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During deepest New York winter, a sweltering infrared sauna is a balm for creaky joints and parched skin. But beyond simply feeling fantastic, bathing in infrared rays for 30 minutes has some impressive reputed benefits.
The first time I tried an infrared sauna was in Los Angeles, at Sweatheory—a spa-like space in North Hollywood with private saunas heated by infrared light waves. It had been a long week, testing workouts and Ubering from neighborhood to neighborhood interviewing sources for stories, and when I arrived pain was throbbing in my temples and behind my eyes. Thirty minutes later, after relaxing on my back with my legs elevated up the wooden wall, the pain had vanished. I couldn’t quite fathom how—I assumed the sauna would have the opposite effect what with dehydration etc.—but it worked. I left buzzing.
“A lot of times people think they’re coming to a sauna and they’re going to leave feeling totally wiped out and melted, but you don’t,” explains Joel Granik, founder of Floating Lotus—a wellness center in Midtown Manhattan with a private infrared sauna suite. “You feel very energized afterwards. It heats your insides directly rather than heating you from the outside in. Blood flow and circulation increases a lot more than with a normal sauna because it’s going straight inside you, to your heart, and it gives you that energized feeling.”
Granik, who originally opened Floating Lotus so he would have a base for his Chinese medicine practice, uses infrared to compliment acupuncture—putting clients under infrared lamps or booking them sessions in the private sauna post-treatment.
“In Chinese medicine we’re always trying to warm people up and avoid cold. If your body cools down you end up with pain, you end up stagnating and things just aren’t functioning as well as they should be, especially digestion. That’s why you get sick in winter. At this time of year the sauna is constantly busy,” says Granik.
Advocates of infrared saunas say this kind of cellular heating increases metabolic activity, boosts immunity, and flushes toxins from the body through sweat. “Think about it: this is why your body goes into fever conditions when you’re sick—a hotter body increases metabolic activity, kills unwanted intruders, and stimulates the release of toxins,” writes bio-hacker Dave Asprey on his Bulletproof blog.
Thanks to the way it gets your heart pumping, it’s also said to mimic the results of exercise—aiding weight loss, lowering blood pressure, and increasing circulation. The heat helps ease pain in joints and muscles, and may help with respiratory conditions like asthma. Add to that the results of a study which found that infrared light treatments showed “efficacy and safety for skin rejuvenation and intradermal collagen increase when compared with controls” and it begins to feel like regular sessions ought to be a part of everybody’s wellness regimen—provided they can spare $65 for a 30-minute sweat every week.
So what should you expect during your first infrared sauna experience? You might not feel the heat as intensely as a dry sauna initially, but that doesn’t mean it’s not sweltering in there. Granik suggests making your first session a short one, or alternating between 10 minutes in the sauna and a short break outside. Hydration is, of course, key, so make sure you bring a bottle of water with you and, if you want to increase the zen, download an inspiring podcast like On Being or Oprah’s SuperSoul Conversations.