The First Post-Pandemic Sauna

The first three minutes go by smoothly. It’s been awhile but there’s a familiarity to sitting cross-legged at one-hundred and eighty degrees. Something in my mind switches on . Or maybe it switches off. Warm air fills my lungs and works its way into my muscles. I’m overconfident.

Five minutes in and I’m starting to feel it. Sweat beads on the back of my legs. Before the pandemic shut everything down I was a sauna devotee. Three or four times a week I’d cram into the sauna at my local climbing gym to sweat it out with total strangers , like the guy who loved to do elaborate, deep stretches — naked—and of course the chatterbox who loved to talk about that one time he was detained overseas in a Panamanian prison.

Then the pandemic hit. You know the rest. Throughout quarantine I tried to find creative ways to get my sauna fix, like taking a hot bath. If you submerge yourself completely with scalding water there’s certainly a bodily release, but it lacks one key ingredient: sweat.

Ten minutes in and I’m starting to reel a bit. My limbs are heavy and blood moves through my head like sap. A metaphor strikes me. A highway with speeding cars. Right now my veins feel less like a turnpike and more like some traffic-infested back road.

Later — certainly not in the moment because I’m totally absorbed in simply staying upright — I’m reminded of running with my dad on one of those punishing East coast summer days when the humidity makes your clothes feel heavy. We start off slow, making our way to a trail surrounded by trees. There’s a bit of shade but it’s hot. On those days, there’s no escaping.

My dad, who has been in a sauna once to my knowledge, bumped his head. He’s very tall and I don’t think he enjoyed the experience. But he’s addicted to these humid runs. By the time we come out of the woods and hit the main road — the home stretch — we’re both drenched. Cars whiz by. High school teachers and friends of friends gawk at the two weirdos performing this masochistic ritual.

Eleven minutes in and I have the acute sensation that I need to find a way out of this heat. I stand up. A wave of hot hair wraps around my head. I touch my toes. Blood rushes. I sit down and throw one leg over the other. I try to look casual hoping my brain will catch on.

I leave the sauna at twelve minutes and stumble drunkenly towards the bathroom door, anticipating the quick release of a cold shower. Within seconds I’m restored to my normal self — with thoughts galore. I wrap myself in a towel and head back to meet the punishing heat.