A few years ago, I discovered an antidote to the dread for the upcoming workweek that would inevitably subsume me every Sunday: shutting myself in a 170 degree box in the basement of my YMCA. I’d enter mad, nude, and red and miraculously emerge, an hour later, just nude and red.
That anxiety has since dissipated, but visiting the sauna remains my favorite weekly ritual. Sometimes I read, sometimes I stretch, but mostly I let my mind go blank and seemingly empty out through my pores—a major feat, considering how ten minutes on a meditation mat will leave me running through all the ways anyone has ever wronged me. I can’t bring my phone in, so I’m as unreachable as I’ll ever be, and I usually have the place to myself, save for the occasional septuagenarian who’s extremely comfortable in the locker room. (My future!) It is, in my resolute opinion, the only worthwhile winter activity.
Communal sauna culture in America sadly pales compared to other countries—Finland, which boasts 3.3 million saunas to its 5.3 million people is consistently ranked the happiest nation in the world—though you can, and should, sweat it out stateside in Korean spas and Russian banyas. (A 2016 study found that regular use can decrease the risk of dementia.) The wellness industry has also started to tap into the potential for private sauna experiences, which piqued my curiosity and led me to test out a few in New York City. All of them advertise various benefits from “detoxing” to calorie burning to promoting clearer skin, but I only cared about two things: being alone and getting very, very sweaty.
My first stop was HigherDose, which is located on the third floor of a SoHo hotel and provides visitors with the opportunity to book their own sauna room for an hour at a time. It was sort of what I imagine checking into a by-the-hour sex motel is like, only in place of a bed of dubious cleanliness, there was an infrared sauna. (Unlike traditional saunas, they emit infrared light instead of heated air and are typically lower in temperature.) HigherDose recommended disrobing and heading inside the sauna for 45 minutes and then using my remaining 15 minutes to shower, take advantage of the bounty of free Malin + Goetz products, and get dressed. While marinating in my own sweat, I was encouraged to play music or watch TV, as well as program the sauna to glow the color of my choice. I went with orange, then lay down and let my brain soak in the default music mix—think: trancy EDM versions of, like, “Riders on the Storm”—pausing occasionally to drink a free sparkling coconut water beverage from the room’s mini-fridge. Sometime around minute 30, I had the distinct thought of “this feels like the future … but the cool future,” which I’m going to attribute to the prolonged heat exposure.
Cost: 60 minutes for $65
If my last sauna experience was “the cool future,” ShapeHouse was the slightly more dystopian version. The business originated in Los Angeles before it expanded to a number of New York City locations, including the one I visited in Dumbo, Brooklyn. I was provided with a loose gray uniform to change into and then led to my own small area of a larger room that was partitioned by a curtain for privacy. From there, I was zipped into an infrared sauna bed facing a flatscreen television, like a human Hot Pocket filling. I had one hand free to access a bottle of water and my Roku remote, as well as a help button. Since I was midway through a Curb Your Enthusiasm binge rewatch, I flipped on an episode, which, in retrospect, maybe did not make for the most relaxing experience. Forty-five minutes in, someone put a lavender ice towel on my forehead, which kept sliding off and agonizingly dripping water onto my neck. (I guess that’s what the help button is for.) After I emerged from my sweat cocoon, I was led into a relaxation room to cool down and given tea and the best chilled orange slices I’ve eaten since my elementary school rec soccer days but encouraged not to shower for a few more hours. As far as actual sweating goes, ShapeHouse provided the most thorough and intense experience, though it was decidedly utilitarian.
Cost: 55 minutes for $65
Trying out the yet-to-be unveiled Cabin Detox at CityWell, a hidden gem tucked away in a Gowanus, Brooklyn backyard, is one of the better ways I’ve spent a Tuesday afternoon. Before I even got to the sauna part, I was instructed to take a cold shower, visit the steam room, take another cold shower, then spend some time soaking in the outdoor hot tub, before yet another cold shower. Then, owner Liz Tortolani led me into the “Cabin,” a large outdoor sauna outfitted with an infrared sauna blanket on top of a massage table. (A sauna squared, if you will.) I was thoroughly dry brushed—which is like being stroked with a giant’s toothbrush—oiled down, and massaged with cold and hot stones on both sides of my body. Then she covered me with banana leaves and a blanket to encourage a deeper sweat. When I emerged, I was presented with water, tea, berries, oranges, almonds, and the only green juice I can truthfully say I’ve enjoyed in my entire life. In short, I felt like a child emperor.
Cost: $250 for two hours, though CityWell also opens their space for communal bathing hours that range in cost from $25 to $45 for two hours
One writer attempts to unlock nirvana while navigating the drunk nude strangers, indecent proposals, and bulgogi tacos inside L.A.'s premier Korean spa.
Originally Appeared on GQ