The sauna is a Finnish, warlock thing. To prove it, I skinny-dipped through a hole in the ice of Lake Superior
BY PAUL KAIHLA — I spent the afternoon breaking trail through the great boreal forest on the north shore of Lake Superior on cross-country skis made of hickory with my host, Olli. We had a novice tagging along, who couldn’t quite get the swing of it.
A Finnish engineer who has two adult children, a happy marriage and a wry sense of humor, Olli offered our tag-along adventurer mock comfort about the learning curve she faced with nordic skiing: “Don’t worry,” he quipped, “the first 10 years are the hardest.”
So I thought Olli was joking again when we returned to his log cottage: he invited us to take a sauna, run across the snow and jump into a hole he’d cut into the thick ice covering Lake Superior. He’d made a gash through the foot of frozen crust the day before with a chainsaw.
I have a primal and well-grounded fear of heights. So jumping into an Arctic lake the size of Florida, naked, sounded about as appealing to me as, say, sky-diving, para-sailing or bungee-jumping off a rusty bridge.
If you want to intentionally try to do yourself in, any of the above seem like credible techniques.
Again, Olli wasn’t totally reassuring. “It’s not dangerous at all,” he claimed. “The only thing you have to watch out for is the jagged edges of the ice. They can rip open your side when you plunge through the hole.”
I had images of the gashes that coral reefs make in the torsos of scuba divers. But all of Olli’s ribbing aside, I actually began to warm up to the idea while we were sitting in his lakeside sauna.
Athletes use contrast baths to treat injuries like a ‘tennis elbow,’ I figured. Dunking their sore joint in a basin of hot water for a couple of minutes, and then dousing it in ice-cold water for 30 seconds, stimulates blood flow, reduces swelling and dissolves pain.
This is the same thing . . . it’s just doing it with your entire body!
Coming from a long line of Finnish farmers, loggers and folk healers, I decided to claim this part of my ethnic meme — and live down Olli’s dares.
Alpo Suhonen, a Finn who was coach of the Chicago Blackhawks NHL team, takes a sauna every day — and says it’s a therapeutic part of players’ regimens. “The sauna is especially good after practice,” Suhonen told us from his home near Helsinki, which has a sauna in the garden. “It gives you better recovery. It’s part physical, part psychological. It’s a bit mysterious.”
Suhonen’s reverent tone is common among Finns, whose attachment to the sauna borders on the religious.
In ancient times, throwing water on the rocks was a sacrificial rite to the chief pagan god, Yli-Jumala. The modern word for steam, loyly, means “spirit” in Old Finnish.
Right up to the 20th century, the sauna was kind of a central shrine on any homestead — a place for birth, death and magic. High heat kills germs, which made the sauna the ideal space for delivering and nursing babies in rural society.
The practice has articulated much of my family tree, right down to my father’s parents, who were both born in saunas.
The ultimate role of the sauna in matters of body and soul, I discovered, is not for utility but to induce what the psychologist Abraham Maslow called a peak experience. By stripping and sweating — and jumping through a hole cut in the ice.
(Leena, an an avantouinti devotee who is an educator with an advanced degree, demonstrates the ritual in the two pictures above on a lake in the middle of Finland — without the benefit of a sauna.)
When the moment came for Olli to induct me into this ancient mind-body practice, he said, “put on these wool socks.” Loaners which he’d last used for God knows what. But wet feet prancing from the sauna will get sticky on ice, just like that infamous ski-lift scene in Dumb and Dumber where Jeff Daniels’ tongue gets fused to a frosty metal bar.
The act of taking steps outside the sauna to the Ice Age cap on Lake Superior summoned every fiber of courage in me. Actually, I just blanked my mind — and gave myself up to the after-life. The look on my face, if I’d been photographed? Probably priceless.
Submerging in the 30-something water was, as predicted, a near-death shock. I launched out of the lake in nano-seconds with the force of a dolphin.
But afterwards . . . no thought. Just being.
We sat wrapped in towels outside on a wooden bench, and simply watched the snow fall over a starched-white and evergreen vista. Cold was not part of existence. Only belonging to the scenery that enveloped us. For hours.
Every fiber in my flesh tingled with joy, and my mind stretched out across a plateau of infinite clarity.
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