Lake Minnetonka sauna draws on the tradition of Finnish bathing.
Last winter, Andrew Mahoney cut a hole in Lake Minnetonka. He placed a wooden board over the opening in the ice to keep it from refreezing and set up a ring of orange cones around the edges. He took the ladder from his dock and put it into the ice hole to make it easy to climb out of the frigid water.
By then, Mahoney had a daily ritual: Whenever he had a spare moment, he would turn on his new sauna—sometimes from his phone—wait until it had heated to around 150 degrees F and walk the few feet between his house and the unattached building that houses the sauna. Inside, a spacious changing area greeted him, and a glass door led into the sauna. Once he felt hot enough, Mahoney would walk down the path that led from his sauna to the lake, stand over the ice hole—and jump in.
Plunging into 30-degree water, Mahoney muses, you’d expect to feel cold. “But after we get out of the ice hole, we’ll find ourselves standing there in shorts and a towel in the middle of winter talking for five or 10 minutes, and we’re not cold,” he says.
A sauna and a swim, as the ritual is known to regular sauna bathers, can be euphoric and is just one of the many reasons Mahoney decided to have an existing structure refurbished into a sauna in 2021. At the beginning of the pandemic, Mahoney’s Austrian neighbors, unable to travel to the United States, let him and his family use their outdoor sauna whenever they wanted. Mahoney has four adult children, all of whom came home to live with their parents in 2020. With a full house, the sauna became a relaxing refuge for the family. When his neighbors came back to their home, Mahoney says, “We were into the habit of using the sauna every day, and it was time to build our own.”
That’s when Mahoney contacted a Finnleo showroom, based out of Cokato, Minnesota. Known for its traditional Finnish saunas and infrared and steam baths, Finnleo designed and installed Mahoney’s sauna, which includes an electric heater, recessed LED lights and SaunaLogic, the control system that allows Mahoney to turn on the sauna remotely. Built from hemlock wood with enough room to seat up to 12 sauna bathers, the space is ideal for entertaining guests. Although Mahoney’s kids have moved out of his home, he says they use the sauna every day when they visit.
But Mahoney’s favorite part of the fully-customized sauna is its two west-facing windows that look over Lake Minnetonka. Set on either side of the heating element and a dark stone backsplash, the windows allow him to take full advantage of his home’s lake views, especially at sunset. “You see the lake, which is calming, and [in the evening], you see the sunset,” he says. “It’s really a pretty special place.”
The Mahoneys aren’t the only family who’ve updated their home in the last few years. Since March of 2020, the entire home improvement industry has seen an uptick in homeowners wanting to customize their spaces, from building wine rooms to installing saunas, indoor archery ranges and more. Grace Keliher, executive vice president and lobbyist with the Builders Association of Minnesota, chalks the trend up to the pandemic.
“We’ve been forced to be in our home so much that we want changes going forward to make [our homes] personal to us,” Keliher says. Homeowners are looking for ways to relax in their own spaces without having to rely on a gym or hotel for their fun activities, such as sauna bathing.
But the pandemic only added to the popularity of at-home saunas, which rose a few years earlier, spurred by evidence of their health benefits for regular bathers. A 2016 study from the University of Eastern Finland found that regular sauna bathing reduces risks for dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Although the study didn’t find the biological mechanism behind these benefits, the authors suggested that a traditional sauna’s high temperatures increase blood flow to the skin, which lowers blood pressure.
Since the study was published, Finnleo’s director of sales and marketing Mark Raisanen says, “The rest of the world [has] started to discover what we’ve known for decades”—that a daily trip to the sauna isn’t just relaxing, it’s good for overall health.
Although cultures around the world have practiced different forms of heat and bathing therapy—Roman steam baths, for instance—saunas were unique to Finland and Scandinavia. Saunas found another home in Minnesota when Finnish immigrants settled in the area in the late 1800s and early 1900s, bringing their unique bathing ritual with them. Now, Raisanen says, Minnesota has one of the largest sauna markets in the world.
Raisanen and Kristina Heinonen, Finnleo’s marketing specialist, have experienced saunas’ benefits for themselves: They both installed at-home saunas and use them “literally every night, sometimes a couple of times a day,” in Heinonen’s case. “I love it just for the final wind down
of the day,” she says. “And then I sleep so deeply after.”
For Raisanen, the sauna also has a social component. With his adult children now living on their own, he says the sauna gives them an excuse to spend time together as a family whenever they’re all at home. “The main reason we use it is to relax and talk,” he says. “And for us, those health benefits are just a bonus that happened to come along with it.”
For Minnesota residents like Mahoney, a sauna can also extend the outdoor season, long after most people have closed their pools and stored their boats. In fact, a sauna and a swim in January can feel even more refreshing than one in August. Mahoney inaugurated his sauna on a chilly October day with his family and 10 of their friends. The group sat in the heat for about 20 minutes before taking a plunge into the chilly lake—the first of many sauna and swim rituals. “It was everything we’d dreamed of,” he says.