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The Contradiction of Sauna

There is a reverence I have for sauna that is so profound it manifests physically – the mere thought of having one sends a reverberation through my body. Sauna connects me to my past; to my late father, brother and grandmother, and to my future; as I sauna with my two little girls who will one day take the mantle from me. But more than that it informs my present. It is the elixir that feeds my soul and nourishes my happiness.

The author (in hole) with his beloved wife and first born.

There is a range of feelings that sauna evokes – when both thinking about and experiencing it – that belies easy expression. Thinking about sauna soothes me, yet it causes adrenaline to course through my body. The contradiction is at its most resonant as the first moment of exposure beckons.

Heat - Freeze - Rest - Repeat

When I first step into a sauna the visceral reaction I still get without fail – after more than 48 years – is palpable. That first wave of heat is intoxicating. That first 30-minute session is sublime in the joyful misery it renders. Pressing on is paramount however - until The Moment arrives. The Moment is when I cross the rubicon, from casually considering when I might want to leave to realizing the urgency of the situation. The moment when the thought of plunging into ice-cold water feels as welcoming as that first slug of beer at the end of my session (which is to say, very welcoming).

That first plunge into the icy water is profoundly exhilarating. It is not often 3C feels like 33C. The relief is short-lived, however. The bracing water quickly overtakes me and leaves me breathless and in shock. I know I have to breath to relieve the stress. Deeply and purposefully, just like in the sauna. Slowly my heartbeat slows down and my body adjusts. After about a minute, pain once again turns to pleasure. I am one with the water and as my heartbeat slows even more, time loses all context. Minutes pass by and eventually my body tells me it is time get out.

The next stage is rest. Ideally in nature. A mild euphoria sets in, enhanced if I’m fortunate enough to be basking beneath a night sky filled with gently falling snow. Eventually, when the chill sets into the marrow of my bones and shivering turns to shaking, it is time to wobble back inside. It is löyly time.

The first blast - no matter how intense – screams over me yet registers barely a whimper of resonance. So deep is the cold. Gallons of water are dispensed onto the rocks and humidity builds. Soon I am a veritable lobster, boiling in the steam. Only then, at the point of blistering, do I start to feel the intensity of the löyly. Yet I remain, perched on the top bench, and welcome the pain. Finally, the löyly is overpowering making this second round much shorter. Another extended plunge, this time with a multi-minute underwater breath hold, and a supernatural intoxication takes hold.

Sauna high

It is like nothing I have ever felt before, yet I have been feeling it since I was a pre-teen. Like the first time, every time. As I slowly emerge from the lake, I am immersed in the most ludicrous natural high imaginable. The world is slowly spinning horizontally, each step feels like I am dragging concrete pillars out of the water and yet I am quickly overtaken by child-like giggles. Collapsing onto the Muskoka chair on the deck I am simultaneously depleted and recharged.

Sauna is a wellspring of contradictions. Hot and cold. Pain and pleasure. This contrast of feelings is one of the most memorable aspects of sauna. Subjecting suffering on oneself at temperature extremes extracts the maximum amount of pleasure and pain in the most dichotomous of fashions. The hardest challenge is stopping. Heat begets the cold and cold begets the heat. But then, why stop?

Author’s note: In future posts we will explore other sauna contradictions: solitary and communal, meditative and boisterous, inclusive and exclusive, old and new. Sauna is a metaphor of life – a series of contradictions that are both easily explained yet difficult to comprehend.


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