When hell has frozen over outside, all you have to do is step into a sauna and feel your bones thawing, your blood flowing, and your heart opening.
“Lots of researchers are publicizing the benefits of hot-cold conditioning,” says sauna enthusiast John Pederson. “Research and interest has kind of given people a new vocabulary to share and take ownership of the experience themselves. It’s really opening up to people who might have thought it’s just a Nordic thing.”
A self-professed “saunapreneur,” Pederson is the founder of the 612 Sauna Society, a sauna co-op that has a mobile sauna unit (currently parked at Theodore Wirth Park). He also runs Sauna Society Outfitters, where he consults with companies and individuals about starting and running their own saunas.
Many believe that using a sauna gives you a mental reset similar to the clarity and focus that you get from exercise. “There’s a whole sense that it feels great and it’s really fun,” he says.
City Pages investigated some of the different sauna offerings that the Twin Cities have to offer, and found that each one has its own draw for different reasons. Here’s what we discovered:
612 Sauna Society
Parked outside of Theodore Wirth Park’s spiffy new recreation center, 612 Sauna Society’s trailer is a small but mighty fortress of warmth. Structured under a co-op model, member-owners get advanced booking access, though you don’t have to be a member to sign up for a session.
Inside, there’s a prep area before you get to the sauna. You put your outer clothes in a cubby hole, and there are changing areas behind two curtains. This entry room has low-mood lights, allowing you to get into the zone as you prepare for your sauna experience.
612 Sauna Society keeps the temperature a bit higher than saunas you might experience at the Y or your regular gym, so for newbies, you might want to start out at one of the lower benches. As you breathe in the thick air, feel free to chat with the other sauna go-ers, as 612 definitely encourages socialization as part of the experience.
When it gets too hot, just take a break outside and enjoy the billows of steam coming off your skin. Be sure to wave to the skiers who pass by on their way to the loppett course.
As an added bonus, 612 provides sauna caps, which are wool hats that protect your ears from getting too hot. As you go back into the sauna for subsequent sessions, you’ll find yourself getting calmer as your body relaxes. It’s kind of like a passive form of exercise: You are getting the benefits of yoga without having to do any actual labor.
The Little Box Sauna
Currently in residence at Parallel coffee shop near the Farmer’s Market on Lyndale, the Little Box Sauna has a cheerful fire pit that greets visitors outside. Like the 612 Sauna Society, the Little Box Sauna is mobile. It has travelled throughout the Twin Cities to cultural institutions and festivals.
Designed in 2015 as part of an experimental creative placemaking project, Little Box was designed by architects Andrea Johnson and Molly Reichert. Johnson currently runs the operation.
The Little Box Sauna has a compelling architectural shape and dark-toned wood on the outside. Inside, the changing room is decked out with glowing lanterns. There’s a calm, diaphanous atmosphere, with music playing to set the tone of your experience.
The best part of The Little Box Sauna is that its current remote location lends itself toward jumping in the snow between sessions. If you’ve never tried this, it is extremely recommended. It’s one of those bucket list things everyone in Minnesota should try, like staying up all night waiting for the Northern Lights and going ice fishing.
You can get a day pass to Hewing Hotel’s rooftop sauna, which has the added benefit of having an outdoor whirlpool with a priceless view of the downtown Minneapolis skyline.
Hewing also has programs and classes, such as the Meet the Heat series led by Doctor of Physical Therapy Ashley LaBore, which is co-hosted by Sauna Society Outfitters. A combination of yoga, breathing techniques, and structured sauna rituals, the class takes the sauna experience to the next level of health.
Of all the saunas we tried, Hewing is the most luxurious: The sauna is enormous, white robes and towels are provided for everybody, and nothing is better than relaxing in a whirlpool overlooking that gorgeous view at the end of your sauna round.
On a particularly cold evening, it can be a little much to try and do yoga postures for an extended period of time outside, so it’s advisable to try this on a more balmy night of say, 15 degrees.
Ashley LaBore also leads a series of poses inside the sauna, but it’s mostly designed to allow you enter into the heat more deeply, as opposed to strenuous exercise. It’s nice to have the camaraderie of a class atmosphere; one that encourages questions and offers instructions and insight to deepen the sauna experience.
We checked out the YWCA sauna in Midtown as kind of the control group of the experiment. While it’s not as fancy as the specialty sauna offerings, it’s a great option if you already have a membership to the Y. As far as atmosphere, the sounds of nearby showers and children don’t lend toward a meditative experience. But, at the same time, because its located in gendered locker rooms, near or full nakedness is permitted, which is a plus.
While it’s a bummer you don’t have the extremes of going from the sauna to the outdoors, it is nice to be near proximity to showers, which aren't always available at other saunas. (Andrea Johnson, who runs the Little Box Sauna notes, that many traditions consider taking a sauna to be a form of bathing). The YWCA also has the benefit of having a whirlpool and regular pool to add to your sauna regime.
Red Light Sauna
In addition to more traditional offerings, red light sauna fan (and former local sex columnist) Alexis McKinnis advises folks to try out this slightly harder to find option.
She says favors the red light option (or infrared sauna), because it penetrates deeper than a regular sauna, and raises your temperature by a couple of degrees. “It’s nice because it doesn’t heat the air around you,” she says. “You can still breath, and when you walk out of an infrared sauna, you feel warm and you stay warm.”
McKinnis says this type of sauna also helps your skin regenerate, so it’s an option that will be of interest to folks seeking the fountain of youth.
The 612 Sauna Society is partnering with the American Swedish Institute for a new sauna that opens this week. The Solar Egg, by Swedish artists Mats Bigert and Lars Bergström, is a five-meter-tall golden egg sculpture that doubles as a functional sauna. It’ll be in residence at the museum through April 28.