WHETHER USED for hygienic, religious, social, or health reasons, saunas have sprung up the world over. From Central America to Greenland, diverse cultures have arrived at the same desire to crank up the heat and sweat. In cold climes it's a way to get wet (and arguably clean) without getting cold, which is perhaps why it became such an integral way of life in places like Finland, the country that largely set the tone for the sauna most Westerners are familiar with. But aside from providing warmth that seems to penetrate your very core, the sauna is used year-round to help fix a number of things that ail ya.
Strictly speaking, all a dry sauna really does is raise the temperature of an enclosed space while controlling the humidity, typically by pouring water over heated rocks. In response, your body produces sweat and circulation increases. During winter, the comfort of simply feeling that heat is reason enough to partake, but saunas have also been used to alleviate everything from common cold symptoms to asthma to rheumatoid arthritis to childbirth recovery to—hello—mild depression, which we so often attribute to the Portland weather. Then there's the fact that it makes your skin smooth as kittens, and your cheeks glow like you've just run up a mountain.
However! I'll go out on a limb and say that the favorite toxin among Mercury readers is alcohol, and while a sauna is all about "sweating it out," do consider a light jog to cure your hangover instead. While some of the sauna's effects are more firmly rooted in oral tradition than laboratory study, there's little evidence to suggest it can cause harm to an adult person in good health with moderate use and in conjunction with the consumption of water. However again! When saunas can cause problems, it's usually because the user has a circulatory system issue—that could be a recent heart attack, or it could be due to the consumption of booze and/or cocaine. So if you want to get hot and party, opt for the hot tub scene instead. Even using a sauna while you're still dehydrated and hungover can cause serious problems... seriously.
If you're sobered up and ready to test out the healing powers of the sauna, don't overlook it as part of your gym routine—most full-service gyms have 'em. Or, if you live the membership-free life, there are a few great local spots where you can pay just for the sauna—inaccurately closed-captioned reruns of CSI not included.
Löyly (2713 SE 21st, loyly.net) is perhaps the prettiest and most popular option. Unlike most joints offering sauna as a side dish to workouts and spa services, sauna is the crux of Löyly's concept (the name comes from the Finnish word for "sauna heat). The gorgeous interior features Scandinavian-style white walls and natural woods, and in addition to the sauna, there's a steam room, a large area for lounging, and options for skin treatments, teas, and—yes—massages, too.
A bit crunchier in the old-school Portland fashion is the Common Ground Wellness Cooperative (5010 NE 33rd, soakandsauna.com), which houses a range of practitioners doing everything from energy work to naturopathy. You can tack on use of their bathhouse—which includes tubs, as well as sauna—to an appointment or just pay for bathhouse use in increments as small as 30 minutes. Bathing suits are always optional here, and men-/women-only hours are available, as well as a monthly night for transgender/genderqueer patrons.
This is a "fitness" issue, though, and fitness requires repetition, and that adds up quick when you're paying for each visit. That's why serious users have their own saunas at home. It may sound like a farfetched financial concept; you'll find an abundance of at-home sauna manufacturers and kits online, on which you can easily spend thousands of dollars. On the other hand, you can pick up a small infrared-powered sauna big enough for two or three people at Lowe's for about $1,000. That's no chump change, either, but if you find yourself a heavy user, it'll be way cheaper than repeatedly paying to use a facility. Plus, they're relatively portable and don't require any structural changes to your dwelling, so they'd be doable for an apartment renter.
Infrared doesn't work as well outside, though, and an outdoor sauna, if you want to be invigorated about it, is really where it's at. The good news is it's relatively easy to DIY one of these babies. If you have an existing structure, like an unused shed, that's ideal. After cleaning the living hell out of it, you might want to add wood, tile, or vinyl flooring, benches, and you'll need a heat source. A wood stove is the cheapest and most authentic route, and can be bought or fashioned for this purpose by a welder, atop which you can heat your rocks. But do know that the city will be very interested in the details of this, in a permitting sense. A wood stove also requires the installation of a chimney, extends the labor intensiveness of each sauna, and requires the buying or collecting of firewood. Another option is an electrical sauna heater, though this will run you at least a couple hundred bucks. (Troll thrift stores and Craigslist for this, obviously.)
You can also build your own structure—heating element issues aside, keep it under 200 square feet (which should be plenty) to avoid permitting issues, and consider harvesting the remains of other defunct structures for walls, roof, and floors to cut down costs. If you're feeling fancy, install some lighting, but candles are 100 percent less of a pain in the ass and they'd be magical.
Again, all of this effort will be worth it if you plan to explore the benefits of regular sauna. And if you feel like the cold and gray is sapping your willpower and perhaps keeping you from achieving your goals—fitness and otherwise—it's certainly worth a shot.