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THERMACULTURE & FOREST BATHING: Get Some Phytoncides With Your Sauna

Updated: May 2

Sauna visitor cools off in the forest

Recently Motz Studios joined new friends Jessica Nelson-Roehl and Vanessa Eickhoff at 612 Sauna Society for some collaborative forest bathing walk and sauna combinations at The Trailhead in Theodore Wirth Park in Minneapolis. A few years back, pre-pandemic, John Pederson and his partner in Stokeyard Outfitters, Rod Burhsmith, had also invited Motz Studios to speak on Forest Bathing for one of their bench sessions at the Hewing Hotel.

Stemming from those amazing sessions, I am excited to discuss here the common ground between saunas and forest bathing with fellow lovers of hyperthermic conditioning. The biophilic connections between the two experiences are rampant – stones, wood, forests, lakes, and of course - snow! Sauna culture is old – over 2000 years in Finland – and frankly, so are trees – a mere 370 million years. Interestingly, Thermaculture and Forest Bathing also have similar benefits: stress relief, attention restoration, and myriad health advantages.


One of the most fascinating advantages of both is the ability to boost immune system function. In a heated sauna environment, you are effectively creating an artificial fever in the body – boosting white blood cell production and thus, enhancing your immune system.

In the forest a similar reaction occurs via the absorption of compounds called phytoncides. Phytoncides, emitted by trees, are the way trees fight off invaders of their own. Interestingly, when we inhale or take these compounds in through our pores, they also boost our own immune system function – particularly our NK (natural killer) Cells, a form of white blood cell that goes after cancer cells. After a 3-hour walk in the forest, the levels of NK cells can be boosted by up to 47%; and depending on a person’s physiology, stay there for a week to a month afterwards.


Another area of common ground is that both are methods to seek equilibrium – in our bodies and minds. Saunas use repeated sessions of heat followed by a cold shower or dip in a cold pool. The first time your body is shocked; but with each subsequent cycle the sensation of cold is lessened, until eventually when you enter the cold pool, it’s not cold at all. The body has reached equilibrium. These repetitive cycles also take on a meditative quality. I’ve found once I reach that optimal state, my body feels completely relaxed and energized at the same time.

In the forest equilibrium is sought through the slowing down of time paired with “turning up” the senses as high as they’ll go. During a Forest Bathing session guests are taken into what is called “liminal space”, or a space of transformation. This occurs by offering repeated invitations to participate in an activity that is intentional and deliberately slow. By giving ourselves the permission to slow down – something that rarely exists in our highly competitive culture – we are connecting to something familiar in new ways, which can open our eyes, reveal new insights, and also lead us back to ourselves.


Keeping blood flowing through our bodies is the heart’s function. Stress, constricted veins and arteries, and high blood pressure are all issues that conspire against our heart health. By placing ourselves in environments that allow our muscles to relax, our circulation to improve, and endorphins to be released, we are taking action to improve our health in an enjoyable manner.

The heat in a sauna encourages blood vessels to dilate, allowing for increased blood flow. Muscles will also inevitably relax when bombarded by a constant 175-degree airflow.

Looking at how trees can help our hearts I defer to Diana Beresford-Kroeger, one of my favorite authors who is also a botanist and medical biochemist. In her latest book: To Speak for the Trees: My Life’s Journey from Ancient Celtic Wisdom to a Healing Vision of the Forest, she discusses one species of tree that “produces a target vasodilator, a unique biochemical that opens the left ascending coronary artery of the beating heart, a medicine already used in surgery.” Wow! That is just ONE example. Like saunas, a slow walk through the trees inspires relaxation; while sitting still against a tree can bring about a deeper meditative state – both conducive to better heart health.

Bundle of birch twigs for use in sauna

Perhaps we can take some final insights on slowing down and finding equilibrium from a Chilean poet, and a naturalist from northern Minnesota:

“If we were not so single-minded about keeping our lives moving, and for once could do nothing, perhaps a huge silence might interrupt this sadness of never understanding ourselves. Perhaps the earth can teach us, as when everything seems dead and later proves to be alive.“

~ Pablo Neruda

“Wilderness to the people of America is a spiritual necessity, an antidote to the high pressure of modern life, a means of regaining serenity and equilibrium.”

~ Sigurd Olson, 1946

See you in the sauna, in the woods…or both!

Fall leaf art by David Motzenbecker

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