Sauna Q&A / Jan Seepter

The magic and spirituality of going to the sauna

26 Jan 2023

I learned how relaxing a sauna can be when I was already a child, as my parents took me to the sauna weekly, which in our family took place on Saturday nights. That also enabled me to experience first-hand the respect my parents had for our sauna tradition, which we followed religiously and hardly ever missed. 

However, long after, when I was a teenager, my friend had the joy of receiving a crash course in sauna rituals from my uncle-in-law. Till today I call that my first 'serious sauna experience' since we could never have imagined that this would set us up for a trip to the 'cosmos'. The interstellar flight culminated with a 'centrifuge' sensation. The gradually slowing rotation ended with a landing back in our bodies and a true experience of bliss and an ineffable stillness as if filled with everything.

What happened? How? Why? Where are the boundaries of our perceptions? Do they even exist? What is real? Since the late 1980s' 'Soviet socialist realism' available sources couldn't answer those questions, we were left in the dark for quite some time. Answers could only be sought by experimenting on oneself repeatedly and inviting friends to the magic land of sauna bathing. However, 35 years fast forward, I could not wish for nor recommend a better way of discovery. Everyone is best experienced in the inner and outer cosmos through their journey to feel themselves. The travels of all the other 'fellow astronauts' serve as inspiration for their trips and act as a point of comparison, which aids in piecing together a common mosaic of the possible multiplicity of realities.

My colourful sauna journeys full of special effects were soon enriched and later replaced with more profound self-discoveries, which increasingly found their way into my night dreams. At the same time, towards the end of the 1990s and the dawn of the new millennium, with the 'coming out of the closet' of my sauna rituals, the circle of sauna-goers expanded considerably, whose feedback provided more points of reference which confirmed my hunches of my what was happening and what I was discovering. 

A whole separate book could be written about the experiences of saunas (and it will hopefully once be in black and white). Still, if I could have an opportunity to find a way how to summarise them, I would emphasize the following bullet points:

- Changes in physical sensations. At a reposting state after whiskering, birds can be heard chirping miles away; colours appear more vivid, rich or intense; and time and space feel mouldable. Add image flashing and 'merry-go-round' effects whilst remaining entirely in touch with reality, with the immediate environment remaining largely the same.

- Eureka moments. It is common, as if out of nowhere, to have quick realizations or closures of your daily concerns or issues that have been sitting on your back for quite some time. A sailor once summed up this rubric during our sauna ritual in a straightforward yet simple way: 'Jan, your sauna is hot for me, but then again, good thoughts come to mind, so let's keep going.'

- Creative flashes of unearthly beauty, both in image and sound, I can confirm at least two musicians who have left the sauna with a new melody. It is clear sauna channels its magic differently to everyone. 

- Journeys in the inner/outer cosmos. Intermediate self-discoveries, i.e. encounters with oneself and the different parts of the consciousness. Games with the subconscious mind, during which it is also possible to carry out self-suggestion, i.e. the programming of changes in behavioural patterns and attitudes that are important or necessary for oneself. Trips to the far and wide. Visits to the unknown and the known.

- Perceived concentrations of the effects practised by the sauna users. Be it breathing techniques, meditation, or yoga practices, sauna's effects produce more intense yet shorter-lived manifestations of these effects.

- 'Pure' emotions: encompassing bursts of bliss, joy, and a feeling of freedom – all of which can be defined as distinct yet extremely immediate simultaneously. 

- Visions. Very personal, meaningful and extraordinary events. Visions of both the past and the future. I recall a Finnish sauna-goer who was able to experience meeting his little daughter, who had grown up all during his sauna experience. They had a long conversation!

- Experiences of unity. On the one hand, they are like journeys, changes in perception and cognition. At the same time, they can be very distinct. For example, you could feel oneness with water extending over the entire body of water, after taking a cold dip in the water after the sauna. 

In most cases, the saunas experience a combination of 'special effects'. For example, changes in perception or journeys have involved pure emotions - joy, a sense of freedom, and bliss.... You name it

Furthermore, shamanism deserves a different discussion as an independent dimension within, above, and around psychic sauna activities.

People find in the sauna what they are ready for.

All the experiences mentioned above, recognitions, and "special effects" of the saunas can be summarized as having been, at least, very pleasant, moving, or even exhilarating, even if the experience was something unexpected. I can count the exceptions on one hand of my 34 years of practice. One Icelandic rapper claimed to have re-met demons in the sauna. In his own words, it wasn't an exceptional event, which leaves me wondering if he had used before the session. This brings me to reaffirm that alcohol and externally administered psychotropic substances don't add but likely mar your journey. 

On one occasion, the positive spinning feeling, which I mentioned above as one of the positive side effects in the sauna room, paralleled the merry-go-round overdose sauna goer had experienced as a child. And on two other occasions, the alterations in perception have induced a mild and a severe panic attack. In the latter case, I let my former co-worker vent his feelings of insecurity and help translate the confusion into words. After two or three minutes, he was back to his usual self. He then claimed he took positives out of that experience despite initially unwanted experience. 

In the context of psychic saunas, where "special effects" are the cherry on the cake of relaxation, it is important to note that they may not and need not be to everyone's taste. Only some people will necessarily go 'tripping'. It's as if one finds oneself on these paths at the right time with the gentle permission of the constellation of the stars. Many like to go with the flow like old fish, with an exact purpose. In any case, it is not ethical to push the experience and respect and feel everyone's boundaries at that time – one must enjoy the experience to their limits. Should anything disturbing happen, speaking up, I will immediately bring you back to your comfort zone with the familiar world once again taking over. Most of us will naturally and spontaneously regulate their sauna dosage. And it's true - everyone knows exactly what and how much they need to nourish their body and mind.

It's also essential to bear in mind that, in addition to the psychological effects, the cold-hot alternation can also change the sense of coordination, which is why I never let anyone dip into the cold water on their own. I am proud to say this precautionary method has paid off, for which I can boast with only safe experiences up until now.

The reasons sensations play tricks on us in saunas have only begun to emerge from a scientific perspective relatively recently. Since the 1970s hippy movement went dormant, the study of psychedelics has been consequently deemed taboo.

It was only in 2019 that Jon G. Dean's paper "Biosynthesis and Extracellular Concentrations of N,Ndimethyltryptamine (DMT) in Mammalian Brain" (published in the magazine 'Nature') confirms the long-held assumption that the mammalian body itself is capable of "producing" dimethyltryptamine (DMT), the most potent psychedelic known. In addition, the study revealed that DMT is present in the human body in quantities comparable to serotonin and dopamine, without which normal body and mental functioning would be disrupted. In addition, the study found that DMT levels in the cerebral cortex of rats increased by 600% after cardiac arrest. On the one hand, it is natural to want to protect neurons from dying from oxygen deprivation, one of the known functions of DMT. On the other hand, the flood of psychedelics can explain changes in consciousness in the pre-mortem state. A similar process (possibly in smaller volumes) occurs under severe stress situations and in simulated situations. Such as sauna bathing, in which the heating in the steam room is followed by an abrupt transition to an entirely new set of conditions for the body, even when tempered with cool water (not to mention bathing in ice), to which one must react in any case to ensure homeostasis.

It's up to interpretation to decide what was before, whether it was an egg, a chicken, or an idea of both. Still, perceptual changes (and their corollaries) are already built into the basic post-natal package by default through human physiology, neurochemistry and the functioning of the psyche.

Humans are cunningly constructed, whereby playing with the internal switches and triggers of one's body chemistry, we are likely to unleash unbounded combinations of ways to experience ourselves and the world at any given moment… and, perhaps, find THE answer.  

Wishing you glorious self-discoveries and a pocketful of sunshine!