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Sauna sobriety: An inherited resilience

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Guest post series continues, please welcome Jen Gilhoi to SaunaTimes. Jen grew up in Jackson, MN, a rural community on the prairie in Southwestern MN. She spent winter weekends as a young girl ice fishing with her dad and summers on West Lake Okoboji and Spirit Lake, IA, just 22 miles south of Jackson.

Since her early twenties she’s lived in Minneapolis, and near the shores of Lake Nokomis since 2001. Her children, ages 18 and 20, and her 8-year-old Goldendoodle bring her the most joy. 

Growing up with cold

My father may not know this, but I inherited the idea of resiliency from him. From a very young age, I trudged behind him over frozen lakes of Southwestern Minnesota. Eventually we’d arrive at the house on the lake that promised warmth or a least a reprieve from frigid January temps that belied the sun’s rays. I remember a silence. Then the crackling of the surface ice of each augured fishing hole as we reopened for the business of ice fishing for the day.

There was an order to things. With all lines down, bobbers set, the tiny fish house stove could be lit. A sauna by no means as it barely just took the chill out of the air. Those winter Sundays were short on sunshine, edging into darkness by 5:00pm. I’d observe him, no signs of a shiver. I, on the other hand, likely chilled but unwilling to show it.

This environment suited him. In his element as he returned the hauled gear to its place on the sled, he would remain unfazed by the cold as we made our way back to the shore. I took my cues from him. Even at age eight, I knew not every human had this comfortable way with cold.

Rediscovering the cold

In my teen years, accustomed to warmth and comfort, I’d venture out less with him. The experience started to become too cold and uncomfortable for me. Somewhere along the way I thought I lost the cold tolerance gene. As it turns out, I just hadn’t flexed it for decades. Discovering sauna and cold plunge in 2019 drew out this dormant drive for resilience. I reclaimed this inherited idea of resilience and quickly became curious about pushing my body and mind to the edges of hot and cold. 

Today, when I sauna and cold plunge I reconnect with my childhood. The sauna and fish house similar in structure and containing nostalgia that transcends to the present. The outdoor cold plunge always holding a moment of questioning anticipation – will I be able to breathe through it and embrace the cold? I know the answer is yes. 

Deep calm in the cold

As I slide into the 44-degree water, I often envision the lake’s edge and horizon, crossing a boundary metaphorically and physically. Even at night, I can close my eyes and conjure up sunshine and pure joy in this experience. My deep, calm breathing signals to my body – I’m okay. A thermal layer of warmth folds around me in the stillness. Many moments later, I consciously move out of icy water to seek heat. 

I feel a debt of gratitude that my father modeled this practice of resilience for me. I was born for this experience. If I can do this, I think, then what other capabilities of potential lie just beneath the surface for me? I am compelled to wade deeper to edge toward more wonder. Then I simply listen. There is so much to inherit. 

Glenn: Editor’s note: Jen and Glenn initially connected at the Sauna Village, Minneapolis, January 2023. Translucency in mind and spirit outside Darin’s North Up sauna. Reconnecting at Sauna Days, and soon to be more neighbor gatherings at Darin’s. We shared emails back and forth about sauna being a welcome space for sober folks, which eventually led to my recommendation of The Wedge; Evolution, Consciousness, Stress, and the Key to Human Resilience, by Scott Carney. How we can reprogram ourselves, by inserting a “wedge” between stimulus and our response to it. That space – that wedge – is of our choosing.

Interview with Jen

Glenn: Hot cold contrast therapy is a mental and physical practice. The mental exercise is the ability to put a “wedge” between the stimulus of thermal extremes and our response to it. The physical component then becomes our controlled response to our environment (or stress, stressors). By learning these edges through heat and cold extremes, we condition ourselves for healthier responses. As we get strong in this practice, it can help us in other areas of life. Have you found this to be true and in what ways? 

Jen: Definitely. I got sober in 2014. And although I didn’t know it, I was using this idea that Scott Carney names and identifies as the “wedge” to build resilience in my sobriety journey. I also didn’t have the benefit of sauna and cold plunge experiences in the first five years of my sobriety. I really didn’t have any safe social experiences I looked forward to for at least the first year of sobriety. Socializing meant being asked “Why aren’t you drinking?” and awkwardly having to explain my non-drinking while feeling waves of shame wash over me. 

The mental exercise became critical for survival in social spaces, as I could sustain months of sobriety doing my own personal work and work with peers in groups like AA, only to have it completely fall apart in social experiences that blindsided me. In my experience, the stimulus was a party or bar/restaurant scene with alcohol at the center, everyone appearing relaxed with a drink in hand, the questioning looks, and my awkwardness and annoyance. The immediate, decades-long response to this environment and strong desire to belong, was to drink. 

Eventually, I learned many tools to create space to rewire my thinking and patterns. The more success I had making it through initial awkwardness of evenings (and blissfully waking up sober the morning after!), the more I could soothe and calm myself in those critical, pivotal moments to pause and shut down the desire to drink.

Glenn: Jen, I have a sense at how challenging this “reprogramming” is and was for you. I have a few friends who have also chosen the sobriety path, including my wife for the most part. For her, alcohol is poison, as it gives her migraines. Not fair to compare to those where alcohol was a pathway to escape or a good time.

With deliberate cold and heat, for me, it’s like I can see my neural pathways rolling along. When I sauna and hit the cold, all doubt and noise goes away. I am connected as one: mind, body, spirit. We know that sauna and cold plunge experiences are a powerful tool to tap into listening to our minds and bodies. How does this resonate for you?

Jen: I can’t say enough how powerful discovering sauna and cold plunge in early sobriety would have benefited me. If you’ve heard of the term white knuckling it, that was me. I was on super shaky ground. The only truth I knew absolutely was to steer clear of alcohol – I was, after all, powerless over it, according to AA. But I didn’t understand what was happening in my mind and body while trying to achieve this feat. I didn’t breathe deeply or slow down to listen. It was like I was in a hyperactive state, fight or flight mode for a year.

Part of my work today is to let people who struggle with substance issues know that sauna is a safe space. It helps train the pause needed to distance yourself from your substance of choice. I profoundly felt the healing power of sauna and cold plunge during my first experience in spring of 2019 with Alex Troitzsch via Stokeyard at The Hewing Hotel (I wrote about it May 24, 2019, here: Anxiety Melts Away with Aufguss). No one asked why I wasn’t drinking. I could show up alone. Share as much as little as I liked. And be in community while trying to heal myself and pour on the grace we so rarely give ourselves. 

I’ve wanted to create this for other sober folks for so long! Just recently I launched Sauna and Sobriety with Natalie Lang and Paige LaBreche in the Twin Cities. In a completely substance-free environment with amazing nonalcoholic (NA) beverages like Sauna Water — a Portage Brewery and Cedar + Stone Sauna collaborative creation — we’re modeling what connection looks like in social spaces that aren’t AA meetings to help people integrate sobriety into their lives in sustainable ways. 

Glenn: That sounds amazing. When you talk about your experience, it sounds like you felt a relaxing vibe without feeling pressured to drink and maybe a social experience you hadn’t yet had. Awesome. I get that not drinking or having a healthy relationship with alcohol pairs well with sauna. I’ll be the first to say that a “cold one” – as in beer — tastes great between rounds. I have a Pavlovian desire for a beer between rounds. It has a lot of connotations and memories of good times past. But it is 100% related to the taste. Not the alcohol buzz. What’s your take on this?

Jen: Most of our experiences with alcohol are rooted in ritual. Alcohol is so pervasive in society and centered in experiences that its extremely hard to uncouple activities and alcohol or substances. This takes us right back to the “wedge” – the pause and the expansiveness to consider our rituals and perhaps consistently or occasionally make a nonalcoholic choice. At least, have it as an option. The NA beers of today are quite amazing! (looking at you NA Time NA Where by Ursa Minor Brewing and NA Tropical Fun Pants by Lupulin)

My TEDx Talk is about bringing elevated nonalcoholic options and an enthusiastic experience into our social spaces. There are so many amazing nonalcoholic beverages in 2023 that there’s absolutely no reason not to offer them. And bonus, not drinking pairs really well with wellbeing and productivity!

The response over the past few months, as I’ve been stocking my Yeti and bringing it to pop up sauna events (via the business I co-founded May 2022, Zero Proof Collective), has been overwhelmingly positive. It’s connecting with what people want now. Follow me on Insta @sobernotsomber_ to see how it’s done. I’m already looking forward to Sauna Days 2024 and intro’ing NA to the community there! 

For play, Jen is an avid sauna-goer with communities from Stokeyard and Embrace North to Urban Wing Co and Nomad Sauna. When it comes to work life, she captures event experiences via Sparktrack, and advocates to bring nonalcoholic options into social spaces via Zero Proof Collective. Her TEDx Talk: Sober Not Somber: An Enlightening Way to Evolve Drinking Culture is due out globally in 2023.

Jen, left, with Cara Menz at Malcolm Yards, Minneapolis, January 2023
Jen, left, with friend Cara Menz at Malcolm Yards, Minneapolis, January 2023
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