Law & Order at the Sauna House

Over the past couple of months, as we adjust to life in quarantine, my brother and I have had several conversations about how there’s actually elements of the in-place COVID restrictions we like. For example, I enjoy one way aisles in grocery stores. Sure, it may mean a little more walking for a forgotten item, but in general it makes the place run smoother and prevents say, two middle-aged women from running into each other going opposite directions and clogging the aisle while they exchange pleasantries. I also love being forced to stand six feet apart in line. I like the forced personal space. I don’t miss fighting through a crowded bar, getting elbowed and jostled just trying to get the next round. I like this new law and order. It’s made returning to a semblance of normalcy seem possible and safe and the reason I felt good about checking out Asheville’s Sauna House.

The Sauna House is a self-described Nordic-style bathhouse featuring three saunas, cold showers, and a cold plunge housed in an inexplicably Dalmatian-spotted building on Asheville’s south slope. I love a good sauna, but almost never use them in public due to naked old men who talk too loud and sit too close. I also love anything Nordic-inspired because I went to Iceland once and it changed me. I wanted to check out Sauna House pre-COVID, but the fact that there were now restrictions to how many people were not only allowed in the facilities, but the actual saunas, was a real plus and almost enough to make me look past the fact that the Sauna House website has copy describing it as “social but chill.” Almost.

The Sauna House and I got off to a bit of a shaky start, when I realized that not all my fellow patrons relished our new forced COVID law and order the same way I do, compounded by realizing my body was unable to follow the prescribed guidelines laid out all over the sauna house walls for the most relaxing of experiences.

I stored my personal items in a locker, took the required shower to rinse off, and walked into what probably has a proper name but I’m simply going to refer to as the “social but chill” room. There were a couple of people here lounging around, but I wanted to head straight for a sweat. I opened the door of the first-floor sauna, but it was already at capacity with four people inside. I waited patiently till someone left, then waited the requisite 10 seconds as to not look over eager, and stepped inside. The sauna was super spacious, smelled great, and I found a nice high perch to start my requisite sweating.

Maybe two minutes later, a woman opened the door and without looking around to check the number of people, blithely took a seat. Two minutes later another gentlemen opened the door. He asked if anyone minded if he sit down once he was already seated, and my fellow sauna goers happily said sure. I waited 30 seconds lest it look like I was fleeing to go snitch, took the prescribed post-sauna cold shower and bitched in my head about people who don’t follow rules. I followed this by heading into the cold plunge pool, which the guidelines painted around the “social but chill” room said to stay in for up to three minutes.

You know what I learned after my first cold plunge? That I’m what’s colloquially known as “a wuss.” Now, I didn’t scream and immediately run out or anything embarrassing, but I lasted maybe all of 10 seconds, my lips started chattering, and once I got out I felt completely out of breath. My heart started racing and my head started throbbing in ways I’ve only experienced during the throes of a hangover. 

I tried lounging for a bit in the “social and chill” room, but I don’t know that I’m social or chill, and am regrettably becoming one of those people who can’t figure out what to do without my phone. After less than 5 minutes of sitting, staring, and wondering if my racing pulse meant something was legitimately wrong with me, I went downstairs to the cedar sauna located in the quiet room, and once again, found myself unable to enjoy myself since COVID has turned me into a rules-Nazi, and another guest kept loudly asking one of the attendants questions IN THE QUIET ZONE. I fled after 5 minutes, legitimately thought about narcing her out to management, but took another cold shower instead. Am I a “Karen?”

The prescribed wall-imposed methodology for maximum relaxation is 15 minutes in the sauna, 3 minutes in the cold plunge, and 10-15 minutes of social chilling, but I realized after a half hour I’d gone through all three steps twice, unable to relax and shake my annoyance with the other attendees, and unable to withstand the heat or cold for as long as I’d thought I’d be able to. I remember looking out the window and thinking “well, guess this isn’t for me.”

Things shifted though when it seemed the bulk of the other guests’ two hour window expired and from 7:45 on it was essentially just me and one other woman in the sauna house. And then readers, the tables seemed to turn and I became the other attendee annoying her…at least in my mind.

I entered the sauna for the umpteenth time and this woman was laying stone still on the top row of seating—this was clearly not her first rodeo. I lay down on the bottom row of seating as far away as possible from her, and now that it was quiet, and I wasn’t being annoyed by others, I was finally able to just relax, let all my thoughts melt away…and loudly change positions every few minutes with a sweaty, squeaking sound I’m sure went right ahead and screwed her zen up the same way the loud woman in the quiet zone screwed mine up earlier. I attempted several more times to move without making a sound, but apparently when I’m pouring sweat I don’t have that capability. What I do have though, is the capability to stay in the cold plunge for three full minutes, and emerge not spastic and shaky, but  invigorated and relaxed. On my third attempt, my body finally adapted and I was able to do the whole 15-3-15 routine two full times to end my night.

If I’d left the Sauna House after my first few attempts at relaxation, I don’t know that I would’ve gone back or encouraged anyone else to check it out, but I left really liking my experience, and once I got back at my apartment and deposited myself on my couch, feeling maybe even more relaxed than the last time I took prescription painkillers, I knew I was going to, despite my best intentions, become the guy who says things to people at work like, “it’s my sauna night guys.”

All kidding aside, I find it hard to actually relax and clear my mind and by the end of my sauna house experience I achieved that. I even felt like my relaxation carried over into the next day and am still going to stick with it being the reason I lost my tennis game the following night. I’m excited for my next visit, and for those of you who may want to start attending yourself, will offer the following tips, since much like my Icelandic sojourn, one visit changed me and made me an expert: 

  • Bring something to read—the Sauna House has a great reading area in its quiet space and I definitely could’ve benefitted from a book or magazine.
  • Don’t drink a chocolate milk prior to going to the Sauna House. You will be in a bathing suit the whole time and someone cruelly designed the place so that if you need to walk to the bathroom or to your lockers you’ll pass a large mirror and thus get to take in your milk bloated body in all its glory.
  • The Sauna House is located just across the street from Eurisko Beer Company, which I also went to just once, and thus will recommend for a nice little post-Sauna House nightcap.
  • The Sauna House is also located a short walk from Iconic Kitchen and Drinks, a restaurant I happened to just eat at two nights prior that has the chicken parm sandwich I’ve been searching Asheville for since my southern migration.

That’s it. Those are my sauna house “tips.” I’ve only been there once!

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