On the third floor of Payne Whitney Gymnasium, there is a room that resembles Beta on a bad night. Sweaty people crowd into a small, dark space, but here, there isn’t any music and the thermometer on the wall creeps toward two hundred degrees. Here, in the locker room saunas of Yale’s gym, hot and sweaty is as good as it gets.

At a first glance, the women’s locker room feels more like middle school P.E. than a Finnish spa retreat. The lockers are bright reds, oranges, and yellows. The blonde wooden benches glisten like new, which they almost are — the room was renovated in late 2003, according to Edward Mockus, Associate Director of PWG. Red and yellow accents pop up here and there in the white tile walls; the floors are institutional. The entire second half of the color spectrum seems to have been forgotten.

But the sauna itself is exempt from this decorating scheme. All classic wooden walls and benches, this sanctum sanctorum of PWG304 is infinitely more mature than its garish surroundings. The view afforded by a single glass wall is somewhat less than cultured — sinks, a bathing suit dryer and the occasional nude passerby — but the serene hiss of steam and the aroma of cedar set the sauna apart from its surroundings. Even the clientele are more mature; undergrads are a rare sight. Most of them seem to think they have to drive out to Ikea for a little dose of Scandinavia.

The evening is when the cedar-paneled chamber sees the most business. Tonight, a young architect from the firm Pelli Clarke Pelli is sitting cross-legged on the top bench, eyes closed. On the lower bench sit Elise DeMayo and Louise Danishevsky, wrapped in colorful towels. They are Yale staffers with Health Services and Economic Growth, respectively, and frequent visitors to the sauna.

“After we exercise, it’s our desert,” DeMayo says. “It’s relaxing, and we can dry our hair. We recommend it.” She and Danishevsky like it in here, and come in a few times a week, whenever they shower at the gym. They see a mix of people soaking up the heat, but the students they meet are mostly in graduate schools.

Most undergrads seem completely unaware of the sauna’s existence. Use of most of the lockers requires a paying membership, and the keypad that unlocks the door implies exclusivity. Rachelle Orozco ’07, who only knows about the sauna “because of working at the gym,” confirms that undergrads are welcome to use the sauna and says that all of the locks are opened by the room number and the pound sign. But that doesn’t mean she has ever been inside. “I don’t have the time,” she explains.

And so, during the day, at times when only students might use facilities, the sauna sits empty — mostly. Jing Xia ’08, who swims recreationally, although not as often as she would like, says that the chance to relax in the sauna is welcome.

After a while, though, even the hardiest can’t take the heat. The wood and glass door sticks a little, and it takes a good shove to get out, but the cold world calls.