The first time I went to a spa I was a 25-year-old waitress, trying to turn my lifestyle into a healthier one. Restaurant life for me consisted of a predictable pattern of late nights at work, followed by a few drinks to relieve the stress of service, sleeping till noon and then waking up to do it all over again. Part of me I knew I wanted to drink less, quit smoking cigarettes, and maybe start running. The other part of me laughed at that idea. I tried to envision this different life, one that included taking care of my body, I just didn’t really know what this looked like. 25-year-old bodies are forgiving, and after all, the lifestyle is pretty fun.

But I tried. I set a goal and threw away my pack of yellow American Spirits. I limited myself to 1 drink after work. If I made it to 6 months, I would treat myself to something really special, like a Seaweed Detox Wrap at a Day Spa. I saw it as a gateway to a new life, one where I glowed with good health and happiness as seaweed minerals absorbed into my skin. As I met my goal and set up the appointment, I was proud. I chose a nearby spa with appropriately detoxifying-sounding treatments and booked the Sea Glow, which said it would eliminate impurities, hydrate skin, and leave me as smooth as the day I was born. Perfect.

When I got to the spa I was excited and nervous. It was feminine, perfumed and inaccessible in a way that I felt deep in my Tomboy bones. I just didn’t belong there. I also felt the clock ticking. I knew I had 90 minutes to enjoy this entry into my new purified lifestyle, and I had better enjoy it. I was assigned to my treatment provider, and she was with me the whole time. She took me to a dark room and pasted a warm, herbal-smelling concoction on my skin and massaged my scalp. I’ve never been comfortable with strangers physically close to me, and this was no exception. About 60 minutes into the treatment, I finally relaxed. At the end, I felt and smelled good. My skin was pretty smooth and probably less toxic. I thought ahead, maybe I could save up and come back in a year? It seemed so far away. As I left, my wallet $200 lighter, a couple of nights of tips, I felt a little bit let down. I knew this was not affordable as a lifestyle, and that my impurities would come trickling back, my skin would roughen up.

Later that year I went to Holland for the first time. On a cold, wet day, locked out of our hostel until they reopened at 6 PM, my husband and I were looking for a way to pass the time. We had spent several fun but tiring days walking around the city, admiring the canals, and stopping for beers at the many bars. A friend had told me about a sauna on the other side of the city, a public place, where a couple of hours in the sauna only cost about 20 euros. A women-only day, my husband brought his book to a bar and I ventured alone to the sauna.

By this time I had started smoking again and was still struggling to find my way towards health. Things had begun to catch up to me, and the relief that I found in after-work drinks was short-lived and left me feeling depressed and anxious. But I still somehow identified with these pastimes. I just wasn’t sure I would feel like myself if I were a clean and healthy person, like my working class card would be taken away from me if I traded dive bars for yoga and wheatgrass. How would I know who I was?

I checked in at the front counter of the sauna and a couple of friendly women showed me my locker, gave me a towel, and left me by myself. I had 2 hours to be alone and relax. I sat in the hot sauna, drifting in contemplation, listening to the women speaking Dutch around me. Then I sat outside in the rain and watched the steam drift up from my skin towards the gray sky. I felt really good, euphoric almost. I felt at peace. I drank some tea and talked with the women around me. They told me they came to the sauna regularly, weekly at least. It was a way of life, not something that was saved up only for a special occasion. When I left, I floated down the street, a rosy glow in my cheeks. Now, this was something I could get used to. It was also something I could afford.

When I got back to the States, I searched for saunas in Oregon. I wanted this Scandinavian sauna culture as a part of my life, but it was hard to find. There weren’t many, and the ones I found were often dank or not very relaxing. There were saunas at gyms, or sometimes in hotels. My friends that lived in the country fired up their sauna whenever I visited. I took a sauna whenever I had the chance, and it was a great revelation to me that feeling good could actually be good for you too. I started to feel like maybe there was a future for me as a healthy person, with my identity intact, where I could treat my body well and not be missing out on anything.  Still a waitress, I battled the lifestyle, but now I had this new way to relax that could also be fun and not compromise my health. Sauna was a new way for me to socialize, to spend time with my friends in all the ways I needed to: it was intimate yet low key, we could be quiet and contemplative, or discuss the things that were important to us.

Over the years, my obsession turned into a resolution: I would find a way to bring Scandinavian sauna culture to Oregon. I thought that this was one small way to make the world a better, healthier, and more relaxed place. At the time I had no credit, an old Subaru, and lived in a small apartment above a bar. There was no way I would be able to get a bank loan. After I had been pitching the idea for a couple of years to anyone who would listen, my Sister and her husband called me on it and took a loan out on their house, lending me the money for our first location. The rest is history.

While we have created a sauna / spa hybrid, the heart of our facilities is always the sauna. Our goal has always been to create a space that feels accessible yet special, a way to escape the world with regularity.

As I gear up for a quick trip to Helsinki to visit our accidental sister sauna, Loyly, I feel so grateful that I blindly groped my way to a healthy, happier life with the help of sauna. Sauna is how I socialize with friends and also take time for personal contemplation. It’s my weekly date-night with my husband. It’s one way that I find balance in a world that can feel so imbalanced. I don’t smoke or drink anymore, and the Doctor just told me the best news: I have a very strong 40-year-old runner’s heart. It feels good to be here.

That’s how sauna has changed my life. How has sauna changed your life? I’ll take sauna stories and inspiration at

Jess Kelso

Photo Courtesy of Visit Finland