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Sauna Nirvana

There is a magical quality to sauna that encompasses more than the bathing ritual itself. It begins with the dawn of a new day, and if that day is a "sauna day" it takes on added meaning. The fresh air feels just a little bit fresher and the sun shines just a bit brighter. My sauna is heating up as I write this and with it comes the childlike giddiness of anticipation. In this short section I will share the exhilaration of my personal sauna nirvana, the pinnacle of the perfect experience.  Readers are welcome to submit their own versions which we will occasionally post in this space. 

Late fall lakeside sauna sessions

The perfect sauna day


It is in the darkness of the night that the sauna shines her brightest. Perhaps it is an innate connection to the darkened smoke saunas of yore, or maybe it is the profundity of the moment manifesting under the vast starlit sky as I float in the lake between rounds. There is an ethereal quality to nighttime saunas. Time takes on an abstract form and lost loved ones feel closer in the heat’s embrace.  


The perfect sauna day begins in nature. Devoid of the distractions of urban chaos, the stillness is punctured only by the distant call of wild birds. Tall trees stand sentry, their branches swaying in the gentle breeze. Earth’s elemental origin feels close at hand.   


In preparation for the sauna journey ahead, there is work to be done. Wood has to be split and water has to be carried. The ritual has begun. Soon it will be time to prepare the fire. 


Anticipation builds


As day turns to evening and the sun’s last rays descend over the horizon, there is a sense of anticipation in the air. Tonight is sauna night. There is a ritualistic quality to starting a sauna fire; from splitting kindling to arranging the birch bark and starter wood just so. With the strike of a match she comes to life, soon to erupt in a glorious blaze. A few larger logs and a stoke later and she is off to the races. It is now time to wait. 


The serenity of the night is joined in chorus by the pleasant crackling of the firewood’s burn and the faint glow of flickering flames. Inside the sauna the heat slowly builds releasing just the slightest tease of warm air through its cracks as I sit out front, embracing the sounds of the night forest coming to life.  


Sauna is soul food


There is a reverence I have for sauna that is so profound I can physically feel it. It connects me to my past; to my late father and 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. (Sidenote: I wonder if Finland’s 6X ranking as the world’s happiest country has anything to do with their near ubiquitous daily sauna practice? It surely does mine.)


There is a range of feelings that it evokes – when both thinking about and experiencing it – that is near impossible to express. Thinking about sauna calms me, inspires me, and causes adrenaline to course through my body. Simultaneously contradictory and complementary. 


The power of the elements


When I first step into a sauna the visceral reaction I still get without fail – after more than 47 years – is almost overwhelming. The first blast of heat is intoxicating. I ascend to the top bench and sit into the heat. That first 30-minute session is transcendent in the misery it renders. But pressing on is paramount, until the notion of submerging in ice-cold water consumes my thoughts. 


That first plunge into the icy lake is profoundly exhilarating. It is not often 3C feels like 33C. Minutes pass before the reality of the bracing cold sets in and I exit the water. Even the first fresh air rest in between rounds is mildly euphoric, especially 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. I throw multiple ladles of water on the rocks and the 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. Eventually it 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


The feeling is like nothing I have ever felt before, yet sublimely familiar. Like the first time, every time. As I slowly emerge from the lake, I am delirious with the most ludicrous natural high. 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 contradiction. 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 again, why stop?

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