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A Dry Heat: Saunas’ New Heyday

by Nora Zelevansky

For years, saunas have been more perfunctory than popular in the U.S., sitting, largely unused, in spa locker rooms, like so many spray deodorants. Thanks to innovation and research about health benefits, though, these hot boxes are having a renewed heyday: Today’s saunas and related dry heat experiences, in dedicated locations, go way beyond sweating in standard cedar, incorporating elements from salt to gold to infrared light with benefits from easier breathing to stress reduction.

Korea has a storied history with saunas that dates back to the 15th century, but Finland is credited with creating the traditional type. The original incarnation involved throwing water over warm rocks in an enclosed room, so that heat would permeate. This ritual was popular throughout Europe during the Middle Ages, but lost favor, thanks to the spread of disease, everywhere except Finland, where the plague was less rampant.

As opposed to eucalyptus steam rooms (a similarly ubiquitous sibling), saunas emanate a dry heat—akin to the desert—with low humidity. Premiere57, a swanky new Korean-inspired facility, offers five sauna experiences, all with temperatures above 100 degrees. Housed on the 8th and 9th floors of an unlikely corporate office building in midtown Manhattan, the facility offers a Water Lounge with soaking baths; Relaxation Lounges for far-infrared (which refers to its place on the spectrum of electromagnetic radiation) lolling, meditation and sleep; an Aqua Bar with hydrotherapy pools of various temperatures and a full bar.

But the main event is Sauna Valley. Outside each sauna, a plaque lists its specific potential benefits, ranging from the wishful to the practical: Gold is meant to reduce addictive dependency, improve mental acuity and treat rheumatoid arthritis and autoimmune conditions; Loess Soil stimulates blood circulation and metabolism, relieving headaches, dermatitis, asthma and arthritis; Himalayan Salt regulates water retention and blood pressure, relieving respiratory symptoms while anti-aging the skin; Far-Infrared soothes joint stiffness and increases oxygen flow to the brain, improving circulation and detoxifying the skin; and Chromotherapy—taken from traditional Chinese and Indian medicine—balances energy based on color wavelengths.

For 30-minute stints, guests sit (or, in some cases, lie prone on thatched mats) and allow the infused warmth to heal and subsume them. When the room gets too hot, they escape into an Ice Igloo (also meant to boost the immune system and firm the skin). “Saunas are becoming more popular in American culture,” notes manager Andre Restrepo, who watches more guests descend daily. “There is practically at least one sauna in every modern building in NYC.” It’s true that luxury apartment developments from Miami to Palm Beach to Chicago have begun including saunas and Himalayan salt rooms in their plans.

Still, this elevated sauna trend isn’t specific to major cities: SoJo Spa Club in Edgewater, New Jersey, offers an array of dry heat experiences, as well. “I grew up in Korea, where visiting bathhouses was a normal part of life,” says owner E. Rae Jo. “I wanted to bring this element to America, but in an elevated atmosphere, creating the perfect space to not only unwind and detox, but also focus on wellness.” The destination has soaking tubs like an outdoor Hinoki Bath (emitting the natural antibacterial oil of white cedar wood) and a Japanese ionized Silk Bath with microbubbles to improve skin elasticity, but the greatest draws are their sauna and therapy rooms which include Far-Infrared, Red Clay, White Clay, Himalayan Salt and Charcoal to purge chemical and heavy metal toxicity. An Outdoor Dry Sauna is in Finnish-style, nearby a waterfall, so guests can enact the traditional hot-to-cold process. SoJo also offers an Ice Room, Ganbanyoku (like a hot stone bed) and a Halotherapy Room, which mimics a salt cave.

One might wonder at having two separate salt experiences, but Halotherapy is different than a Himalayan Salt sauna in its approach. Though they both favor low humidity, the cave is kept at room temperature, while the sauna is heated. Regardless, experts agree about salt’s curative properties. “Salt is biochemically known to be anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial and super-absorbent,” explains Steve Spiro, CEO and founder of Global Halotherapy Solutions—a company that has done rigorous research and testing—and the chairman of the Global Wellness Institute Salt & Halotherapy Initiative. “When the micron-sized particles are crushed by a Halogenerator and breathed in deeply by a person, those tiny particles help people with many respiratory problems: seasonal allergies, asthma, bronchitis, sinusitis, COPD, etc. And when salt particles fall onto the skin, there is tremendous inflammation relief and improvement for people with psoriasis, eczema etc.”

As a result, others are taking the dry salt trend to another next level: At Breathe Salt Rooms in Manhattan and Westchester, they not only offer standard cave/room experiences, but also salt beds, kids’ rooms with toys and wellness classes like “Salty Yoga,” meditation, reiki, chakra healing and sound baths.

If there’s any partner to dry heat that may be more in demand than salt, it’s far-infrared light. Wellness seekers are flocking to everything from infrared saunas to sweat lodges to healing beds that feel akin to sunbathing. Both Premiere57 and SoJo Spa Club offer multiple infrared experiences, but companies like HigherDose have dedicated their whole businesses to their version of this sauna technology, linked to stress relief (lowering cortisol and increasing serotonin), calorie burn, skin improvements and detoxification (supposedly seven times more intense than a traditional sauna). And they’re attracting a hipster clientele, among others.

HigherDose cofounders Katie Kaps and Lauren Berlingeri had backgrounds in business and fitness respectively, but they both saw the potential in this experience, which Kaps describes as offering a “runner’s high without the grind.” Initially, they began installing their infrared heating systems—with patented carbon and ceramic heaters—in yoga studios in 2015. (They just installed panels at Y7 and Yoga Vida’s studios.) Then, in 2016, they decided to open their first stand-alone location (now one of three unique spots, not counting pop-ups). “Along the way, we became convinced New York needed a spa dedicated to infrared saunas since, one, we’re in love with the product, and, two, New Yorkers need to chill,” says Berlingeri. “We focus on upping your happy chemicals: dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, endorphins. Basically, we’re a health club meets a night club.” The HigherDose experience is meant to be luxurious with “vibey” music, medical grade LED light therapy, coconut water and high-end personal care products from REN Beauty. They even offer infrared wraps for an intense version of the experience.

Kaps and Berlingeri dream of opening a place on the water with a Finnish sauna, salt bath, cold plunge, deck and more, but, for now, they’re expanding to Williamsburg in the fall and offering their services at two Gurney’s cool kid resort locations in Montauk (the Hamptons) and Newport, Rhode Island, this summer. “Many of our guests and members are very conscious about health, so infrared saunas are a good addition,” says Janie Marti, director of spa at Gurney’s Montauk Seawater Spa Resort. “What I find cool is…they provide faster results compared to conventional saunas.” Meanwhile, HigherDose is not alone: S pots like Hot Box sauna studio in LA also exclusively focus on infrared sauna experiences with upgrades like chromotherapy and private suites with vitamin C rain showers.

Sweating, in general, is on trend. Though she is quick to note the difference between saunas and her offerings, Sophie Chiche—the French founder of Shape House, an urban sweat lodge—also touts the benefits of infrared technology and sweating. She first encountered the life-changing experience when she was 20 years old. From there, she conceptualized her offering: Guests are wrapped in blankets for 55 minutes under infrared light whilewatching TV, a helpful distraction for the final stretch. (Shape House also offers lymphatic drainage.) Today, there are multiple locations in both New York and California. Visitors range from professional athletes and models to exhausted moms, looking for a boost.

“I’ll let you in on a little secret: I grew up thinking that sweat was gross,” says Chiche. “But there are so many benefits. I call it the greatest way to multitask an hour because you’re hitting so many areas that need attention at once. It’s good for your skin, for your sleep, for your weight loss, for your stress levels, for your soul. After a session you feel a sense of release…like everything is off your shoulders. That feeling should be the ultimate goal of self-care. A deep sweat provides that.”

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