Wooden two-seater infrared sauna unit with FM radio/CD player and LED lights

place: infrared sauna
time: c. 2016

Everybody ends up here eventually — naked and alone, inside a wooden box.

Okay, maybe not specifically here, which is an infrared sauna at a spa in midtown Toronto. Seduced by promises and possibilities of a relaxing touch-free, people-less experience that might take the edge off of existence, we’ve willing put ourselves in a box and pay for the privilege of it.

The specific sequence of events that brought us into a 4ft x 6ft heated chamber is inconsequential. Let’s say there’s a brief history of recurring sciatic nerve pain. Let’s say it’s the physical manifestation of a lifetime of botheration and vexation, chronic stress — the strain of growing up poor, the twists and turns of working as a creative professional through years of recessions and industry permutations, the pinching of pennies and crunching of time, the scramble to finish multiple projects on tight deadlines after the prolonged heartache from months of having no projects, the crippling anxiety of being poor and out of work forever — finally taking its toll. Maybe the sciatica is just the body’s protest against sitting too long at a desk while staring despairingly into a computer screen. The doctor shrugs and suggests physical therapy — which just turns out to be stretches like the old ladies do on TV — ibuprofen, and heat. The stretches are boring and ibuprofen is failing at its maximum recommended dosage. The Internet recommends this newfangled magic heat box.

The spa’s receptionist leads the way down the hall into a treatment room housing the cedar-like infrared sauna. She offers a brief rundown about how it works — use the control panels to set the timer and temperature, drink water throughout the 45-minute sauna session to stay hydrated, strip down so the skin absorbs as much heat as possible, rinse off with the rain head shower afterwards, have a good time. She exits and the session begins. The temperature inside the sauna is already heated up to 113°F. The timer is already counting down. On your mark, get set, undress and scamper into the sauna. Sit down on the white spa towels draped across the bench, pull the door closed, and…relax.

The infrared sauna is a relatively new kid on the pseudoscience block. It merges Finnish tradition with Japanese innovation in an aesthetically-pleasing machine designed to manage North American tension. The prefabricated wooden heat shack is modelled on rustic Nordic saunas but is fitted inside with infrared technology that was developed in Japan, strategically-placed electric panels that work by emitting lightwaves from the far end of the infrared electromagnetic spectrum…or something. Despite its newcomer status, it promotes the same old benefits as the rest of the alternative medicine treatments — pain relief, detoxification, and improved circulation. If the vague health boosts aren’t convincing enough, proponents of infrared sauna usage make their appeal to your vanity, teasing cellulite reduction and weight loss and clear, smooth skin. Those are some highfalutin’ claims for a hi-tech gimmick that isn’t backed by Eastern mysticism but rather by the ancient Finnish premise of heat = sweat = the feel-betters.

Forty-two minutes left.

The concept of sitting in an enclosed space with the purpose of sweating dates back to time immemorial in whatever Finland was in the olden-est of tymes. The Finns built dwellings with high-burning fireplaces that would get so hot, residents and their guests were able to divest themselves of the multiple layers of clothing that were vital to withstand the frigid temps of the out-of-doors. They must’ve got a thrill out of sweating without any physical exertion because they perfected the practice of sitting nakedly inside super hot buildings, mingling body moisture with moist air particles. Centuries passed and the Finns spread their “sweat-bathing” ways around the globe, like Juhani Saunaseed, just planting saunas where’er they went. Other cultures have adapted the sauna concept, setting guidelines about which genders can mingle moisture’d air together and how best to heat the sweat-baths and where such spaces can be operated.

While the infrared sauna doesn’t appear to appropriate spiritual practices in the name of leisure and relaxation, it could be argued that it infringes on Finnish culture, bastardizing the concept of a natural sweat-bath with light waves rather than heated rocks. Some would argue that an authentic sauna needs to be extremely hot (160°F–200°F) with some steam and an oven with stones in it, that the infrared sauna maxing out at 120°F–140°F is too cool. Respected sauna organizations like the Finnish Sauna Society and the International Sauna Association have ruled that the infrared sauna is not an authentic sauna. Some would argue that any heated wooden box is a sauna. Much like martini purists insists that the cocktail is gin/vodka + vermouth while casual imbibers insist that any hard-liquor cocktail served in a martini glass is worthy of a “-tini” moniker. Everyone can agree that bringing any sort of martini into any sort of sauna is asking for sweaty, boozed-up trouble.

Finland has saunas operating everywhere from forest retreats to fast food restaurants, whereas North America keeps its saunas and steam rooms locked away in members only spaces like gyms and country clubs. What if you want to sweat and not surrounded by damp, nude strangers — or worse — soggy, bare-bottomed acquaintances?

The infrared structures are generally smaller than traditional Finnish saunas, seating one-to-four people, depending on the model, and generally meant for indoor use, say inside an unused treatment room in a second-floor massage clinic or the finished basement of a posh single-family home. Small spas, like the place we’re visiting today, are investing in two-seater sauna machines and selling individual sessions via Groupon to attract budget-minded stressed people. Before these machines came along, the best solo sweat-bath option afforded to commonfolk was something out of the Hammacher Schlemmer Outlet catalog, a single-person foil tent structure with a front zip closure and a head-shaped hole on top for men who need to conduct business whilst sweating off their three-martini lunch or ladies looking to quickly reduce without sacrificing their hairdos.

Thirty-nine minutes, 125°F. Nary a bead. Maybe drinking some water will help. There’s a cupholder with a freshly-filled stainless steel water bottle provided by the spa.

This sauna unit is equipped with amenities for the modern busy professional who wants to relax but doesn’t want to be trapped alone with their thoughts. The interior control panel has buttons to adjust the temperature, the timer, and the volume on the built-in FM radio/CD player. The ceiling lamp can be switched between a warm white light, for reading important business documents or the latest issue of Modern Professionals Monthly, and a multi-colour light that will cycle through seven hues for a zen disco vibe. Maybe not what the Finns originally had in mind for their sweat-bath, but, really, can it be considered an authentic bath without a rubber ducky? Not according to the International Bathing Society.

Just outside the sauna door is a basket filled with an assortment of women’s health magazines, warped and wrinkled from exposure to a humid environment. Fascinating as it is to read up on the hottest wellness fads of four years ago, we mustn’t go opening and closing the door and interfering with the effectiveness of these far electromagnetic waves. We could meditate…

Through the sauna door, the whole treatment room is visible, even though the receptionist dimmed the overhead lights as she left. The sauna unit is set at the farthest end of the narrow rectangular space, up against the floor-to-ceiling window that overlooks the bustling Toronto street below. In the pretense of privacy, the sauna faces the door into the room rather than out of the window, lest a bustling Torontonian look window-ward and catch a glimpse of a scantily clad figure desperately hoping to burn the equivalent of 600 calories whilst sitting in a hot cabinet. Natural late afternoon daylight sneaks in over the top of the sauna, through the unobstructed portion of the window.

The walls are a cool pastel aqua with a couple of framed prints of seashells tacked up mid-wall, maintaining the spa’s overall beach-inspired decor. Between the door and the sauna is a spacious, glass-enclosed shower stall with a wall-mounted, three-chamber soap dispenser filled with lemongrass-coconut shampoo, conditioner, and body wash. There’s no bar or rack for hanging a towel for drying purposes, just a hamper to discard used towels. Underneath the pile of hastily evacuated clothes is a hard plastic narrow-seated chair, just big enough to perch while fastening shoes, not quite inviting for a post-soak rest. Across from the shower is a pedestal sink and a large wall mirror over it. A shelf was installed over the sink to hold all of the necessary toiletries and accessories one might need before rejoining the real world — hairspray, body lotion, hair dryer, packets of pre-moistened exfoliating towelettes for the face, tissues, cotton swabs and quilted pads, and lens cleaner for glasses-wearers. The mirror has a series of words etched in a bold script font around the perimeter — RELAX, rejuvenate, BREATHE, refresh, ENJOY, nourish, RENEW. Encouragements or commandments?

Under the sink is an analog wall clock ticking away the seconds passing in real world time. It’s an odd place for a clock — except that it’s easily viewable from the sauna bench. Here, obviously, has sat a genius.

Who can relax watching time tick away? Where is the promised perspiration? Look at all the time that could be spent productively instead of idling inside a shed no warmer than a Florida summer’s day! Always be working is the motto of modern life. Work. Think about working. Plan to think about working. Work towards the pursuit of acquiring more work. Keep busy. Stay active. Rest is for the weak. No retreat — unless it involves networking with fellow busy people for future work. Work is life. Labour est vita — how’s that for a meditative mantra?

Is this working yet?

Breathe.
Drop your shoulders.
Unclench your jaw.
Feel the first trickle of sweat glide along your spine. Resist the urge to swat it off course as it continues its solo trek to the small of your back.
Thirty-six minutes left.
Focus on the music.

The CD player came pre-loaded with a disc that sounds like a sampler from the Spa Music of the Month Club. Each track introduces a new soundscape, bouncing from ethereal synthesizers to whales moaning in the sea to Celtic woodwinds to soothing acoustic guitars to comforting tinkly pianos. It’s all very gentle and generic, psuedoscientifically-formulated to encourage passive listening and quiet the overactive mind. What kind of music pairs well with sweating quietly?

What did the Finns of yore listen to back in their heated huts? What kind of instrument could withstand the intense heat and humidity? Surely someone must’ve whistled or chanted or hummed a common folk song to fill the silence between groans from the heat and the noisy release of air pockets as fleshy thighs come unstuck in a repositioning. Having no identifiable sauna sound complicates the task of choosing suitable relaxation music, hence the sampler. Other treatment rooms in the spa have leaned into the appropriated culture of whichever Asian-influenced technique the therapist specialized in — a grooving Hindustani sitar solo for the Ayurvedic client in room one, some soothing sizhu for the Tui Na client in room two, and a little light koto and bamboo flute for the Shiatsu for two in room three.

For however effective New Age music is in relaxing the mind, none of the songs are particularly memorable or catchy. Rarely does one leave the spa humming the melody from track twelve of Tranquil Tunes. Occasionally one of the ambient fusion tracks veers into ethnically ambiguous territory and finds a repetitive hook that elicits an instinctive toe tap. Zamfir, Enya, and Yanni became household names in the ’80s and ’90s through late night direct response TV commercials selling Music to Have Out-of-Body Experiences By, but can you name three of their biggest hits?

And who decided animal noises were relaxing?! Sounds of nature, sure. Rainstorms and wave crashes and stream burbles have a calming rhythmic effect. But crickets and birds chirping? Whales?! Where are the sounds of leopards purring? Who was the first composer to think of combining natural animal calls with musical instrumentation? Did Vivaldi haul birdcages into the concert hall for performances of The Four Seasons until the SPCA objected?

Is it getting hot in here?

Humans are reputed to be the sweatiest mammals, able to produce approximately 14 litres of sweat a day. We haven’t perspired enough to fill a shot glass. Maybe it’s a glandular issue. Chug some more water.

Oh, cruel twist of irony — there is condensation build up on the stainless steel water bottle.

No one provided clear instructions on how to sit in the infrared sauna. Is it better to sit up straight, back against the wall heat panel, legs against the lower bench heat panel? On the Internet, searches for infrared saunas turn up photos of ladies in towels reclining across the bench, which looks more comfortable that sitting bolt upright but perhaps lessen the impact of the heat panels. The sauna itself is compact, a TARDIS it ain’t. Like a bachelor’s bathtub, it can only accommodate partial lounging, where either your knees are up or your back is up. Lying flat is flat out. The bench is too shallow for our default fetal position. Let’s try the lotus position — bring the right leg up, fold the left leg over…oof…er…nope. Oh, well. Let’s make like a sauna model and recline.

Twenty-one minutes left.

From this new position, it’s impossible to escape the glare of the LED light affixed to the sauna’s low ceiling. Maybe it’s time to switch to colour-changing mode, which seems a bit tacky but what the hell. The Finns’ll never know. The coloured LEDs flash from red to green to pink to blue to purple to orange to white. Would Roy G. Biv approve of such erratic transitions? Would Ludwig von Drake?

Imagine how sweat might glisten under the red-green-pink-blue-purple-orange-white. The colours switch too fast and there’s no way to control the speed of light. Just like in real life! Is this what they mean by enlightenment?

Red. RELAX. Green. Rejuvenate. Pink. BREATHE. Blue. Refresh. Purple. ENJOY. Orange. Nourish. White. RENEW.
Red. Naked. Green. Alone. Pink. Wooden Box. Blue. Mortality. Purple. Sciatica. Orange. Work. White. Martini.
Red. Bored. Green. Restless. Pink. Nervous. Blue. Self-care. Purple. Snake oil. Orange. Essential oil. White. Whale.
Red. Sweat. Green. Perspire. Pink. Glow. Blue. Swelter. Purple. Secrete. Orange. Ooze. White. Clammy.

Eighteen minutes left. The temperature maxed out at 140°F. Sweat level: dewy.
Is this how lobsters feel in the pot?

This seems like a good time to ponder our ol’ navel. Hello, belly button! Got a surprising pool of sweat in there? Nope. Looking pretty empty. When was the last time you found lint in your belly button? Did fuzzy navels go out with woollen trousers? Maybe friction from modern fabrics don’t result in so much lint collecting there. What a weird, mostly useless thing to be carrying around. It’s not even taboo to expose it anymore, regardless of its lint-hoarding capabilities. If only it were a USB port, at least it could charge a phone battery. Thirty years ago, it could’ve been a car cigarette lighter. Imagine walking along the beach with a cigarette lighter navel and suddenly a bunch of bikini’d youths run by with their USB navels. Or dongles dangling from their USB navel ports.

Isn’t it dumb the things people are made to feel self-conscious about? Consider the pores on your legs. Advertisers would argue that visible leg pores are abnormal and displeasing to potential lovers but thankfully there’s a slew of products to cover and disguise them. Leg hairs? Shave ’em, wax ’em, laser ’em. Arm hairs? Meh, leave ’em. Armpit hairs? Obliterate them by any means necessary. Bleach your moustache hairs but not eyebrow hairs and never speak of the white wiry hairs sprouting along your jawline. Got stretch marks? Uneven skin tone? Pimples of unusual size? Nearly imperceptible facial lines? Broken capillaries? Female-presenting nipples? Stray hairs on female-presenting nipples?Too many freckles? Too few freckles? Cold, purple fingers on one hand but not the other? Ridges on your fingernails? Dark circles under your elbows? Wrist wrinkles? Chubby earlobes? Get thee to an apothecary forthwith! Or try taking a heat cure. You don’t see Finns walking around with belly button moustaches or pimply knees.

Perspiration woes aside, what of all those purported benefits of the infrared sauna, with the skin clearing and cellulite reduction and overall improvements to advertiser-approved problem areas? So far all our bumps and lumps still haunt the same nooks and crannies. Might’ve been better to save up for a nook lift and cranny tuck. Maybe a nook rejuvenation. Of course there’s no quick fix. Only time outside of the box will determine the value of time spent inside the box. To achieve true purity of body and soul requires striking a dubious deal with a fairytale spirit, and even some of those results aren’t visible before a night’s sleep.

Inhale — 1, 2, 3, 4. Exhale — 2, 4, 6, 8.
Count your pores.
Count your sweat droplets.
Count the seconds that pass between sweat droplets.

Each tick of the clock’s second hand is a mocking reminder of how little has been achieved in here. Each minute that passes is another dollar this session is wasting. How much accumulated perspiration would render this a productive experience? Must it be the full 14 litres? Would a soda bottle’s worth of sweat be enough?

The 25-ounce stainless steel water bottle is half empty. It becomes clear that this treatment room is effectively a two-piece bathroom and is woefully missing the most vital of plumbing conveniences.

Breathe.
Clench a little.

It is cozy in here. The heat makes a strong case for relaxation. Vacation Brain starts to take over with suggestions of making the infrared sauna part of normal life. Maybe we could take a little sweat-bath every day. Think how great it would be, sitting around hot and naked all the time, like at the beach but way less sand. Yes, the Finns were definitely onto something here. Imagine coming into your own sauna after a long day, sprawling out on the bench, listening to some Martin Denny exotica, and afterwards, wrapping up in a plush robe and sipping brandy in a comfortable easy chair. That’s the life. Affording that life, well, maybe we’ll find a wish-granting genie in the brass Pier 1 Imports lamp out in the waiting room.

RELAX, rejuvenate, BREATHE, refresh, ENJOY, nourish, RENEW.

Sitting in this isolation chamber behind closed doors, with electronic devices tucked away in our bag somewhere in the precarious pile of cherished belongings on the chair across the room, we are removed from the goings-on around the world. At this very moment, history could be in the making and we’re missing it. Right now there are hot takes and dank memes and inside jokes that will only be understood by the people who were online during this timestamp. Disaster could be unfolding out on the street below. What if! Bad news is waiting on the other side of that door, out on the sidewalk, at home, or on the phone. Something is lurking to harsh whatever good vibes come from getting away from it all for an hour.

Does this spa do lobotomies?

Red. Green. Pink. Blue. Purple. Orange. White. Red. Drip. Green. Drip. Pink. Wait. Blue. Is that? Purple. It’s! Orange. About! White. Goddamned time!

Wipe your brow.
Dab your neck.
Feel the streams of droplets careening down your spine, past the small of your back towards all points south.

Ten minutes on the clock. The perspiration is really percolating from the pores now. The toxins are just gushing out. It is thrilling and icky and a blessed relief. But it’s still a race against the clock to secrete the maximum amount of toxin-laden sweat.

The room is booked for a full hour, to allow for time to shower and dress. Silent negotiations are underway to determine how much to forego of the rain head shower for bonus time in the sauna, working out the amount of time it takes to redress and prepare to rejoin the real world. If we rinse only, bypass the lemongrass-coconut goop dispensing, skip hair drying or styling, and shove underwear into our bag, we can add eight minutes to the sauna. Tempting. Let’s add…three minutes to the timer. We don’t want to overdo it.

We’ve exceeded the length of the CD and the disc starts over. Back to the gentle piano luring us into a false sense of security before wild seagulls swoop in and chase us off the Irish cliffs, where we crash onto the beach at high tide and are pulled deep into the sea with the whales as the squid jams on the sitar and reed pipes. You know, this piano piece might be Pachelbel’s “Canon in D Major.” …Wait, ALL of the tracks on this CD are Pachelbel’s “Canon in D Major!” Who knew whales were into classical music?

T-minus five minutes.

In the countdown to the end of the session, it’s like New Year’s Eve, when we take stock of our accomplishments and make quiet resolutions to do better. We’ll drink more water, do the old lady exercises, be kinder to ourselves, get away from the computer more often, stop being heartbroken over rejection by a capitalist system that only values how much you do and how much you own, book more sauna sessions. If only the best resolutions were the easiest.

Ten. Nine. Red. Green. Pink. Blue. Purple. Orange. White. One.

And that’s it.

An anti-climatic buzzer bzzts over the sound of waves crashing. The unit goes dark and silent as it powers down. Naked, alone, and drenched inside a box. It feels all too much like the struggle to rise from a warm snuggly bed on early winter morning — the dread of that harsh temperature change, the overwhelming urge to hit the snooze button once more. But there is no snoozing to be done, only showering and dressing and returning to that harsh, cold reality.

We emerge from the wooden cocoon unburdened, freed from physical tensions. The aches and pains that brought us here have subsided for a time. Perhaps some endorphins were loosened in the grand deception that the sauna perpetrated, tricking the body into behaving in response to physical exertion. We feel a rush of pleasantness that might not’ve been earned in earnest. Who has really tricked whom here?

Ugh, but now the caterpillar must dry up, pull back on the rumpled clothes, smooth out the frizzied hair and pruned fingertips, and move carefully along the route home so as not to incur fresh tensions.

The receptionist back at the desk settles the bill and asks if everything was okay. Unsure whether dampened hair and flushed skin are positive indicators, what’s there to say but yes.
“Do you want to book your next session?” she asks.
Well, it’s too soon to start breaking resolutions. “Yes, please.”

Katharine Miller: Author. Artist. Novelty Enthusiast. sparklingobservationalist.com