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The magic of unplugging: What we learned from building a traditional Finnish sauna

The magic of unplugging: What we learned from building a traditional Finnish sauna

Tucked behind a garden shed, next to our compact camper stored away for winter, is a door.

During World War II, this door led to a chicken coop that the longtime resident of our historic house, Mrs. Birtch, built to provide self-sufficiency. She also had a true Victory Garden, but that's a tale for another day. Today, this unremarkable door leads to something new and extraordinary: an 8 by 10 foot, hand-built “secret sauna space,” authentically constructed in the Finnish tradition by my husband.

My husband is a Yooper. He was born, raised and lived in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, “above the bridge,” for the first 49 years of his life. Sauna is a way of life for many Yoopers, and after a couple years living in the northern Lower Peninsula, it was evident it was a piece of his heritage he needed to add back to his life. 

First, he gutted the old chicken coop right through to the dirt foundation and started  building from scratch. Throughout the process, I watched him create a peaceful haven with ingenuity and frugality. The walls and benches are rough-sawn northern white cedar from the local area. The floor is treated pine from the lumberyard in town. A small, used wood stove with a glass front provides the heat source. We enlisted the help of a strong young couple to pick it up and place it in the shed.

My husband then built a stone basket atop the wood stove from an old bed frame and some wire fencing he had in the garage. The stones for the basket, used to create the sauna’s steam, are special, too. We've been collecting Lake Superior "blue stones” over the course of our marriage. These particular stones can withstand sudden heat and cooling when water is poured on them. As a finishing touch on the project, we used quality new materials for the stove pipe and chimney. 

The sauna has quickly become an important part of our routine. After the first 20 minutes, we will either walk into the unheated garage or step outside to cool down. This cooling-off period is when many people jump into a cold lake or roll in the snow and then get back into the sauna. I haven't reached that level of hard-core sauna enthusiast … yet. A few minutes in the cold air is plenty of temperature shock for me!

These sauna dates a few nights a week are when we spend quality time together without any distractions. Stepping through the little door, we’re embraced by the beauty and scent of the soft cedar walls, putting us in the mindset for relaxation. Cell phone-free, we sit in the amber light of the crackling fire ,  water hissing and sizzling as it hits the rocks and metal basket atop the woodstove. Steam rises magically from the stones, easing weary minds and muscles. We chat about the day or the week behind us or about days that lie ahead. Captured in the cozy silence, we rarely turn on the radio we set up through the doorway. 

In the beginning, I was blasé about the sauna – heat and humidity aren't my favorite things. But soon, I started to notice that I slept much better the nights we spent in the sauna.

Was it the downshift from constant technology and the busyness of life? Was it the sweat pouring from every pore in my body, pushing out the stress of the day? My mood was better, too. I felt happier and seemed to suffer less from cabin fever or the winter blues common in the cold, dark weeks of winter. Now, I happily sit for two 20-minute sessions at 115 - 120 degrees Fahrenheit.

It doesn’t take much time on Google to find studies on the benefits of the different types of saunas. Is this why people living in Nordic countries seem so happy and content despite longer, darker winters than we experience in Michigan?

There are numerous benefits to using a sauna as little as 15 minutes a day, or longer sessions once or twice a week. Arthritis, depression and sleep issues are the most common ailments studied that benefit from regular sauna use.

Thankfully, you don’t have to hand-build one like we did to see the benefits of this Michigan tradition. Personal saunas that plug into a standard 15-amp outlet can now be shipped to your home, or your local gym or fitness center may offer one. It might be worth giving it a few weeks of consistent trials to see if it’s right for you.

No matter what, we can all benefit from less technology, less noise and being “unplugged.”