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 jessicakelso@loyly.net.

Jess Kelso

Photo Courtesy of Visit Finland