I Got High Naturally in an Infrared Sauna

girl in infrared sauna illustration
Jason Hoffman/Thrillist
Jason Hoffman/Thrillist

Last week I went to a sauna to get high. Well, really I went because I wanted to see if it would make my skin look amazing (another promise that had been made). But the idea of getting "high" is what brought me skeptically into HigherDOSE -- and after 30 minutes under the sweltering 150-degree heat of an infrared light, I had to admit to myself that I actually felt something. Like I’d taken some variation of the pill from Limitless, without all the haziness and bad business deals with Robert De Niro. I felt clear-headed, relaxed, and ready to work and write and come up with new ideas. I wanted to answer 100 emails. Perhaps it was placebo -- maybe I wanted so badly to believe in the possibility of baby-smooth skin and higher brain power that I convinced myself it was all working. Or maybe it actually was.

I’m a self-centered twenty-something who hunches over a computer all day and complains a lot, so I’m generally a fan of any sort of spa treatment, but that didn’t make me any less doubtful of HigherDOSE's promises. A co-worker even joked before I went that “everyone must be totally miserable and overworked and saddled with student debt if feeling relaxed and pretty good can be called ‘getting high.’”

It wasn't just the pseudo-drug references that made me pause: HigherDOSE’s owners, Lauren Berlingeri and Katie Kaps, describe their infrared saunas as ”a workout, a massage, acupuncture, and a facial in one,” and the treatment itself bears the promise of detoxification, relaxation, calorie burning, pain relief, anti-aging and skin purification, cell health, and improved circulation. (DOSE stands for Dopamine, Oxytocin, Serotonin, and Endorphins). That's, well, a lot. 

“People notice the difference right away -- they walk out floating and feeling amazing.” - Katie Kaps, co-owner of HigherDOSE

Could one sauna session really do all that? Was it also going to turn me into some sort of mythical creature with Olivia Wilde’s face and Chrissy Teigen's body? Surprisingly, my pessimistic research insisted that the benefits weren't that far-fetched. Infrared heat essentially functions the same way the sun heats the earth, and has all the benefits of natural sunlight, minus the potential harm of solar radiation. It’s even been recommended for cancer patients.

So I made an appointment after work, held faint hope that the Wilde-Teigen centaur transformation idea would also prove true, and prepared myself, at the very least, to sweat more than I ever had before.

HigherDOSE infrared sauna
Keziban Barry

If you think a luxury spa with the slogan “get high naturally” sounds very LA, well, you're completely right. Lauren and Katie saw that spas with infrared saunas were doing well on the West Coast, and were inspired to open New York's very first. (There are other healing centers in the city, like Release NYC and Gravity, that offer infrared sauna sessions, but no modern, luxury spas like this one). The duo started their business by installing infrared heating systems in popular hot yoga studios like Y7 and Yoga Vida, but the 5,000sqft spot, located below tonic/elixir bar The Alchemist's Kitchen on East 1st St, is their first proper spa.

According to them, infrared heaters are much better for you than regular heaters used during hot yoga. “Not only is infrared a healthier heat, but it also kills bacteria. And it’s not as exhausting as typical heating systems are, so you still get that deep sweat, but you don’t feel overly hot or overly depleted,” Lauren says. “People notice the difference right away -- they walk out floating and feeling amazing as opposed to all shaky.” The same goes for the saunas, apparently.

Lauren and Katie are probably the best form of advertising for this place -- they’re both beautiful unicorn goddesses with sun-kissed skin that appears to have been stolen straight from a toddler’s face. They seem perpetually unstressed, too. Knowing they use the infrared sauna every day makes you want to throw down money for a package on the spot.

“New Yorkers need this more than anyone,” Lauren says. “This lifestyle of the city -- constant noise, hustling, stressing, extra coffee, go-go-go, not enough sleep… we need to be in a place of healing and to get rid of toxins. There’s not much out there that removes toxins out of your body, besides workouts. But with working out or traditional saunas, you remove 3% of toxins -- with infrared, you remove 20%.”

Even though the infrared saunas are considerably less hot than traditional saunas (they’re kept at 150 degrees, rather than the standard 212), Lauren and Katie swear you get twice the sweat out of it. The spa offers a 30-minute session ($45) and a 60-minute session ($65), but I decided to go for the full hour because, LOOK AT THEIR SKIN!

HigherDOSE infrared sauna
Keziban Barry

The saunas are located inside private, dimly lit rooms; mine had a bench, some candles, a glass water dispenser, and the pièce de résistance: the infrared sauna. The sauna itself is essentially a part-glass, part-wood box with a small wooden bench to sit on, and a square light that beams down color from the ceiling.

Once you’re inside the sauna, you can choose whatever color infrared light you want via a remote. They suggest choosing the color that speaks to you first, and then reading the booklet, which is located in a cabinet inside the sauna box, to find out what your color choice means. I chose yellow, which is supposed to “[increase] fun, humor, lightness, personal power, intellect, logic, and creativity.” Of course I already have all of these qualities, but it's important to always stay grounded and dream big.

My immediate anxiety going into the treatment was that it was going to be exceptionally boring to sit there alone with nothing to do for an hour. I don’t mean that in the sense that I can’t live without Instagram for an hour. I mean that there’s a difference between trying to tune out for an hour while someone massages your back and trying to tune out for an hour while sitting alone in a 150-degree box. But since this is 2016 and HigherDOSE is clearly catering towards a certain kind of person, there’s a cabinet inside the sauna to charge your phone, and you can hook your phone up to the speakers to play music while you’re in there. I chose to play Lemonade and promptly noticed that on “Hold Up,” Beyoncé sings, “what’s WORST, lookin’ jealous or crazy,” instead of “what’s worse.” That’s weird! But I digress.

The first 30 minutes went by shockingly fast. I was drenched in sweat but I felt good -- like how I imagine the beginning of a run might feel if you were the type of person who enjoyed running instead of watching 16 back-to-back episodes of The X-Files. I did some stretching, rolled my legs out with a roller, and felt my skin turn slick and Gumby-like. I didn’t feel bored at all. And then, somewhere into “Formation,” it happened. I felt myself growing more alert and awake. I wrote this entire article in my head from start to finish.

Lauren and Katie say they take all their business calls inside the sauna because it’s where they get their best thinking done, and as absurd as it sounds I can see how it could be true. I genuinely felt like I had the drive to come up with new ideas and be productive -- and not in some drug-induced way where it felt like my mind was racing -- but in a way where I felt I was thinking with a calmer and clearer head than ever before. 

Around the 45-minute mark I noticed that my heart was beating faster. Lauren later told me that’s a good thing, and I wasn’t actually going into cardiac arrest as I had momentarily convinced myself. “An infrared session is like doing a light jog, so of course when you’re doing a light jog your heart rate’s going to be going, and it’s actually extremely healthy for you, because you’re getting that fresh pump of blood through the body -- ultimately, the more your blood is flowing, the more increased circulation to the brain,” she said. As someone who’s done a light jog exactly zero times, this was vaguely new information, and made me lean even further into the idea that I was indeed getting some sort of natural high out of this.

I felt I was thinking with a calmer and clearer head than ever before. 

I made it out of the sauna with nine minutes left on the clock. They recommend trying to get to at least 30-45 minutes, so I felt mildly accomplished. And those last 10 minutes were brutal. I tried taking deep breaths, which helped, but ultimately I was just too hot and starting to feel dizzy. But when I walked out of that room I felt great. That combo punch of relaxation and stimulation that I experienced inside the sauna followed me out into the street, and I was powering through emails at an insane rate. Also, my skin was baby-butt smooth.

When I got home, I still felt the effects of that “natural high.” I breezed through several projects, prepared for meetings later in the week, and finally got myself to inbox zero. I seemingly accomplished more than I had during the day. Even better, I got into bed and fall fast asleep at 11:30 without a single scroll through Twitter. 

higherDOSE infrared sauna
Keziban Barry

Lauren says that all New Yorkers should be working infrared sauna sessions into their weekly routines -- before a big date, or in between stressful meetings, for instance. "If you’re a beginner, try to come twice a week," she says, "You can get all the benefits from a half-hour session.” For those who don’t lead super-healthy lifestyles, Lauren and Katie suggest coming one to two times a week for 30 minutes, and then building from there. If you eat healthy and work out frequently, they say to come three to four times a week. “There’s nothing like it, and you’re going to notice everything improve in your life from it,” Lauren says.

For most people living in New York, there’s probably not a budget for $45 sauna trips three to four times a week, but it’s worth it to experience it at least once -- even if only to feel that spectacular drive to clear through all your unread emails.

Perhaps there’s also a bigger movement happening here -- HigherDOSE isn’t New York’s only source for getting “high” without drugs or alcohol. Kavasutra on 10th St offers a drinkable form of the South Pacific kava root, which they tout as a “relaxing social drink.” Does that mean New Yorkers will now be starting their Friday nights at the sauna and ending them at the kava bar? No, definitely not. But I will tell you that a week after going to the infrared sauna, I’ve already contemplated going back several times. Maybe it was all just an extreme reaction to finally setting my phone aside and tuning out the world for an hour with no other distractions save for Beyoncé, but that euphoric combination of lightness, creativity, relaxation, and productivity has led me to the belief that I, somehow, totally got high in a sauna.

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Lucy Meilus is Thrillist's New York Editor and has never sweat this much. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.