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Sauna by the numbers: a lifelong authentic sauna enthusiast describes his routine

steam of life Finnish film sauna

The preview: as the sauna heats up

“I sauna when I want to”  He explains.  And this maybe the most fundamental aspect to AUTHENTIC sauna.  Sauna isn’t crammed into a busy schedule or an afterthought at a health club.

“‘ll fire up my sauna then come back into the house and get ready.”  A sauna experience is a retreat.  Authentic saunas are separate structures.  They aren’t separated from the house or cabin just in a physical sense.  An authentic sauna building is a metaphor.  An escape, An opportunity to leave the busy world behind.

“I’ll finish my emails or whatever i’m doing.  I’ll fill up a big jug of water.  I’ll get closure to whatever business i’m ready to leave behind.  Sauna is like going on a little vacation for me.  I get to pull the plug and get away.  Sometimes, I’ll fire up the sauna and go for a run.  Or a bike ride.  In winter, during a snow storm, I’ll fire up my sauna stove and go for a ski.  Those are wonderful times.”

Sauna round one: the big build

“I won’t even start to think about how many saunas i’ve taken in my life.  But I will say, stepping into the sauna hot room for the first round, it is always an instantly calming experience for me.  Maybe because it is such a familiar feeling, but the moment I feel the deep warm heat against my body I just get this ‘ahhhh’ feeling like there’s no place else in the world i’d rather be than right here, right now.”

The first round always starts as a dry round.  “I will settle into my sauna bench, close my eyes, sit back, and just take it all in.”  Some folks like to ride up the temperature in the sauna for their first round.  Others like the sauna nice and hot for their first round.  Either way, “I don’t add any water on the sauna rocks for awhile.”  The logic behind this is that It’s nice not to rush the first round.  Let the heat penetrate through the skin, into the body core.  Slowly, calmly.

“Sometimes I sauna alone.  Sometimes I sauna with family.  Sometimes I sauna with friends.  It’s not necessary, but I often like to get into the hot room alone, first.  I get to chill out on my own for a bit.  And I get to pick the best seat on the sauna bench” he says with a smile.  “But guests show up and this is totally great.  I’m good for a long first round, so usually by the time someone joins me on the sauna bench, i’m ready to ride it out with them.”

Now, we start to understand some of the social aspects to authentic sauna.  The yin, the yang.  Quiet time, social time.  Like catching up with a friend on a bike ride, the company is welcome.  Conversation is fine when it happens, and so is the silence.

“I suppose round one is my longest round, but I like to turn it into a big build up.  I never rush my first sauna round.  I guess I never rush any sauna round, but this is the welcome adjustment to sauna.  There’s no rush, and sauna time is your time.”

A walk in the woods.  Attending a great concert.  A canoe ride.  A sauna session.  These activities are alike in that there’s no rush.  And it’s your time.

“When it feels right, I’ll toss some water on the rocks.”   Loyly, the steam created from water being tossed on sauna rocks, is a deeply important and magical component to authentic sauna.  How much water to toss on the rocks, depends upon the person, the temperature of the hot room, the temperature of the stove, the temperament of those in the hot room.  But the good news is that there is no measuring cup.  There is no perfect amount of water to toss on sauna rocks.  It’s all feel.  And it feels great.

“When that first wave of steam hits me, I just meet it head on.”  Like an ocean swim, plowing into an oncoming wave.  To ride out the wave of steam, many contract themselves, bending down a bit on the bench, elbows on knees.  Then, after the wave passes, hands up to the ceiling, the first good stretch of the sauna session.  For many, especially children or folks who have never experienced it, the feeling of super hot steam billowing down can be an imposing sensation.  And the red hot stove rule says you pull away, reach for the sauna door and escape.  But don’t do this.  Ride out the Loyly.  Magic awaits.  As a saunatimes reader describes, here: “No amount of writing can describe the experience of löyly, which I revere as the spiritual core of sauna.”

“Now my body is really getting relaxed.”  The effects of authentic sauna emanate.  Sweat.  Muscles start to feel like rubber bands that haven’t been stretched in awhile.  “I take a big swig of water.  As a matter of fact, I’ll bring in a big jug of water into the sauna, 32 oz.  And I’ll drink most of it during my first round.”  Hydration.  Water is a critical component to authentic sauna.  On the rocks, over your body, and of course, drinking water, hydration for your body.

“Some like beer in the sauna, but I rarely drink beer in the sauna.  I do like a cold beer, but I always wait for between rounds for that.”  Personal taste.  It’s all good.  Some have found an inventive way to drink a cold beer in a hot sauna, others realize that their glass made entirely out of ice can last an entire sauna session by using it only between rounds, outside.

When to end round one and exit the sauna hot room?  “A friend of mine said it best.  The time to exit the hot room is when the idea of an ice cold shower or ice cold lake plunge is about the best idea you’ve ever heard.”  This isn’t a macho ploy.  This is zen meditative consciousness with fewer syllables.  This is about understanding your body.  This is about connecting.  From within.  There is more to this: why are we afraid of being out of our element?  If we exist only in the realm of the environment of our favorite EZ chair by the TV, the house a perfect 68 degrees f, munching on our favorite snack food, are we really living?  No, we are depriving ourselves of life.  Life is about pushing ourselves into realms along the edge.  A winter night hike in the woods, the moon following our footsteps through the bitter cold snow.  A mountain bike ride down untravelled trails of unknown climbs and descents.  Travel to a foreign land where nobody speaks your language, forced to use senses of perception and intuition to get around.  And dependent upon the kindness of strangers.

“Sometimes, I’ll hit another shot of water on the sauna rocks and ride that out standing.  I’ll feel that Loyly, raise my hands above my body and just stretch out, standing.  I never leave the hot room while the steam is still billowing.  I just love to take it all in.  Before I leave the sauna, I’ll usually bring the damper down on the stove.  Make sure I have enough wood in the fire box to carry me for the next couple rounds to come.  Finally, i’ll exit the hot room.  When taking a sauna up north, I’ll head right to the dock and dive in.  When taking a sauna in my backyard, I’ll head right for the garden hose shower.  If it’s winter, I’ll dump a jug of iced cold water over my head outside.”

“This is another magical moment of my sauna session.  Just after a clean rinse my body starts to tingle.  I dunno what’s going on, physically, but I can tell you it feels great.  I’m never afraid of ice cold water.  The colder the better, really.”  A cold clean rinse is about surrendering.  We are wired to resist ice cold water.  Ice cold water is meant to mean panic.  But there’s no need to panic.  Your body is very hot.  It’s your skin that is feeling the cold, not your body core.  There is no hypothermia.  There is no panic.  Feel the cold water flush your pores.  The clean rinse.  It’s a magical experience of authentic sauna.  Embrace it.

“After I rinse off, I never rush back into the sauna.  I always stay outside and make sure my body completely cools down.  I don’t care if it’s 40 below zero.  Matter of fact, winter saunas are the best.  Steam billowing off my body.  Looking up at the night sky.  I love winter because of these moments.  It’s like i’m in heaven, and God just showed me the door.”  There is no way to explain how good this feels.  There’s only an opportunity to invite you to experience this for yourself.

“I don’t rush to towel off.  I like to drip dry.  I may take a drink of something or take a swig of water, but I try to just be in this moment for awhile.  I don’t think about if i’m hot or if i’m cold, or if people think i’m crazy for standing outside naked or almost naked or any of that stuff.  Summer saunas at the lake mean I’ll sit on the dock for awhile.  And I’ll stay in the lake longer.”  Hippopotamus style of hanging out.  It helps cool the body.

Sauna round two: rip it up, and start again

“When do I go back into the sauna?  Well, I go in when i’m totally cooled down.”  Listen to the core, not the skin.

“I toss a bunch of water on the rocks when I settle in for round two.  I love hitting it hard and building up the humidity for round two.  I’ll usually start sweating again right away, and I consider this a good thing.  I don’t overdue it, but I like a good blast.  Then I find I want to stretch a bit.  There’s this thing where my muscles have contracted from the cold outside, and now that it’s all warm again, they start expanding and this feels really great.  My muscles are expanding more than any other way I know.”  The rubber band theory, revisited.

“I read about the slow bathing experience, and I suppose i’m a slow bather.  Because sauna is such a complete cleanse, I don’t like showers unless I have to. And thanks to taking saunas Three times a week, I don’t need to shower.  I’ll reach for my razor at some point during the second round.  I’ll put an inch or so of hot water into a jug.  I’ll soap up my face, and slowly shave, rinsing off the razor in the container.  I don’t need or use a mirror.  I just focus on what i’m doing and shave.  Slowly.  I do this while talking with friends in the sauna or just sitting there alone thinking about anything.  Or nothing.  I think this is what they mean about slow bathing.  It’s just doing and enjoying the process of doing it.  Not rushing or considering it a chore.  I love to shave in the sauna.  I try not to have to shave anywhere else.”

“Round two is shorter than round one, I suppose, but now that my body has had a complete cycle, I feel i’m really in the groove.  I’ve never been a one round and done sauna person.  I suppose those that sauna at health clubs or hotels or wherever, they are more of a one round and done.  But that’s not me.  I don’t have a favorite sauna round, but if I could only do one sauna round, i’m not sure i’d sauna.  It’s the complete process that makes for the complete enjoyment for me.”  Absolutely totally correct.  America is a rushed culture.  We want 20 minute yoga, drive through milk shakes, and book summaries in 3 paragraphs.  We don’t have to give into this.  Einstein figured out the relativity of time, and we have too.

“I’ll check the fire.  I’ve got it down pretty good.  Before I leave the hot room, I’ll make sure there’s enough hot coals for the third round, and adjust the damper on the stove if it needs it.  But I know my sauna stove really well.  My sauna stoves at home and at the lake are both fed from the inside of the sauna, not from the outside.  I like it this way.  I have a few pieces of firewood in the sauna of various sizes.  I may toss a small one in if it needs it, but usually, just the red coals are enough.  I’ve closed down the damper quite a bit, and the stove is burning really hot, just with the coals in the firebox.  I don’t need to waste wood.  And pulling the coals forward means that everything burns off.  No ash.  Like I say, I’ve got this down pretty good.”

Another cold plunge or rinse.  More chilling out.

“I have a notebook in the changing room.  I write down stuff i’m thinking about.  If i’m taking a sauna with friends, I find our conversation to be much more fun and interesting than if we were at a bar, or wherever.  There’s that movie Steam of Life, and I loved that movie.  The Finnish name for the movie, directly translated is ‘men’s turn’, I believe.  That term in Finland is often used because with sauna over there in Finland, kids and women generally sauna first, then it’s ‘men’s turn’ to sauna.  So, the movie is about ‘men’s turn’ to show emotion, be vulnerable and all that.”  Sauna allows for this.  In our society, men are supposed to be macho, tough, stoic and strong.  But during sauna, those mores don’t hold.  Sauna fosters an environment to untangle wires.  Sometimes that’s about talking through or thinking through something that’s holding back the flow.  Some people untangle wires better thinking alone.  Some people untangle wires better talking it out.  Either works great in sauna.  Good friends are sitting on the bench as a gift for us help us through these tangles.

Sauna round three: I get to do this again?

“Three’s the charm.  It really completes the whole experience.  The only time I may only take two sauna rounds is if I’ve got something going after sauna.  Like going out to dinner, or a party or whatever.  In those instances, I’ll need to save some energy and not be wiped out.  But usually after my sauna sessions, i’m totally primed for complete relaxation. Three sauna rounds take me to that level.  This is why I always allow for 2-3 hours for my sauna sessions.  Sauna means so much to my health and wellness, it’s not worth compromising on time.  So I don’t do it.  Nobody bugs me when I sauna.  I have my phone out there, and sometimes I may text someone or check in with one of my kids or wife.  I’m not afraid of technology.  I don’t have to completely shut it off.  And i’m not a purist.  I suppose some could think it an oxymoron to escape the busy world with sauna, and be tethered to a phone.  I don’t see it this way.  It’s like booze or ganja.  For some, it’s a crutch or addiction.  They do too much so they need to be far away from it.  But I think i’m pretty balanced with all that stuff, so I just don’t worry about it or let it take over me.”

“Round three can begin with a blast of water on the sauna rocks or not.  Round three, for me, is settling in.  A culmination of the sauna experience.  It may be the shortest round, and it may be the least hot of the three rounds.  Round three is making sure my pores are completely flushed.  Fully cleansed.  Mind, body, spirit, the whole shebang.  Winter saunas, i’m setting myself up for one final clean rinse off.  To do that, I have to be sure i’m hot enough for that final shower.  I’m conscious of my hydration level.  If i’m not sweating during my third round, it’s not good.  I haven’t had enough water.  But this is rarely the case.  I am most always in a good place for round three.  I”m sweating and I don’t need to drink more water.  Often, i’m taking round three within an hour or so of when i’ll be going to go to bed.  This means, I don’t want a bunch of liquid in my system so I’ll have to wake up in the night and have to pee.  And I don’t want to be dehydrated.  If i’ve had a beer or drink or two, it’s done before round three.  I love round three because it’s a great feeling to know I get to do all this again sometime.”

Exactly.  The other night, Friday night, I took a solo sauna.  I didn’t have any mixers or beer in the house.  But, I took a shot of vodka.  I imagined myself in Russia.  Russians do this all the time.  I’ve never done that before while taking a sauna and it was great.  But I took the vodka shot well before round three.  It reminded me of my time in Scandinavia.  It was the only booze I had all night and I woke up the next morning totally fine.  All this reminds me of my Grandfather.  He didn’t drink much at all later in his life.  But we’d go to this coffee shop and have a cup of coffee and a donut.  He wasn’t afraid of donuts.  He wasn’t afraid to live.  He lived to 95 years old.  Don’t be afraid to live.

“I’ll finish my sauna session with a good shower or lake plunge and towel off.  I don’t have to wash my sauna towels after every sauna, because I only dry off at the end, and my body is clean.  After a couple times, I’ll transfer my sauna towel to the lower hook, where I’ll use it a few more sauna sessions to stand on and wipe off my feet.  I cycle sauna towels this way.  I get more life out of my sauna towels and need to wash them less.”  More about sauna towels here.

Conclusion:  Authentic sauna is a good thing.

“I am not Finnish.  I didn’t grow up with sauna, but I’ve taken saunas regularly for over thirty years.  three times a week on average.  And this won’t change for me for the rest of my life.  They say sauna helps you live longer.  But I don’t sauna with the idea of living longer.  Sauna, for me, makes my life better.  And that’s a good thing.

2 thoughts on “Sauna by the numbers: a lifelong authentic sauna enthusiast describes his routine”

  1. i also avoid booze in the hot room. only time i’ll have some in there is when i have a few sips left over from the cool down session. regarding water, i typically don’t drink any during the first round, having downed a good quantity an hour or so before the session.

    on the topic of drinks, sparkling water is fantastic, like la croix. crisp, refreshing and available in many flavors. no calories, no artificial ingredients, good stuff. that is my go-to beverage for morning/afternoon sessions or when i’m just not feeling having any alcohol.

  2. Your description of your sauna experience is seductive… I can’t think of a more appropriate word. Our build is in progress and we can’t wait to get started.

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