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inside of a sauna

The air is thick with steam. The heat that welcomed and enveloped me when I first entered the sauna, now nearly 10 minutes later, feels suffocating. My nostrils burn slightly. Sweat condenses and trickles down my skin. I try to focus on my breath.

Inhale-two-three-four. Exhale all the way out. Repeat.

Our sauna guide’s voice cuts through the sound of my breathing. “Access your breath to remind your body that it’s safe,” she says gently as she fans the scent of cedarwood essential oil toward the group of us. “This practice builds resilience for the inevitable down moments, and the discomfort won’t last.”

She’s right. It doesn’t. Our first round in the sauna comes to an end about a minute later, sending us next into cold exposure. The door opens and my group files out to the left, where condensation blurs the exit door window. I slip on my sandals and follow outside as a refreshing blast of wind hits me.

We are on a rooftop patio, and it is 17 degrees F — and while that temperature may not be unheard of for Minnesota in February, it is not the ideal weather to be standing outside in your swimsuit.

I watch steam rise from my skin as the air leaches away the warmth. The cooling sensation initially was a reprieve from the sauna’s thick heat, but as the biting wind repeatedly gusts across the nearby buildings and hits my bare skin at full-force, I feel my body rapidly cooling. Soon, the shivering starts and I summon my breath again.

Inhale-two-three-four. Exhale all the way out. Repeat.

I stand outside exposed for almost 10 minutes before our guide calls us back to the sauna.

In total, we alternate these hot and cold exposure cycles three times before my Thermaculture experience session at The Hewing Hotel in Minneapolis, Minn., comes to an end. When it’s over, I feel tired in a relaxed way and my mind feels clear — effects from repeatedly activating two of the houses of my nervous system and their specific neurochemical responses: the sympathetic nervous system’s “fight-or-flight” response and the parasympathetic nervous system’s “rest-and-digest” response.

It feels like a natural high — no doubt an effect of the endorphins released in the process — and I find myself wondering when I might be able to do it again.

The History of Thermic Bathing

Hot and cold exposure is a ritualistic experience that has translated across cultures for more than a thousand years. While their structures may vary from hide-covered Native American sweat lodges and Scandinavian wooden saunas to the opulent bath houses of ancient Rome, their purpose has been largely the same: It’s a tradition focused on detoxification, purification, and community.

Engagement can be done through either hot or cold exposure or a combination of the two.
The primary method for heat exposure is through sauna, which comes from the traditional Finnish practice of a wooden room or cabin with a heater or stove over which stones are then piled. Steam is created from repeatedly pouring water over the hot rocks; aromas are sometimes incorporated from essential oils or burning fragrant wood and plants. The steam creates the velvety bath experience, opening the pores of the skin and flushing out impurities through sweat.

Sauna temperatures typically reach between 176 and 212 degrees F. The steam increases the humidity and more effectively conducts the heat over your body. As your core temperature rises, your body works to thermoregulate itself. It perceives the heat as a threat and activates your stress response: You sweat, your heart beats a little faster, and your brain begins telling you to leave the offending environment (more on why this is beneficial in just a bit).

Cold exposure is done typically in temperatures around 40 to 60 degrees F through cold application, ice baths, cold showers, and cold-plunge tubs, but there are some instances, like cryotherapy, where temperatures drop much lower. Cold exposure dates back to the ancient Greeks and Egyptians for its analgesic and anti-inflammatory effects and remains a popular recovery regimen today. It’s used for countering muscle soreness and inflammation and recovering from injuries, and is gaining traction for additional health benefits such as mood stabilization, metabolic improvements, and managing symptoms of chronic conditions.

Research shows that both hot and cold exposure elicit a release of dopamine, facilitating a natural peak experience. In Finland and Denmark, for example, winter swimming has been a popular pastime for its mood-boosting endorphins — and while there isn’t a proven direct connection, the two countries consistently rank among the world’s happiest.

Temperature-based therapies are currently experiencing a resurgence in the United States. Since the pandemic onset in 2020, sales of in-home sauna equipment have nearly doubled year over year as people have invested in their homes and renewed their focus on self-care activities. The cold-plunge market has also seen consistent growth since the pandemic, and the practice has become popular enough to warrant a race to market between manufacturers of at-home options.

The Importance of Practicing for Stress

In sauna practice, you may not experience discomfort until several minutes in, while in cold environments, it’s usually immediate and may fade with longer exposure. The goal during these reflexive feelings is to sit with the discomfort, resist the urge to exit, and practice deep breathing. Taking deep, calm breaths in through the nose and exhaled out through the mouth are proven to send parasympathetic signals to the body, stimulate the vagus nerve, and initiate rest-and-digest responses in the body.

“It’s an incredible practice that has changed my life in ways I couldn’t foresee,” says my guide from the session, Paige LaBreche, ACSM-CEP, head of programming for Stokeyard Outfitters and owner of Manifesto Yoga. “We’re intentionally seeking discomfort to practice our response in difficult circumstances outside of our control. When we’re in situations in which we cannot wait for the external change to occur, we can learn to calm our breathing and stabilize our experience of the environment internally.”

LaBreche, who is certified in trauma-informed yoga practices, believes contrasting hot and cold therapy is important work for managing the stress and trauma that can challenge you in daily life. “When you’ve had this practice, it becomes part of your toolbox,” she says. “You gain confidence in your ability to regulate your breath and calm your nervous system when you’re faced with inevitable down moments or situations that cause anxiety or worry or that otherwise upset you.”

LaBreche offers an example: “When you go through intense moments in your life, such as an anxiety attack, your thoughts convince you the experience is going to last forever, so we endlessly seek an exit — but the reality is that it’s not going to last forever,” she explains. “The harsh elements of Thermaculture can feel sharply similar. By remaining in your body and focused on your breath, you’re reminded that it doesn’t take long to feel good again. It’s the reminder we all need that we can do hard things.”

How to Practice Hot and Cold Exposure

Because both extreme heat and cold can impact your heart rate and circulatory system, practitioners recommend first consulting with your doctor if you have a risk of heart disease to avoid potentially dangerous outcomes.

If you’re interested in first trying a guided experience, search online in your community for sauna societies that may offer programming. A guided session can be beneficial in providing an initial experience and education to later replicate on your own. A guide can also help you safely push further than you might otherwise. When you practice on your own, your introductory experience will help you know what point to go to mentally and physically.

Areas of the United States seeing the most sauna growth and likely to have sauna societies available include the Midwest (specifically Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Iowa — where many descendants of Swedish and Finnish immigrants live), as well as in generally health-conscious communities, such as in California, Washington, Oregon, Colorado, and Massachusetts.

To try the practice on your own, look for the best hot and cold options available to you. Do you have access to a sauna through your health club membership or through friends and family? Does winter provide a natural cold exposure opportunity where you live?

For Life Time members, many of the athletic country clubs offer some or the full suite of amenities, including saunas, steam suites, and cold-plunge tubs. Starting simply at home with a cold shower may suffice for some beginners, says LeBreche.

Set an intention to find your comfort level and then the slight edge beyond it. Release your expectations, ditch the focus on numbers associated with time and temperature, and tap into the subtle feelings in your body to find your unique edge of comfort. “Contrast yourself with yourself,” says LaBreche. “You know what you’re capable of. Ask yourself, Am I doing my best right now?”

Each person is different, and the time you spend in a hot or cold cycle can vary greatly. A beginner may feel discomfort in as little as two minutes in the sauna, while someone who has been practicing tolerance may extend their time to 10 minutes or beyond. It’s important to listen to your body and rely on your own feelings and experience.

Tips for Hot Exposure

1. Focus on your breath. Breathe in through your nose, then exhale out through an open mouth. Breathe deeply, pressing one hand to your chest and the other to your belly. Stick with the natural cadence you build from there. Check in with yourself about the quality of your breath: Is it in your chest or belly? Does it feel short and choppy, or can you extend the length of the exhale? When you use your belly (or diaphragm) to facilitate your breath, that’s how you can activate the parasympathetic response.

2. Bring a water bottle. Choose one made of materials that can handle the hot sauna environment (such as double-walled stainless steel with a grip sleeve or plastic handle) to help you stay hydrated. Drink water between hot and cold rounds when it is least likely to distract from the focus on your breathing.

3. Practice mindfulness. “My go-to tip for the sauna is to not think about any one thought for too long,” says LaBreche. “You can spend all session thinking about how hot it is in there. It’s not going to change the temperature. Just let the thoughts come and go as they wish and don’t get attached to them. Focus on your breath becoming louder than your thoughts.”

4. Add aromatherapy when possible. If you’re in a private sauna, try adding a few drops of essential oils to the water poured on the rocks. If you’re in a shared or public space, you can dilute essential oils in a carrier like jojoba oil and apply it to your inner wrists or the palms of your hands. At Life Time, the steam suites diffuse eucalyptus essential oil, which may feel energizing and refreshing as part of your heat experience.

LaBreche recommends incorporating different essential oils for each round to help anchor your mindfulness and intention. “I often use cedarwood for the first round because it is the oil of community; saunas are often built from this wood and have that subtle smell,” she says. “Frankincense is ‘the king of oils,’ so I like to use that in the second round to focus more on breathing from the crown of your head down over your whole body. In the last round, I like rosemary for emotional release or black spruce for resiliency. Black spruce trees store all their cones at the very top, so it can have a better chance at surviving a forest fire. There’s beauty in the resilience of that.”

Tips for Cold Exposure

1. Choose your method. Whether it’s a cold-plunge pool, a cold shower, icy winter wind, or a “polar plunge” into a frozen lake, the temperature is typically around 40 to 60 degrees F.

2. Focus primarily on your exhale. When you switch from the heat to cold, your body may be shocked and want to restrict your breath. LaBreche recommends regulating your breath right away, exhaling long and controlled, as if through a straw, with your lips in an “O” shape, to try and counteract the urge to gasp. Then, find your natural deep-breathing cadence again: Inhale through the nose and exhale through the mouth to stabilize your experience of the environment.

3. Try not to tense. In cold, your body wants to constrict to conserve heat. LaBreche recommends guiding yourself through a body scan by asking yourself the following questions: Am I holding my breath? Can I breathe through the discomfort? Can I relax my shoulders down from my ears? Can I stay in this a moment longer?

“Once people are able to regulate their breath, the blood can flow more freely,” she says. “You experience a state change where you realize you can do this and you’re in control of your mindset. And when you remove yourself from the cold, your brain can produce dopamine and it may feel like a natural high.”

Overall, LaBreche tells her students to rely on their own agency. “Seek peace, not victory,” she says. “You know what you’re capable of, so be honest with yourself. Try to stay in your body but feel where the edge is. You may feel you’re approaching your max, but can you go a moment longer? How about the next moment? Inch along and extend yourself — but not so far as to cause any harm. That’s the sweet spot that helps you push yourself as you continue your practice.”

Lindsey Frey Palmquist
Lindsey Frey Palmquist

Lindsey Frey Palmquist is a health and wellness writer.

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