Thursday, August 1, 2019

From Pain to Equilibrium: Part 2

From Pain to Equilibrium: Hardcore Heat (Part 1)

I booked an appointment at the yoga studio. When I arrived, I discovered that for all its Finnish-style prettiness, the sauna is set up in a large walk-in closet with tall ceilings to mitigate its, um, closetness. The room also functions as the studio's laundry sorting space, to give you a sense of the true functionality with which this experience is treated. I observed that it was not customized. If it had been, it would have fit the dimensions of the room more elegantly. Point is - this experience was decidedly "urban real" - not like the sexy downtown spas that assume you're in it for half the day because, what else would you be doing otherwise?

Despite this - the sauna wood of the unit I've used is in perfect condition (so much so that I wonder if anyone else uses it - though apparently it's popular). And - cuz I've done lots o' research on saunas in general and on this particular brand - this one is made in a very soft wood (Ontario basswood) that's chosen for its eco-specifics. All things being equal, I'd prefer the durability of a hard wood. But it is formaldehyde free (unlike most wood, including expensive cedar which also contains other natural toxins to keep bugs away from the trees). It's not "chemically treated". Of course it is inasmuch as everything is a chemical, including the non-toxic wax this vendor uses, it is chemically treated but these peeps make toxicity (or non-, as the case may be) their primary point of focus. And trust me. When you are in a sauna, the wood is everything. You inhale it. You become strangely connected to it for that 30 minutes. Despite the softness of this wood, it has enough durability that there isn't a scratch on the studio unit. Plus, it feels and smells awesome.

I've posted a couple of photos of this sauna on Insta, should you wish to have a look. With any infrared (and in this post, when I say infrared pls assume I'm referring to FAR infrared, not near) one can turn it on and warm up with it, or pre-heat - like when you make cookies! I prefer to warm with the unit though it's generally a less "hot" experience to do it that way.

It's challenging to explain in what way the sauna "works" for me and by work, I'm referring to pain mitigation. An additional bizarre side-benefit is euphoria?!?! (Note: not mania! The sauna will not make you bipolar :-) though if one is bipolar, I wonder if it would have some impact on the brain state, particularly if the person in question were unmedicated.) In retrospect, I think what I experienced on that walk in Quebec City after my days of sauna in the Charlevoix, was the residual energy and mood-boost - an amazing corollary impact of "healthful heat bathing" as the Europeans might say (or not). Truly, no one would suggest I have a lot of energy right now. It's much better than it was over the winter, but it's still pale in comparison to my former energy levels, or those of my youth. But for about 24 hours after "saunaing", I am strangely bouncy and fearless in my body, which is a beautiful, beautiful thing.

At first I assumed this was because my pain is reduced by the heat process (and it definitely is though, natch, with chronic pain one's mileage will vary). But, on balance, I don't think that's the full story. I think the energy and the pain mitigation are separate experiences. And they're both awesome!

On the topic of pain management: We all experience chronic pain differently and, as I've harped on endlessly, the reason why the pain-haver is wise to utilize an integrated approach is that chronic pain is a brain-groove inasmuch as its a physical experience. Your brain, if it likes to spout pain, will find ways around the one or 2 mechanisms by which you may regularly reach for relief. That's why you need a minimum of a dozen. I recommend that as few of those as necessary should be pharmaceuticals (just based on the likelihood of long-term damage and side effects). But that's my bias.

Apparently, the average person with chronic pain uses fewer than 3 approaches to mitigate pain - and not because (s)he's tried a multiplicity that didn't work. I find that impossible to believe. How can one linger in misery and not search for the answer continuously?? I have an arsenal of 20 plus mitigation methods that I modulate weekly. When I write on this topic, I aim not to be prescriptive because pain is personal but, if you have chronic pain, this is not a "nice to have" approach. It's the only one - because, if your two mechanisms worked, you wouldn't still be in pain.

Back to the experience of the sauna as it relates to the pain I have experienced... The minute I step into the pre-heated sauna (or as it heats up), pain disappears. Yes, I know. For that reason alone, it's worth a fortune. I begin to feel a strange sort of seal (this is a term we sometimes use in yoga). What I mean is that the density of the air in the sauna (and I'm speaking as a user, not as a science professional) seems to increase, as does the feeling inside the muscular/fascial layer of my body. It feels like they click or suction together. It's difficult to articulate. And in that suction, a kind of normally-absent equilibrium is found. The outcome of the equilibrium, for me, is pain reduction.

After a few minutes, my body seems to "lighten". The skeletal compression I often feel, the internal puffy sense, the nerve-shooting sensation, the ridiculous fascial tightness - these all disappear for the duration of the visit. It's totally bizarre and I can't explain it. For this reason, staying in the (less hot than traditional sauna) heat for 30 minutes is very easy.

I turn off the interior light because, for me, it's about sensory deprivation. In a zillion years I would not go into one of those water floating gizmos to relax. But I believe they work on the exact same premise: remove all stimulus. The sauna is like a vacuum, an eraser (like one of those 70s toys where you write on a tablet with a plastic front and a cardboard back coated with some black substance. The minute you're done with what you've drawn with that ink-free stylo, you lift the cover plastic and it's all gone).

Whether you practice meditation or not, you will effectively meditate in a sauna. It's a function of the brain state that heat and sensory deprivation provide.

How long does this last? I don't know - I don't have enough data yet to say. I'm going to estimate about 24-36 hours. But that's in summer - both the cool version and the heat wave kind. Note: I don't find taking a sauna in a heat wave to be problematic. But I like heat.

Now, can you imagine me - a constantly cold (in body temp) person - getting home after a day of work, in the dark, via massively overcrowded public transit, followed by a walk on treacherous, un-salted ice or in freezing rain or in miserable dampness (all things that do nothing to help pain that I experience), being able to hop into a gorgeously hot, intensely quiet space to "reset" before dinner? Peeps - the Nordic people haven't been doing this for centuries simply cuz it's fun.

Note: I don't do a cold shower after-treatment. For my biochemistry, that doesn't help. When I get out of the sauna, I feel so tremendously cold (just in interior air) that I consider this to be my "cold treatment". As cold is a pain trigger for me, I avoid it to whatever extent I can.

Also, it goes without saying that saunas are not for everyone - and one kind of sauna may be better for you than another. Use your brain while you experiment on yourself. And no harm in consulting a doc if you have concerns about heat therapy for certain conditions like blood pressure - though don't assume that he or she will know anything about saunas and how the body interacts with them.

Do saunas remove toxins from your body, cure cancer and cause you to lose weight like a celebrity? Um - I really can't say cuz I'm in it for the pain and mood management. I've read many conflicting documents on these accounts and I can tell you that you lose water and salt when sweating (toxins are a tough thing to calibrate), if you're in cancer treatment you should definitely be talking with your oncologist, not a sauna sales person, and if you want to lose weight you should stop eating sugar and processed food, get tons of sleep, do healthful exercise, remove all stressors from your life and eschew fun. Or come by it naturally. That's why those celebrities are thin.

On the topic of choosing a sauna: The average far infrared sauna is meant to heat the individual at 40-60C vs the much hotter traditional temp range of 80-100C. Infrared heat is actually light - as is all heat from what I can tell from 5 seconds on the internet. Moreover, all saunas work on the basis of radiant heat - from what I've seen. My limited understanding is that the main difference is the frequency of the waves that create the heat but, seriously, if you're a scientist - please chime in!

The specific unit I've tried is, I believe, a 2-person sauna. (No one seems to be able to give me intel about the model at the studio though I'm sure both SaunaRay and the studio have the deets...) Presuming I'm correct - and next time I "sauna", I'm bringing my tape-measure to confirm - there's no way it would fit 2 humans. It's as small a space as I'd like to be in all alone and, if you are a tall or large person, it'll seem smaller still. Note: I'm not claustrophobic.

Secretly, I hope the studio unit I'm using is the 1-person version because I intend to buy the 2-person one. It would be thrilling if the unit I buy is bigger than the one I'm using as I would like a bit more room to move around without being concerned about hitting the ceramic heaters.

Those heaters are well-placed in the studio sauna and "caged", to prevent burns. When one is seated and still, in this particular unit, there is no concern. But I would be mindful about trying to sit horizontally with legs up on the bench.

On the topic of budget, cuz who doesn't want to know the scoop: for a high-quality, small, non-customized sauna (the kind that is installed by the people who have made the sauna but to specifications that are consistent from unit to unit and not altered to suit specific spaces), you're looking at about 5K. It will likely cost more than this if you opt for additional features. If you go custom - whether infrared or traditional - it's going to cost about 10-15K.

I'm not here to recommend any particular brand. One must do research and consider the relevant factors but what I can say is that you should avoid buying one from a big box store. There's a lot of inaccurate info provided by the conglomerates that sell flat packs, as proven by peeps who buy them to independently test for things like wood toxicity and the quality of heat being emitted (and what's used to emit that heat). At the wrong end of the spectrum (no pun intended), the sauna becomes more like a toxic oven than healing treatment.

As soon as I realized that the cheap Costco ones are more harmful than they'd have you believe, I had to switch gears. For my money, buying Canadian - and better still local - is a strong preference. But buying the best and safest model I can afford - Canadian or no - is a stronger preference. I'm really happy that I love the brand that the studio uses (SaunaRay) because all of the saunas are handmade 2 hours away to very stringent specifics.

You do need two things, other than money, to bring a sauna into your home: the correct amperage in your house (Scott says most modern houses have this) and space. I've not seen a non-custom sauna that's shorter than 6 feet and, over and above that, you need a certain amount of clearance. Also, it's very small on the inside but somehow quite large on the outside. I can see how this would not work optimally for those in a condo or a small, old house.

If this gizmo appeals to you on any level - I recommend that you find a place that's easy and quick to get to, and that charges a fee you can get with because you'll want to do it reasonably often. Try a bunch of options till you find your preferred brand and style. If it improves the quality of your life and you have space, money and the electrical specs - buy a freakin' sauna! Sure - you may think of this as a stupid, urban, rich girl prop - Lord knows, I did. But if it makes you feel excellent, who cares what people think?

PS: If you don't write about it on your blog, no one needs to know that you intend to buy one!