The excited squeals were followed by a wave of giggles that was followed by a disclaimer:
“We’re not really 12,” Hannah Shafer insisted. “We’re actually 28.”
But as she and a group of friends stood in their swimsuits in a snow squall while having cold water poured over their heads, it was hard to control their inner-child enthusiasm. “It’s fun!” she gushed.
The group was spending a recent evening at Sauna Village, a place where the name mirrors its function. It consists of wood-fired saunas of varying sizes in which visitors — some regulars, others, like Shafer, first-timers — get heated up and then run outside to roll in the snow, dump cold water on themselves or even jump into a water tub (make sure to break up the ice on the surface first).
The village, which is tucked behind a closed power substation on the corner of 47th Street and Nicollet Avenue in south Minneapolis, is the brainchild of Rod Buhrsmith and John Pederson. The two were involved in the 612 Sauna Society’s mobile sauna operation. This is a separate entity called Stokeyard Outfitters.
Their goal is to promote “thermaculture.”
“It’s actually a term we made up,” Buhrsmith admitted.
But, he insisted, it’s not a practice they made up. Rather, it’s one that is growing quickly as Minnesotans — even those without a Scandinavian heritage — embrace the healing and restorative powers of sitting in a small room that has been heated to 190 degrees and above.
“It makes you feel alive,” said John Maycroft, who used the saunas while his son was taking a karate class down the street. “Instead of sitting and staring at my phone [at his son’s class], I can come here and be refreshed.”
A session lasts 90 minutes — or so; they’re not real strict clock-watchers — but the effect lasts long after that, Buhrsmith said.
“The heat gets in your bones,” he said. “That’s one of the things we hear most often [from customers]. It gives you a warm feeling that lasts for hours afterward. You take it into bed with you. You even sleep better.”
Other health claims made about saunas is that they flush toxins from the body, rinse bacteria out of the skin and sweat ducts and help prevent colds. The research on the latter is iffy, but no one disputes that the hot air clears up congestion.
Because the heat causes blood vessels to dilate, concerns have been raised about the danger of heart attacks. But a 16-month study in Finland — where the fervor for saunas is on a par with that for the NFL here — found no connection with heart attacks. In fact, a study in Japan found that daily saunas improved vascular function in some heart patients.
The village’s saunas are of varying sizes, from holding five people to more than a dozen. That’s because people come with different goals. Some, like Shafer and her friends, are there to socialize. Others, like Vanessa Guerra, are looking for a chance to get lost in their thoughts.
“I like the relaxation,” said Guerra, who visits at least once a week. “It’s my time to concentrate. I like the quiet.”
Outsiders rarely intrude in the village. You have to be looking for it to find it, and even then it can be a little tricky. A sidewalk leads up to the building’s boarded-up front door, and a fence surrounds the site.
It’s only when you look closer that you notice a small gate in the fence, and leading from the gate, a shoveled path running around to the back of the building. Heading down the path, you round the corner of the building and see the lit tiki torches and hear gentle music wafting through the space.
In addition to the saunas, there’s a warming shelter and changing rooms. Visitors bring their own towels and, Buhrsmith strongly suggests, some sort of footwear.
“You really want to have flip-flops,” he said. “You want to protect your feet when you go outside.”
Reservations are required so the number of users doesn’t exceed the saunas’ capacity. “A lot of times, day-of reservations are available,” Buhrsmith said.
Visitors also are encouraged to use the “real” pronunciation of sauna — sow-nah — not the Americanized saw-na. You won’t be turned away for that indiscretion, however.
To each their own
Buhrsmith and Pederson launched their company two years ago and started by focusing on events at the Hewing Hotel in downtown Minneapolis. They opened the village this year to satisfy a growing market and to reach out to a different clientele.
“The Hewing has guided events led by a sauna meister,” Buhrsmith said. “This is unguided. It’s for people who want their own experience.”
Visitors move around of their own volition. Some stay in a sauna for only five minutes before coming out to cool off, which they can do gradually in the warming shelter. Others sit in a sauna for 15 minutes or more before rushing out to the splash bath to relish the dramatic change in temperature.
Buhrsmith and Pederson take turns hosting the sessions, which are on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday evenings and Sunday afternoons. It takes about an hour to get the saunas up to operating temperature, but Buhrsmith arrives two hours before opening, which gives him a chance to use them before he has to start tending to customers.
It’s a part of the day he thoroughly enjoys, he said, waving off the suggestion that by standing outside in a swimsuit in the middle of winter visitors are thumbing their noses at Mother Nature.
“It’s just the opposite,” he insisted. “We are embracing Mother Nature with a hug. This is as good as winter gets.”