habit shift: steam room.

January 30, 2018

When crouched in a chilly coffee shop, my toes slowly turning to frozen stubs, I fantasize about the hazy white tile steam room at the YMCA in our neighborhood. In case you’re picturing something fancy, it’s white-tiled in the way that some hospitals are—strictly utilitarian and institutional. When the steam goes off, it sounds like a train engine spurring to action. There’s no eucalyptus oil or warm towels, just me and septuagenarians trying to get our bones warmed up.

I’m not trying to be cavalier. My reverence for the steam room is real, though it took something of a learning curve to relax into the habit. I never feel my Catholic upbringing more than when I’m at the Y. While other people at the gym seem content to bask in their nakedness and the burn of physical exertion, I feel compelled to spend my time carefully covering my bare bottom with my tiny Y-issued towel and feeling mildly indulgent for doing something for myself. Workout as penance? Does it count double if I say Hail Marys for the duration? 

Hardwired guilt aside, I confess now that I’m in it for the steam room. My workout routine? A half an hour or so on the elliptical, and no matter what, a mandatory ten minutes spent doing absolutely nothing but letting steam open up every pore on my body.


My friend Jessa likes to say that self-care is everywhere: In a bath, in a glass of water when you’re thirsty, in a candle lit at just the right minute. She’s right.

I just think I’ve often convinced myself that self-care ends rather than begins in those small moments. It’s easy for me to rattle off the ways in a given day that I’ve found a moment to care for myself. Appreciating quiet moments of pause or reflection is an exercise that I’m not just familiar with, but good at! But all of this paying attention to the little stuff has meant that I often ignore bigger stuff, like committing to a regular, sustained exercise routine.

To be sure, there’s a lot of this that’s wrapped up in the being the parent of two small children. In the year after a new baby is born it’s easy for parents to let their tiny charge eclipse their own needs, but it’s also a remarkable irony that in the very moments when people might need to be especially gentle with themselves, we let go of the very things that might make difficult moments…less so.

I wrote back in August about feeling reinvigorated by my morning walk. The truth is that a few weeks after that, James’s more flexible summer hours went away, the morning light crept further and further out of reach, my kid’s sleep habits shifted, and my own rekindled habit, was, well, more or less extinguished. 

Thank goodness that this winter, I finally let myself hear the siren call of the steam room. I go to the gym whenever I’m able. Sometimes it’s before work in the morning, or on an extended lunch break. Often it’s for 45-minutes or so at the end of the day. It’s time that I’d convinced myself I didn’t have, but now that I’ve found it, I’m not letting it go so easily.


In other self-helpy news, I really loved this essay. I’ll be thinking about it in the steam room. 

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  • Reply Laura January 30, 2018 at 11:41 am

    So well written. Thank you.

  • Reply Brady January 30, 2018 at 12:16 pm

    I could have written this! (Not as well, of course – ha!) I have also recently become a steam room devotee and it is also 90% of why I make it to the gym. Enjoy!!

  • Reply Rebecca | Seven2Seven8 January 30, 2018 at 12:47 pm

    With two 2.5-year-olds and a nine-month-old, I needed this reminder. There’s a Y a block away that I can use until it’s warm enough to walk and cycle again. Thank you and I love the point about finding self-care everywhere! Your post came at just the right time.

  • Reply Maryann January 30, 2018 at 12:53 pm

    Thanks for the inspiration! I have been contemplating the sauna at the Y for a long time, but always talk myself out of it because its too indulgent, takes too long, I don’t want to shower, I don’t know how to use it… It’s 19 degrees F here in Portland, Maine today and I’m headed to the Y after work. Maybe today is the day! Sounds so amazing on such a cold day.

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE January 30, 2018 at 1:11 pm

      DO. IT.

  • Reply Ally January 30, 2018 at 1:37 pm

    While your writing always touches me, the ManReppeller essay particularly resonated today. Thank you.

  • Reply Liz January 30, 2018 at 1:54 pm

    I just discovered the steam room also at our Y this winter and it has made this Australian transplant much happier 🙂 My husband refers to the whole process as the ‘tri-bathalon’ (steam, sauna, shower)! I really love going in there after a workout and just taking even fifteen minutes with no phone, usually no one else (though I do often hope someone will come in so I can have a conversation while sitting there . .is that even proper steam room etiquette? and just letting the steam do its work. And yes, our steamroom sounds identical to yours!!

  • Reply Kate January 30, 2018 at 3:59 pm

    Thanks so much for this lovely and inspiring post. I had commented a week or so ago on one of your posts where you mentioned going to the gym every single day (I am still in awe), and appreciate the follow-up in the form of an entire post. I belong to our local gym and indeed they have a steam room, so now I have some extra motivation to squeeze in a workout or two this week just so I can indulge in a bit of extra self care. Thank you, as always, for your thoughtful and encouraging posts (and gentle reminders that we all deserve a little extra self care!).

  • Reply Jen January 30, 2018 at 5:08 pm

    I, too, have been doing some sauna-ing this winter and it’s so, so great. I’ll add myself to the chorus encouraging others to have a go.

  • Reply Trish O January 30, 2018 at 7:52 pm

    I love the idea of the steam room….but I never know what to wear. I never go in. Well, looks like this was the push I need to get my towel around me and get in there.

  • Reply Katie January 30, 2018 at 8:16 pm

    Yesterday was my first day of full time work outside of the home in 5 years and while I’m missing my boys (particularly the squishy 11 week old) I signed myself up for our local y and I can’t wait to establish a routine of going during lunch. The sauna sounds like just the thing for my tense and tired body!

  • Reply Elisabet January 31, 2018 at 6:14 am

    I am Swedish, so, apart from always using the sauna together with my oldest daughter (8) after her swimtraining once a week when I take her there and swim myself when she is training (leaving the early saturday morning training she also has for her father) we also build a small but very nice sauna in our own house when we renovated our laundryroom with shower. Now it is like a spa and since we have three kids we never go to spas so we really appreciate it. Also, it was already an area marked for it in the original plans from the 70’s. It was really common then especially in our area where there was a lot of Finnish people. And I grew up with a sauna in the house too. Being Swedish we are quite comfortable being naked so we actually have friends over for sauna night quite frequently. Anyway, so happy to have a sauna year round here, even in summer after a run in often chillly and wet weather it is so nice. Makes it easier to go out and run when you know you can head into the sauna after.

    • Reply Genevieve January 31, 2018 at 11:24 am


  • Reply Sarah January 31, 2018 at 11:40 am

    I appreciate the Y locker room as an antidote to under-representation of diverse body types in the media. Being around bodies of all shapes and sizes, in all stages of aging, brings refreshing perspective that’s not centered on being thin and 20 years old forever.

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE January 31, 2018 at 12:52 pm

      Agreed! A friend and I were just talking about this–so great for kids and grow ups alike!

    • Reply Mo October 10, 2018 at 5:38 am

      I know that going to the sauna makes wonders for my body insecurities becase I am reminded that we all have different bodies and that is good.

  • Reply Eva January 31, 2018 at 1:55 pm

    Never, ever feel bad about taking what you need. I grew up thinking a lot about other people’s needs and wants, and it’s taken me a long time to get to the point where I don’t feel guilty about taking care of myself. Also, if my husband and I ever buy a house, it will DEFINITELY have a sauna or steamroom in it. Sometimes I think I could live in a spa! Haha.

  • Reply Sari January 31, 2018 at 2:49 pm

    Me and my half-Finnish children are working (me by working more, the children by agreeing to go to aftercare on more days) towards saving for a sauna on our Canadian backyard. I don’t think our sauna fund will reach a critical mass this year yet, but I’m dreaming about it almost daily!
    Also my 5-y-old has started to measure expensive, important things by asking “will it cost as much as a sauna?”.

  • Reply Addie January 31, 2018 at 11:25 pm

    Next, to the Korean Spa!

  • Reply Katie February 1, 2018 at 8:47 pm

    Our Y has a strict stay-clothed policy in the sauna (we don’t have a steam room)! But honestly–that was my favorite part of going there in the winter. Best part? There’s no wifi signal in the sauna.

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