For someone who spends a lot of time thinking about heat, John Pederson is a pretty chill guy.
If you have the chance to join him for a few rounds of sauna, you just might succumb to that calm and well-being yourself.
Some of us have experienced sauna at some point in our lives: maybe at a spa, or alongside a hotel pool deck, or in lodge with a Scandinavian sounding name in the north woods. For most of us, it is not a common occurrence; not something we consider part of a daily regimen of self-care, like brushing our teeth or taking our morning coffee.
John is committed to making sauna routine, right here in the neighborhoods of Minneapolis. And neither deep woods, nor pristine lake setting, nor label of “vacation only” is required.
The 612 Sauna Society is a co-operative he created to bring sauna out of extravagance and into everyday life. With a mobile sauna and member-ownership in the Society, John’s team presents “sauna for the masses” season-round, either as a component of larger gatherings or as a stand-alone event.
With John’s steady hand, sauna exposure is spreading.
For each scheduled appearance, the Sauna Society’s “Stoker” teams (trained volunteers and co-op members) host sauna for the seasoned and sauna-curious alike. John explains, “We present sauna with structure, with established and agreed-to protocol.” Swimsuits, for example are required, and alcohol is not allowed. “But our Stokers provide accent, and their own spin every time.” Sauna should be fun, John asserts, a joyful, communal time with others. “We aim to provide the most exquisite experience of sauna that can be.”
John discovered sauna as a college student studying in Finland. The invitation to sauna is often the first thing a Finnish host shares with a visitor upon arrival, and, despite the language barrier, John found quick comfort and familiarity with others in sauna, easing both his jet lag and his transition to a new place.
Though often assumed to be of Finish origin (‘sauna’ is a Finnish word describing both the steam bath experience and the bath house), the practice of “sweat bathing” is actually part of a broader, global expression with roots in Turkish, Mexican, Japanese, Russian, and Native American traditions.
Health benefits of sauna are becoming well known, with research to support it. The physiological aspects are a foundation for sauna, but as far as John is concerned, broader benefits are certainly possible.
As a placemaker, he emphasizes the sauna’s capacity, in a simple, yet profound way, to build community. “We are struggling as a society,” John offers. “There is division. People are hurried, so focused on accomplishment, on work and ‘production’ and busyness. In the sauna, we come together, we slow down, we breathe.” He calls the needed respite of the sauna “wasting time with dignity.”
In the last year, John has carted his mobile sauna - dubbed “The Forge” - to corporate and neighborhood events, hosted festival goers and athletes, a famous chef from Sweden, even the executives from the NFL in town for Minneapolis’ staging of the Super Bowl. He jokes that since the mayors of Minneapolis and St. Paul visited his sauna, “peace between the two cities has reigned.”
The “dignity,” John says, of wasting time in a sauna countermands the force of the commercial world, where social spaces often offer consumerism, and not much else. “Sauna helps us remember: You are not just a consumer. You are more than that. You are a person with a body. To me, always feeling like a consumer is not very dignified.”
Sauna amends our relationships with others: “The essence of sauna is experiential, not structural. We host each other, and boundaries break down. We experience something important together. Adhering to the cycles of heat and cool-down regulates internal temperatures. The people on the bench with you experience that same thermal modulation, putting you in synch.”
Beyond the structure of a sauna on wheels, John strives to drive even more social change. His new project, Sauna Society Builders, an offshoot of the 612 co-op model, is prototyping an even lighter weight mobile sauna (think tent) to bring sauna to even more folk.
This shift is not just of materials or convenience of construction, but of practice. John often takes a meeting in the sauna. With boundaries blurred, The Sauna Society invites participants to forge partnerships and opportunities across sectors of our lives to make sauna a go-to gig for physical, emotional, and social health.
The calm John displays after a cycle or two in the sauna amps up a bit when he talks about his current passion. “I feel like my work is a delightful little conspiracy,” he says. “It’s fun to make something delightful happen. That’s what we’re aiming for: Joy. That’s the fuel. Sauna is an invitation. It’s about creating space. Even in these cynical times, this gives me hope because kind-of awesome things are happening.”
John’s heart seems aflutter, and after a third round of sauna, he glows; nay, he radiates. His placemaking best practice is persuasive: add heat and enjoy.