Friday, October 20th 2017

The shaman origin of your spa’s sauna

The sauna is a Finnish, warlock thing. To prove it, I skinny-dipped through a hole in the ice of Lake Superior

watersnow.gifBY 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.

leena-avanto.jpgAfter all, the sauna dates back to ancient times in Finland, and its residents are the world’s most fervent missionaries on the subject of the sauna’s healing arts.

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.

My ‘people’ call it avantouinti (literal translation, “open swim”), and even have a state-sponsored society devoted to the practice.

(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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12 Comments on “The shaman origin of your spa’s sauna”

  1. This piece rocks. As a kid in vermont I used to swim in outdoor pools -- supremely heated, I admit. I'd wait until I was completely warmed and relaxed, then get out and roll in deep, fresh snow for what seemed like an eternity and then slip back into the pool. I haven't thought about that in year--heck, decades-- but this piece brought me right back to those joyous times.

    Now, where to find a frozen lake and a sauna...

    Thank you

  2. Paul,
    Next time... I want to jump too!

  3. Thank you for your good, relaxed writing about avantouinti. Yes, the nature is an excellent nurse, if we have time to get to know it -- and it's available to us for free.

    There is a lot of knowledge about avantouinti at these Finnish sites:

    There is also once a year, The Championship of Avantouinti of Finland, and also The World Championship of a hole in the ice.

    You can get a little taste of a hole in the ice very simply by taking a cold shower. It's a good way to start a day. It puts you in a good mood.
    Take a hand-held shower head, and start from your feet. Little by little, work your way to the upper body. Remember to breathe peacefully. Have a Great DAy!

  4. Having been that tag-along adventurer along the Lake Superior shore, your story brought me back to that expanding afternoon at Olli and Mia's. It was a Peak Experience indeed, and your perspective captured it beautifully. Thank you for the warm (cold?) and cherished memory!

  5. You definitely have "sisu" The writing is great and really made me feeel like I was there -- most likely, as close as I will ever get to jumping into a frozen lake.

  6. Great article. Sort of reminds me of our local tradition with the Polar Bear Club on January 1 of every year.

    But... with me and my body size ( I'm very lean ) I think I'd go into shock jumping in water like that :-o

  7. I just bought a season ticket to the sauna of Helsingin Talviuimarit (Helsinki winterswirmmers).

    They have a hot sauna and a swimming place (hole in the ice) a couple of blocks from our flat in Töölö.

    Take a look:

  8. Today I jumped or swam one minute in Kemijoki without a sauna; water temperature was about +5 or +6 Celsius. I felt coldness in my toes and fingers. So it marked the start for my winter-time swimming in nature.

  9. the feeling is amazing.i have to agree

  10. I've been alternating hot/cold in the morning shower for a couple of years. I always end cold. Makes the rest of the day tolerable, in both summer and winter. One theory is that the shock of the cold generates a quick "fever" like response in the body, stimulating defense mechanisms and strengthening the immune system. YMMV

  11. Great story, Paul!

    Batchawana Bay water, awesome. Hurley's Egg Water, NOT!

    Effa So

  12. Now if you wanted me to jump into a hot spring or spend some time in a sauna, I'm there baby! Otherwise no way!!!

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