Hot air envelopes me. The change in temperature is like walking out into the blazing summer sun after a morning of stale air conditioning. After a few minutes I will be reminded how much I hate being hot. When you’re cold, you can always add layers. When you’re hot, there are limits to how much you can remove, especially in public. I check the dimly lit room: no one home. Good. I remove my towel, step up, and sit on the hot wooden bench. I close my eyes and try to relax. I wait.
I hear voices. My senses go on alert. They’re in the hallway: people going in and out of the bathrooms just outside. I reassure myself that if a woman were entering the outer room, I would have plenty of time to grab my towel while she made her preparations to come in. For many, sauna is a social affair. Last year, the two Russian women, old but still cross-country skiers with good form and plenty of endurance, had stayed the entire hour talking non-stop as they moved from outer sitting room to my sanctum and back. The large cartoon strip posted on the wall tells the story of a group of naked Finnish men having an uproarious time sweating together, jumping into a cold lake, going back in the heat, and into the drink again: sauna as party.
For me, sauna is a time of solitude, a time for my mind to lead my embodiment through a rigorous routine that will reward both selves with a feeling of well-being. Perhaps it is the strenuousness of the full sauna process that puts aside my usual skepticism. It allows me to not only pursue but also accept the calming results. In contrast, I cannot persuade my mind to practice meditation or most other forms of “‘mindfulness.” Although I believe the science and accept the personal meaning that many find in meditation, it makes me feel trapped to intentionally sit still attending to my breath. Sitting still to still your mind does not make you feel as though you’re working out; it does not make you sweat.
Feeling very hot and having no more clothing to remove, I stand up to check the temperature: 180 degrees. Even though right now I am fighting to keep myself inside the sweltering wooden room, I am pleased to know it’s the perfect temperature. I can do this. The second round will feel good. The time it had been 140 degrees, it had felt like an oppressive Nebraska heat wave from which a shower was little relief. Other times, when it had been 205 or above, mind over matter had been of no consequence; the body had quickly won: “out!”
I check my forehead. Nothing yet. I wonder, “how long have I been in here?” Sensing potential panic, I reassure myself that I can leave any time I want to; I simply don’t want to yet. I lean against the board behind me knowing from experience that while it feels as though it will burn me: it won’t. Leaning my head back, I breathe. I think about the ladle in the bucket of water and the fake rocks lodged on top of the wood stove. Sauna expert Olavi Hirovan– and not coincidentally the Finnish co-proprietor of Lapland Lake and of this sauna–once told me that you should use steam so that your pores open and you start sweating more quickly. Sometimes I halfheartedly follow his advice by pouring on a few drops and watching the wisps of steam rise. Not today.
“The shower will be difficult enough,” I think. “Why make it even more difficult to breathe?”
Droplets start to form on the backs of my hands, where the sweat always begins. Salty water drips down my face. I remember back to my first summer of saunas when both I and the young girls who joined me were wearing bathing suits. They had been quite taken aback when I answered their question “did you take a shower?” with: “I’m not wet from the shower: it’s from the heat.”
Returning to the present, I feel my cold feet, always the last to surrender. Waiting for them will take too long. It’s time.
The cold air welcomes me. I hang my towel and get into the shower quickly turning on the water before my body figures out what’s happening. BAM! The water stuns me immediately, as it should. I suck in my breath as water runs over my head. I let it pour over my front, preparing for the next shock: the other side. I turn around, position myself so the freezing cold runs onto my neck and, worst of all, down my back. I wonder if anyone hears my sharp gasps. Enough! I turn off the water, grab my towel, and dab off as I walk over to read a few of the many visitor comments from a sheaf of pages hanging on a nail. Whether social or solitary, many people join me in appreciating sauna as something that brings together as a whole the wonderful experience of being here at the Adirondack’s Lapland Lake, where we cross-country ski in the winter, and hike and swim in the summer.
I look through the sheaf of comments from prior visitors lauding the sauna. The wooden comments book next to it is full of blank pages, ready to accept more accolades. I think about what I would write and can’t come up with, so I close the book.
The sign posted next to the sauna door instructs:
“Stay in the sauna until you begin to sweat.”
“Spend as much time in the sitting room as you had in the sauna, continuing to cool off.”
Uh. That takes more patience than I have. “Gotta go.”
I go back in. The door’s springs gently creak. There is a soft bang as it closes behind me. I resume my position. My focus shifts away from worries and fears, as I pay attention to the room. My eyes adjust to the soft light. I look at the contrast between the smoothly sanded-smooth bench and backboard, and the rustic, rough wall and ceiling boards. I lean back and close my eyes. A piece of wood in the stove pops. The cast iron quietly emits a “tink tink,” adjusting to slight changes in temperature. The fire “crinkles.” I open my eyes and watch the flames, visible only under the crack beneath the stove’s door. I observe the slight flickering of the room’s light. Time passes, unnoticed.
I become aware of rivulets of sweat trickling down my legs. I idly direct them down my big toe to make wet spots on the bench below. I feel overwhelmingly hot, but stay a little longer until I am ready for the shower’s relief, if not so much its bracing cold.
I push my hand against the sauna’s wooden handle. Once part of a tree branch, it now looks like a small piece of a deer’s antler, smooth and darkened from years of use. This time, while I am not afraid of turning the shower knob, I still whimper as the water rushes over me. I turn round and round and rinse my head as though with shampoo. I step out, turn to the right–always to the right–and sit on one of the towel-covered benches. Steam floats off my body. Still too warm, I stand and open the window above me to let in drier air. As I do every visit, I re-read the article on the wall explains the effect of the sauna process on body and mind. I always appreciate technical explanations.
“Essentially, the sauna process sparks a war between the body forces that cool and those that heat . . . [In the sauna] blood vessels swell, particularly in those in the extremeties and near the skin, while blood pressure drops. Perspiration tries to cool skin and lower body temperature. Still, your temperature rises and a deep feeling of relaxation spreads.
A cold plunge slams all this to a halt. Your super-heated body has to turn on a dime and brace itself against the sudden cold. The shock triggers a burst of norepinephrine, and your body zooms from relaxation to exhilaration . . .
A rigorous sauna session puts you through this hot-SLAM!-cold sequence two or three times. Result: Your body is intensely relaxed, your mind sharp and alert. No wonder the world looks better!”
I sit back down and relax, more patiently than last time. Then, I repeat the process once more: into the sauna, back to the shower. As I dry myself off and quickly dress, my mind turns back to the world outside the sauna room. My body is “intensely relaxed.” My muscles, which had been sore from hiking (sauna is a year-round sport), feel refreshed. I ponder whether my mind is now “sharp and alert.” I don’t think so, but my worries are gone and I am ready to bathe in life with my family here in the beautiful Adirondacks.
Do I suppose that sauna isn’t so different from meditation? Well, actually: yes. And too bad there isn’t a sauna at home.
*Jay Butera, “Sauna and Ice: The Plunge that Refreshes,” p. 60, publication unknown.
Sauna by Kim Brookes is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at Permission to Use.