At the end of a hard day (or a strenuous workout), the allure of a hot sauna sings out like a beached siren. Northern Europeans have used saunas — and boasted their praises — for years. Recent studies have shown that regular sauna and steam room use is indeed linked to some great health outcomes, like heart health, but most health professionals are still hesitant to recommend it outright.
It’s difficult to argue that a 20- to 30-minute session doesn’t feel incredibly rejuvenating, though. Most everyone can appreciate the therapeutic experience of a sauna, but are we getting as much benefit as possible during our precious time in there?
Some experts weighed in on ways we can maximize our sauna use, so we’re not sitting around wondering “what now?” when we could be making the most of it.
Before Your Sauna Session
Prepare to perspire when you step foot in the sauna. The best way to do that is to hydrate thoroughly. If you’ve just been working out, it’s especially important to fill up on water before a session in a sauna or steam room.
What you wear (or don’t wear) is important. Traditionally, people have enjoyed saunas in the nude. This isn’t completely necessary or realistic for public facilities, but you don’t want to wear a tight bathing suit either. Dr. Erum Ilyas, a dermatologist, says to make sure your towel is dry when you enter the sauna, since “wet towels will absorb and concentrate the heat onto your skin.” Ilyas cites examples of sauna users who sustained second degree burns this way. Use a clean, dry towel and wrap it loosely.
While You’re in the Sauna
In any public sauna you can find people hunched over, assuming a position of “rest.” Why not use this time to focus on posture conducive to deep breathing? Dr. Kim Chronister, a therapist in Beverly Hills, advises sauna-bathers to practice diaphragmatic breathing, a deep breathing technique in which you engage your diaphragm and let your belly expand upon inhaling. Push your shoulders back and slow your breathing down. Chronister says doing this along with mindful meditation is a great way to spend your time in the sauna.
To make good use of the heat and its relaxing effect on your muscles, try some light stretching in the sauna. Dr. Nora Fahlberg, a hypnotherapist in Atlanta, says, “Even in a full sauna, you can probably stretch your neck, gently rotating and then bending it to each side. Look up and gently tip your head back, perhaps with your hands behind your neck for support. You don’t need to stretch forward, as most of us spend a lot of our day looking down. You can do the same rotation and side bending moves for your upper and lower back too.” Of course, if you’re in a private sauna, the possibilities are boundless. Fahlberg recommends placing your buttocks against the wall and laying with your legs perpendicular to your torso to give your veins and lymphatic vessels a break from gravity.
For a calming effect, lots of regular sauna users tout the benefits of essential oils like lavender or eucalyptus. Add a few drops to your towel or your neck for a pleasant, soothing scent to improve your relaxation.
After You Get Out
After a steamy session, you will be covered in sweat. Your inclination to shower is a good course of action. Dr. Ilyas says that salts build up on our skin from perspiring, and a nice shower afterwards will rinse them off. Also, these salts tend to dry out your skin while your sweat evaporates in the sauna, so Ilyas recommends moisturizing thoroughly after a shower. You’ll also want to rehydrate after your sauna session to replace the water you sweat out.
After the relaxation of a sauna, you’ll want a period of rest or contemplation before diving back into work. Take some time for a simple pleasure or a meditation on gratitude before going on with your day.
If you use a sauna in Norway, it is possible that you will be expected to jump into freezing waters afterwards, a common custom in Oslo. If you’re looking for a way to clear your mind, this could certainly do the trick.
Featured Image: Lisjatina on Shutterstock
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