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Minnesota 2020 Journal: The Sauna Solution

January 07, 2011 By John R. Van Hecke, Executive Director & Fellow

With a new governor and new legislative majorities, I anticipate regular public policy conflict on the State Capitol’s playing fields. Wide-ranging opinions, combined with differing capacities for law-making process control, can easily lead to gridlock. Minnesota’s public policy leaders need more than rhetoric to move forward, they need regular communication.

Former Governor Pawlenty preferred a sniping, one-sided communications style leading to a combative, eight year tenure. He seemed to relish it but taunting and hectoring doesn’t move Minnesota forward. Instead, public policy leaders would be well-served by regular engagement.

I don’t necessarily mean formal meetings, with participants sprawled around oversized conference tables. In the state chambers, committees frequently meet around large tables but that’s not the communications vehicle I have in mind. No, I’m thinking sauna.

Studying Minnesota history, I regularly seek culturally-resonant strategies to move Minnesota’s policy debate forward. The past is not predictive but the accumulative effect of shared values and experiences can inform plans for meeting contemporary needs. In others words, what repeatedly worked for our grandparents and great grandparents might just work for us.

Ethnically, Minnesota is dominated by families with roots in Scandinavia and Germany. Our state, as recent U.S. Census data reveals is steadily diversifying but, fundamentally, a great many Minnesotans have ancestors that picked up and moved from Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Iceland and Finland. These Scandinavians brought the sauna with them.

In the Finnish tradition, a sauna is more than a hut or a small, dedicated hot room. It’s an experience viewed as essential to well-being. Regular sauna visits are believed to create harmony, allowing an individual to lead a more balanced, healthier life.

But, I’m getting ahead of myself. The sauna is a high heat, low humidity environment inducing sweating. Typically, one of two common heat sources is used to achieve a 140-200 degree Fahrenheit range. Either heated objects –rocks, typically– are brought into the sauna, raising the room’s ambient temperature or a heater warms the air. Industrialization modernized the sauna, reducing the need to lug wood-fire heated rocks into place. Instead, a dedicated electric or gas heater achieves the same effect.

Because water efficiently conducts heat, high heat and high humidity quickly creates scalding conditions. Inside the sauna, mitigating that effect, low humidity levels make the high temperatures bearable. In contrast, the steam room –widely popular and known by a variety of names such as the hamman, the schvitz, or the sweat lodge- seeks a higher humidity but lower temperature experience.

Depending on participant comfort, saunas are experienced naked. Semi-clothed engagement is, however, common. Towels, insulating body from sauna bench, are standard. In the Finnish and Baltic traditions, sauna-goers will beat each other and themselves with small bundles of wet birch branches, stimulating blood circulation and enhancing the experiences’ communality. The post-sauna water plunge or, barring that, a role in the snow, completes the experience.

The sauna represents a ritualized meditative tradition. The experience connects mind and body with family, community and environment. In the modern world, with jobs, lives and demands pushing and pulling, the sauna demands a different, slower, older pace. Hence, it’s allure.

Minnesota has an established sauna culture and industry. We don’t just take saunas; we build them. A recent Wall Street Journal article referenced Rozycki Woodworks, a Royalton-based sauna maker. Gustavus Adolphus College includes the Sauna Society as a recognized student organization dedicated to expanding sauna appreciation. Everyone, without exception, cites the sauna as a restorative, life-invigorating experience.

Consequently, I’m encouraging Governor Dayton, Speaker Zellers and Senate Majority Leader Koch, along with other elected leaders, to commit to regular, shared saunas. They could talk a lot or not at all. The point is, that they regularly engage as Minnesota’s public policy making leadership community.
This proposal requires only modest investment capital. A barrel-shaped sauna, built by Rozycki Woodworks –one of the larger models– would do the trick. While it’s an admittedly long, downhill jog from the State Capitol to the plunge in the Mississippi river, freshly sauna-ed policy leaders, seeking icy contrast, could simply roll in the snow next to the north parking lot. Since we appear to be having one of those long, heavily snowy winters, regular snow resupply shouldn’t be a problem.

If Dayton, Zellers and Koch are committed to communication, moving Minnesota forward, past the $6.2 billion projected budget deficit, they need to craft a regular meeting schedule. They must turn rhetoric into an actionable plan. Talking big is one thing; taking a sauna with the opposition is quite another. Generations of Minnesotans have found ways to work together for the common good. Getting there doesn’t have to involve a sauna but that’s as good a place as any to start.

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  • glenn auerbach says:

    January 11, 2011 at 12:38 pm


    Great insight on getting our state leaders together for sauna.  In spirit of bipartisanship, I volunteer my mobile sauna for use just as you suggest.  I will be part of a Polar Plunge for Haiti in Maple Grove on 1/15 and then at the “Finnish” line at City of Lakes Loppet Uptown on 2/4/11.

    Between these two events, I can wheel it over to location of your choosing.  Let’s call it a “public policy leaders therapy session” much like what happens at the Finnish Embassy per your WSJ referenced article.

    Check out my authentic sauna at my website:

    Made in Minnesota using a wood burning stove designed and crafted by a 3rd generation sauna stove maker from Tower, MN who, like me, pays his taxes on time and balances his own budget.