For William Benson, sauna bathing has always been about connection – not only with others, but with himself as he’s had to navigate stress and significant health problems. He was initially exposed to the lifestyle and culture of sauna when he lived in Sweden for two years as a missionary for his church. While there, he met many people who made sauna bathing a regular part of their lives, and he tried it himself a few times.
“I'd never used a sauna once in my entire life before that point,” William said. “So it was new and refreshing. And exciting because I'm like, ‘oh man, I know that this is something I want to do for the rest of my life.”
In Scandinavia, people have been using saunas for centuries, especially as a cultural gathering place for friends and family. Now, people there and all over the world are becoming more aware of the health benefits from sauna and cold dips or swimming. William was drawn to all of it.
“It felt good physically, but more than that, it felt good mentally. It is so good for my emotions and has a calming, relaxing effect on my brain,” William said.
After his mission in Sweden, a fellow missionary from Finland named Emil Pärkkä came to spend a month in the States. Emil grew up using the sauna almost daily, so he fanned the fire of William’s love for it. They went to BYU’s sauna together several times.
After that, William began to seek out saunas wherever he could find them. For instance, he stayed on three separate occasions in a Park City Airbnb with a sauna, once hosting a birthday party there for his friend. As part of the celebration, they packed twelve people into the sauna.
It was almost impossible to find a high quality traditional Finnish sauna, however. Until one day, William came across PLUNJ in Provo, Utah, which is a bathhouse that takes inspiration from Scandinavia. PLUNJ is where he started to add deliberate cold water immersion to his regimen. He loved the concept of contrast therapy so much that he asked the owners, Sean and Lauren Foster, for a job and began to work as one of PLUNJ’s first employees.
“I realized how amazing it was to not only sauna, but pair it with cold water therapy as well,” William said. “I fell in love with it even more. I became addicted to it. I started doing it four to five times a week.”
At the time, school and several health issues were causing him deep stress. He had two orthopedic shoulder injuries that required surgery, plus a herniated disc in his spine from water skiing. He also experienced complications from a separate surgery and began to fall behind in his classes. For someone who enjoys being active and staying on top of academics, these health issues were a large setback.
Sauna heat encourages blood flow, which promotes healing. Though healing takes time, using the sauna helped relieve William’s pain. Cold plunging decreased his inflammation. Plus, he noticed better sleep and quicker muscle recovery.
“Ultimately, the sauna was really therapeutic for my stress,” William said. “So I tell people that the number one benefit that I get from sauna bathing is mental health.”
Sauna and Connection
Soon enough, PLUNJ also became a go-to social gathering place for William. Some of the most memorable moments he’s had with his friends were in the sauna as they talked about life’s ups and downs.
“I had a lot of great moments with a lot of different people, right there within those PLUNJ walls,” William said. “But I also found a great connection with myself when I was alone there and meditating. I had time to think about how to cope with things I was going through in life.”
Perhaps most significantly, PLUNJ is where William and his wife, Alessia, had their first date. They originally connected through a dating app called Hinge, but there were only a few messages between the two of them before they agreed to meet at PLUNJ.
“Before sitting in the sauna together and actually opening up, we'd said probably all but ten words to each other,” William said. “Sitting next to each other dripping profusely with sweat, that’s when we had our first chance of opening up and talking about life. That was our first real interaction.”
He recalls parts of their conversation, that they discussed what they wanted out of life, what they’re passionate about, and some of their past experiences. “We had a great time and a few laughs, just chatting. It was fun.”
William and Alessia said that being in the sauna with someone, half naked and drenched in sweat, creates a certain sense of vulnerability. “You are kind of already in a vulnerable position because you've never met before and you're just sweating and wearing swimsuits,” Alessia said. “You're kind of just like, ‘alright, let's go for it.’”
They embraced the heat and discovered that opening up in the sauna was easier than opening up across a table during a typical ice cream date.
“You have to get comfortable with the discomfort,” Alessia said. “And with the cold plunge aspect of it too. I feel like anytime that you're doing something that's challenging for you or that you're kind of nervous to do, that's a really good date activity because it gets you out of your shell. It sort of breaks you down to your true self.”
William agrees. “I recommend if any single person is interested in someone else, go sit in the sauna with them for an hour and see how you feel about them after,” he said.
After that first date, both of them knew they wanted to see the other again. Since then, Alessia and William have continually returned to PLUNJ together to grow in their connection throughout dating and after their marriage (though they live out of state now and can’t visit as often). The sauna and cold plunge experience provided much-needed stress relief for them during school, wedding planning, and life in general as they were able to relax and sweat it out, challenge their minds, and focus on the present.
William converted Alessia to contrast therapy, and now they both see it as an important addition to their lifestyle and a favorite shared hobby.
“PLUNJ isn’t an attraction, or a place you go once in a while for fun,” William said. “Contrast therapy is an integral part of life. It can bring health, inspire connection with oneself, and deepen relationships.”