Insider's Guide to Spas
Mikkel Aaland
Mikkel Aaland

Insiders

The Sauna Connoisseur: Mikkel Aaland

Mary Bemis


An award-winning photographer and author of the cult classic, Sweat, Mikkel Aaland is a connoisseur of sweat bathing.  His hope is to bring greater attention and respect to this worldwide tradition that brings people together in a healthy and meaningful way. The creator of The Perfect Sweat Summit (insearchoftheperfectsweat), Aaland is working on a reality-based travel and health-oriented TV series, conceptually based on his book.

It’s in the blood.

I grew up with the Norwegian bastu or sauna and am familiar with that form of hot-air bathing. My father, who was from Norway, built one in our house on the second floor. It was a makeshift thing with a gas stove. He knew what he had in Norway, and he did what he could do.  The sauna was extremely important to my father. He grew up with it, and he was passionate about it.  I don’t even know if my mother ever took one (she’s American).

The power of open pores.

My father was a fanatic and passed it on. I did it once a week. It cleans out your pores. You’re sweating profusely. I became so good at sweating, that when I played basketball nobody wanted to guard me because my pores were so open—I sweat so freely! If I had been a better basketball player, I might have taken advantage of that.

How many football players can you fit in a sauna?

In high school, I brought the entire football team into the sauna in our house. To this day, I still get emails from people who loved it. It was a social hit to have that, as it was extremely foreign and strange to most people. Later, when I was in college, I got exposed to Native American sweat lodges that were becoming popular with the counterculture group. Between the exposure from my family and then confirmed by the Native American sweat lodge ceremony (I was first exposed to this up in Northern California in a town called Chico), by the time I graduated from college in 1974, with a degree in photojournalism, all I wanted to do was a book on sauna.

Scandinavia, an epiphany & the grand connection.

A lot of things happened at the same time. My grandmother died in Norway, and I went back to take care of my grandfather. That was 40 years ago this year.

So I got back from Scandinavia, so close to Finland, popped on over to Helsinki, started doing research on sauna. I remember the moment it all occurred to me: This is about the worldwide phenomena of sweat bathing…Turks, Russians, Mayans…I kept digging and digging and digging. It was an absolute epiphany when I realized it was all connected.

Happily possessed.

I wanted to go and visit all of them and write about them in a contemporary way.  From 1974 to 1978, I traveled around and I made it contemporary.  This whole period in my life was devoted to these baths. It was an amazing time. I felt like I was a man who had seen something really incredible and special, and I wanted to bring that back to my tribe. I was kind of possessed.

I felt like I was a man who had seen something really incredible and special, and I wanted to bring that back to my tribe.

A book is born. An epidemic begins.

The book came out in 1978 to good response. I was quite excited about the response, and then unfortunately, not long after the book came out the AIDS epidemic began. This was a drama that really unfolded in front of me in San Francisco—watching bathhouses close, seeing people afraid to be together. We didn’t know how AIDS was transmitted back then, and everyone was scared. Public bathing certainly suffered. It went flat for a while; the popularity and discussion were all about the disease not the benefit, and I moved on to other subjects.

Today, a turning point.

Over the years, I’ve always been passionate and felt very strongly about sweat bathing and the importance of public baths. Recently, there’s a whole new shot of energy being put into this. I believe it’s coming from immigrants who come here and who love their baths. The sweat lodge has gained in popularity among non-Native Americans. Sweat bathing is growing, and now, finally, we’re at a real turning point. We’re getting discussions at a higher level, and are realizing how important the sweat bath is not only to the individual, but to the wellbeing of our communities.

A sauna connoisseur.

My relationship with sauna has deepened over the years. Compare it to having your first glass of wine…as you move up, your standards get higher. Over the years, I’ve learned what goes into making a really good sauna. I’ve become a connoisseur. It’s sad that there are a lot of saunas in this country that aren’t very good. They are like horrible wines.

On the perfect sauna.

Finland on the lakeside with a smoke sauna (considered the Cadillac of saunas)…with the birch and the midnight sun…

Then there were the Russian Baths on the lower east side in New York City… or when I lived in Prague, and my wife and I would go into this community [bathhouse], we’d come out just glowing. I have had so many experiences of bliss—of walking into the sauna and coming out a new man.

I have had so many experiences of bliss—of walking into the sauna and coming out a new man.

How many times can you be reborn?

Bob Dylan says, He not busy being born is busy dying. I say everyday is a great day to be reborn.

Persistence pays off.

Lately, I’ve been going to the sauna twice a week, to Archimedes (banyasf.com). It’s a little bit of a trek for me. My regular sauna routine involves the public swimming pool down the block from where I live. Several years ago, the city of San Francisco was going to renovate it, and a few of us came in and said if you’re going to do this, we want you to build a sauna.

We were quite persistent and eventually we persuaded them, and guess what? It’s a really good sauna! I love being in there with my neighbors. I sat down next to a Chinese woman whose daughter is in school with my daughter, but we never talked until we sat down in the sauna. This sauna is now a centerpiece of the community.

People drive from all over town to come to the sauna. This shows how well it works, and it has been one of the most satisfying experiences for me. We live in a condo and were talking about putting in a sauna, but didn’t, and I’m much happier because I like going to the community sauna.

Bob Dylan says, He not busy being born is busy dying. I say everyday is a great day to be reborn.

A few words from the book, Sweat.

There’s a saying in my book that goes something like this: You shouldn’t try to get the best sauna on the block, you want to get the block into the sauna!

 

 

Mary Bemis

Mary Bemis

Mary Bemis is editorial director of InsidersGuidetoSpas.com. She is an award-winning spa journalist, honored with Folio's Top Women in Media Award, and the distinguished ISPA Dedicated Contributor Award. In 1997, she launched American Spa magazine, and in 2007, Mary co-founded Organic Spa magazine. A pioneer in the sustainable spa and beauty worlds, Mary is co-curator of Cosmoprof North America's Discover Green Pavilion. She sits on the board of Wellness Warrior, is a Global Wellness Day Advisor and a co-founder of the Washington Spa Alliance.