During the month of July, I spent a great deal of time at the NZ Pop-Up Sauna on the Wellington waterfront. The first day we arrived in Wellington, my partner, Sam, fell in love with the waterfront area. As he began looking for jobs during our first weeks here, he decided he wanted to create his own work, setting up a pop-up sauna on the Wellington waterfront. This is something I really love and admire about Sam. The Wellington harbour is perhaps the most prized real estate in New Zealand’s capital city and we had been in the country less than a month, but he knew he had a great idea and set about making it happen. It turns out, the Wellington City Council was just as excited about the idea as we were and on July 1st, less than 7 months after we arrived in the country, the NZ Pop-Up Sauna opened its doors.
The NZ Pop-Up Sauna has been every bit as fun as we expected, but the piece I didn’t see coming is what an amazing community builder the sauna would be. Day after day, friendships were formed in the sauna, regulars kept coming back, and a community began to grow.
In my research here, I am looking at the ritual properties of Restorative Justice Conferences that contribute to their effectiveness as a transformational space and their ability to build positive communities. The more I witnessed the power of the sauna, the more I saw those same ritual properties building connection and feelings of belonging among the sauna-goers.
I did two short writings to reflect on the sauna as a community builder. The first is a free-flow creative writing reflection. The second draws on Victor Turner’s theory of ritual to help understand the experience taking place.
In Restorative Practices, we talk a lot about relationship building and how it is the foundation of Restorative Communities. The question is how do we build relationships with the same qualities (equality, openness, creativity) we see emerging in restorative justice conferences? The common ritual properties seem to be at the base of what forms these profound experiences of connection and offer a theoretical framework from which we can draw practical tools to build restorative communities.
When you enter the NZ Pop-Up Sauna…
When you enter the NZ Pop-Up Sauna, you are entering a different sort of space, a space apart from your normal life.
Shedding you winter layers, you don your swimsuit, wrestled out from the back of your drawer where it has been hibernating since summer. Tip toeing across the cold pavement, cold Welly wind on your skin, you step in through the sliding door and start to feel the warmth of the place.
Behind a solid cedar door, dimly-lit wooden benches invite you. The weight of the heat may silence you for a moment, but soon you’ll look around and begin to reach out to your sauna companions.
Sweat is a great equalizer.
What you do, what you wear, who you talk to outside of the sauna all melts away and leaves behind salty, sweaty, water-guzzling common humanity. There is connection. You belong here. Maybe you and your new friends will get up the gumption to take a leap into the ocean. You will dare each other and cheer each other on. In that moment when your warm skin hits the icy waves, you’ll feel awake and alive. You’ll hurry together back into the warmth of the sauna and laugh about the belly flop or your crazy sea hair.
Finally, you will feel your body is satiated by the heat. Walking flat footed and up-right on the cool pavement this time, you will find yourself back in the changing rooms, pulling on your winter layers, wringing out your swimsuit.
You are going back to your normal life, but your hair still smells like sweat and sea and your lips still feel like smiling.
The NZ Pop-Up Sauna Understood through the Lens of Victor Turner’s Theory of Ritual
During the month of July, we have seen the NZ Pop-Up Sauna form an incredible little waterfront community. Each day, we watch people enter as strangers and emerge laughing together, ready to take a leap into the ocean, exchanging phone numbers and high-fives. Fun and different experiences have a way of forming friendships, but the sauna is also drawing on ritual properties that serve to bring people together in a profound way. Out of this ritual state, deep feelings of belonging and connection emerge. These are the feelings human beings crave and they keep people coming back again and again.
Victor Turner has identified three phases of the ritual process: separation, limen, and reaggregation. During separation, the ritual participants are symbolically detached from everyday life and enter a consecrated space. At the NZ Pop-Up Sauna, guests first enter the changing room and bravely strip off their warm winter layers to put on a bathing suit and towel. Clothing and signifiers of roles and social groupings are literally stripped away and the sauna-goers are equalized through their scarce apparel. Entering through cedar door, there is dim, warm lighting and an immediate heavy warmth. The noise of the waterfront is muffled and everything slows down. The guests take a seat on the wooden benches and have entered the ritual space.
Next, sauna guests enter the limen phase of ritual. Liminality is characterized by radical equality. As they sweat together, thoughts turn to unifying human experiences and characteristics, rather than those that divide us. Communitas emerges out of liminality. Turner describes communitas as a recognition of a generalized social bond. Sauna goers experience being one interconnected community, and a sense of their own belonging in that community.
When it is time to leave the sauna, the guests go through the third phase of the ritual process, reaggregation, and reenter the structures of society in a transformed way. The winter clothes are donned again and the cell phones click back on, but the experience of connection from the sauna has transformed the individual. More often than not, guests will be back soon to experience that connection again.
This individual transformation and experience of connection ultimately impacts the on-going life of the greater community as more and more people begin to act in accordance with the sensation of belonging and connection they have experienced. This is the key to healthy, safe communities: fostering a space where people can connect on an equal plane and experience the emotional energy of that connection. We all crave that experience. It is why many of us go out drinking. Alcohol has its own way of subverting normal social roles and rules and equalizing and connecting us. Unfortunately, alcohol also has negative impacts from health to social interactions. It is our responsibility to be more creative in generating this deeply important human experience. The NZ Pop-Up Sauna is a shining example of the creative connection spaces we must build.