The sauna meister artfully swirled a white towel over his head, sending waves of eucalyptus scented steam to envelope us. “Try to hang in there and breathe it in,” he urged those of us remaining in the room. A couple of people from the group of 22 had slipped out the door already, opting instead to breathe in the urban air at the top of the Hewing Hotel in Minneapolis.
I moved to a lower bench in the small wooden-walled sauna, and calculated in an utterly unscientific way that it was probably 10 degrees cooler on the bottom bench versus the top. But temperatures, like the time, had become difficult to determine as I pushed the limits of my comfort zone in this sweaty space I shared with other urban adventurers.
The spirit of the evening had been to go on an urban retreat with some friends. Try something different. And one of these friends was a new and enthusiastic member of the Sauna Society Outfitters, a community founded to promote the physical, mental, and social benefits of thermic bathing.
Showing no concern for time of year, the Sauna Society offers a Full Moon Steam Medley at the Hewing. The medley consists of three, 15-minute steam rounds, between which participants cool off on the hotel’s rooftop. The ice bath plunge is optional. This particular night was an Aufguss Aromatherapy Session in which the sauna meister offered up three different aromatherapy scents, one during each of the 15-minute sessions.
Admittedly, I went to the Hewing on a lark. It sounded like a fun night out with friends — a chance to catch up, detoxify my body, warm up on a chilly spring evening, and get that much closer to the full moon.
But what actually happened that night is hard to describe. I remember sitting outside, poolside, in a chaise lounge after the third 15-minute sauna. I know one of my friends was next to me on her own chair, and when I could finally put words together to speak, I uttered, “I think I’m having an out of body experience.” Now, I’m a pretty practical, feet-on-the-ground kind of gal, not much prone to hyperbole or drama. And it’s important to note that after 27 years, I am still stone cold sober.
My friend on the chair next to me grunted in affirmation. “I don’t know if I can leave this chair,” she said. And it’s important to note that she, too, was under the influence of nothing other than this communal sauna fest. And we sat like that, side by side, as the full moon rose over the cityscape, marveling at our extraordinary mental and physical sensations of well being.
After 15 minutes of reveling in the feelings of tranquility and oneness with the universe, we deemed it safe enough to join the sauna meister and some of our fellow sauna mates in the pool. There, the meister laid some sauna science on us, which helped explain the relaxed and blissful state. It had to do with neurotransmitters, sweating, and the fight/flight response, and at the time it made perfect sense.
This sense of salubrity stayed with me for the good part of a week, and as often happens when we immerse ourselves back into our day-to-days, it began to fade. I noticed my edges sharpening again, the bounce leaving my step, ever so slowly, and despite my modest meditation practice. I knew it was another three weeks until the next Full Moon Steam, and although I toyed with the idea of adding a sauna to the house, it wasn’t going to happen anytime soon either.
But, suppose there was something to the sauna meister’s scientific explanation about the body/mind benefits to sweating in community?
Enter Modo yoga, or, Phase Two of my Urban Retreat Experiment. Modo yoga is a yoga style and philosophy that is practiced in a room heated anywhere from 95-103 degrees. Like the Sauna Society, it has a growing number of devotees, who keep coming back to the community for a daily, weekly, or monthly dose of this feels so good. And again, as with the Sauna Society, there is a purity of purpose among the people drawn to practice that is as palpable as the moisture laden air. And thus, Modo yoga got me through the month of April, during which I did my 30 in 30 — 30 hot yoga sessions in 30 days.
And now? With summer the sun draws me outside and to the many ways to find peace of mind in our urban spaces. My next adventure involves hanging between two trees — “mocking.” Practiced alone or with friends, eyes open or closed, book or no book, mocking invites participants to sway in the breeze, snuggle up, take a nap, or find animals in the shapes of clouds. Hammocks can be stacked, are easily moved, and can often accommodate canines.
Other urban retreats include the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden, Lake Harriet Rose Garden, the Lyndale Park Peace Garden, Thomas Sadler Roberts Bird Sanctuary, and the Chain of Lakes. And let us not forget the back yard retreat – or front if you are seeking community. Have a garden? Plunge your hands into the soil plant some vegetables or flowers.
Ultimately these retreats have one destination in common. They are meant to bring us back to ourselves. To our sense of peace, belonging, and well-being. Sometimes we need to get out, to be able to come back in.
Julia Edelman is the Editor of The Phoenix Spirit.