and chronic fatigue. (For another source, click here.)
But most of all, I love visiting the sauna because when I leave, I feel more alive. My step is lighter, my mind is clearer, and my sleep is deeper. After exploring the saunas of the world, I was elated when I moved home to Portland, Oregon and discovered Löyly (featured in images). They have two locations in Portland and owner Jessica Kelso has created a serene environment that replicates the cherished spaces in Finland. While saunas such as Löyly are more difficult to find in North America, Kelso believes saunas are catching on. “Going to the sauna is the perfect pastime,” she said. “It’s fun, good for you, relaxing and it’s something you can do with friends that’s not going out to a bar.” Whether seeking specific benefits or simply eager to enjoy a moment of calm, taking time to sweat it out encourages mindfulness of the physical body and leads to a state of relaxation. Whether joined by a crowd or as a solitary experience, you leave awake and rejuvenated.
Peel off your robe, open the door, and slip inside.
Heat Up (8-12 minutes)
Enter the sauna room, quickly closing the door behind you. Remove your sandals before stepping on the wood. Place a towel on the bench and lay or recline upon it. Stay for 8-12 minutes. Two minutes before you leave, change from a reclined position to a seated position.
Cool Off (10-15 minutes)
Sit or walk in the fresh air, adjusting to the outside room temperature again. After two minutes, rinse feet off with cold water and then take a cold shower. Have a warm foot bath. Repeat cold shower and warm foot bath.
If reading this leaves you inspired but unsure where to find a sauna near you, know that saunas are actually more prevalent than you might have thought. Here are a few ideas on where to find one in your area:
Notes: Avoid saunas and steam baths while pregnant, and consult a physician if you have any serious pre-existing medical conditions.
There is some debate on whether traditional or infrared saunas are better for you. We can't provide a definitive answer, however this prevocatively titled book by Dr. Sherry Rogers, Detox or Die, an important book on environmental toxins and how to manage them in the body, contains more information as well as instructions on how to properly and safely undergo a sauna detox.