Sunday, 24 April 2011

Sweat, Baby, Sweat ... Visiting the Sauna

For quite a number of weeks now, I’ve been having back trouble. It’s a permanent possibility that people like me who work in the nursing area have to live with – despite all the tricks you’ve learned (and hopefully internalised) about lifting properly and using all the technical aids (like raising beds to working heights, etc.). In the heat of an emergency situation, or just as a result of slowly growing muscle tension after too long or too many shifts, sometimes something can just get pushed over the edge and you’re left with the painful result.

In my case, it seems to be a trapped nerve in my shoulder/upper back. After a couple of weeks of swallowing pain-killers and hoping that it would go away on its own, I finally surrendered to reality and paid a visit to the doctor. He diagnosed the trapped nerve – thus going a long way to silencing the pessimistic demon who’d been whispering dire predictions of disc damage to my overactive imagination – set an injection and prescribed rest.

There are worse things than a week’s sick leave in spring, especially when the reason for it isn’t a totally debilitating illness which confines you to bed and has you feeling continuously miserable. The week of rest helped considerably with the back pain, even if it hadn’t been long enough to get it to clear up completely. I therefore decided that I was fit enough to go working again. I further decided to spend the last day of my prescribed idleness doing something that I was certain would significantly aid my recuperation.

Remscheid, the town in which I live, is lucky to have a first-class public sauna. So on a sunny spring morning I made my way to the H20 Bathing and Sauna Paradise. H20 was built by the city in the wealthy days of the 80s, before the fall of the iron curtain brought the financial intensive care patient otherwise known as East Germany and globalisation hit old industrial towns like Remscheid, when Germany’s cities still had lots of money for such projects. Nowadays they don’t and the swimming complexes have to pay for themselves. Unusually for public run projects, the city made some good decisions here and expanded the swimming complex by adding a luxurious sauna area, which has an extremely good reputation and attracts visitors from far beyond the city boundaries. One on-line ranking list by insiders puts it in fourth place in Europe. At € 22 (around $ 30) for a day ticket it’s not exactly cheap but the investment is well worth while.

The sauna section of H20 has ten different saunas, each with its own particular character, ranging from a humid Turkish bath to a small half-buried wooden blockhouse with an open fire and a dry heat temperature of 110° C. Some of these are indoor, inside a complex which also includes resting rooms, comfortable seating around two open fires, a massage area, a whirlpool and a restaurant. The others are in the landscaped open area along with a number of pools (warm and cold), a secluded meadow area with sun loungers and a long, five-meter high wall of cut and shaped blackthorn twigs where water from deep natural reservoirs, rich in various mineral salts, continually splashes down to create an invigorating healthy mist.

The first thing a stranger to the sauna culture in Germany and Austria has to get used to is that nudity is mandatory inside the various saunas, and optional in most of the public area (though frowned on in the restaurant). This has good practical reasons, for the sauna is, above all, about serious sweating and this is best done naked on a towel. Germany has an old and respected nudist movement which may have something to do with the unexcited matter-of-factness with which nudity is viewed in the sauna setting.

There is nothing prurient and indeed very little that is erotic about such nudity. When the heat is making you gasp and the sweat is dripping in your eyes, the state of undress of your neighbour on the wooden bank next to you is the least of your concerns. Although, on reflection, I must qualify this statement. One reason why the nakedness of your neighbour is of so little concern to you is precisely because everyone is naked. There is an understated honest democracy about the whole situation. You realise very quickly that very few people have “perfect” bodies and one experiences an uplifting, liberating acceptance of one’s own less than godlike form in an environment where all are unselfconscious about the various parts of their anatomies which bulge, or sag, or are floppy or chubby.

Anyway, you don’t go to the sauna primarily to look at other people, you go there to sweat, more accurately, to sweat as part of a process which is conducive to deep relaxation. Good German saunas have developed a procedure where this is optimised – the ritual known as the Aufguss (an adequate English translation does not exist).

In private saunas, or those booked by a group of friends, the normal Finnish tradition is usually followed, whereby a wooden tub of water is placed near the hot stones on the oven and is poured with a ladle onto the stones to create steam. Because water is a much better conductor of heat than air, the sudden raising of the humidity in the sauna creates a subjective feeling of an intensification of heat, leading to an increase in sweating. The German tradition formalises and develops this practice.

At regular intervals the Aufguss is carried out. The guests gather in the designated sauna area and the Saunameister (or meisterin) takes the stage. He or she brings a bucket of water, generally mixed with an infusion of essential oils. The door is then closed and a measured amount of the scented water is ladled onto the hot stones. You feel the temperature rise sharply but that is only the beginning. The Saunameister then takes a large towel and begins to fan the air, taking the warmest back down from the ceiling where it has risen and driving it in your direction, sometimes as a sharp wind, sometimes as a gentle breeze. After a few minutes, the process is repeated.

The increasingly humid air in the sauna feels hotter and hotter. After the second round with the towel, a few honest souls admit to themselves that they have had enough and bolt for the door. The rest of us stay on, every pore in our body wide open and pumping sweat just as hard as they can. Perspiration is an automatic reaction by the body to try to cool itself; the evaporation of moisture leads to cooling in the normal course of events. This is not the normal course of events, for in the heavily hydrated hot air of the sauna no evaporation can take place. So the sweat pours down your body instead, purging you (at least minimally) of all sorts of waste products and poisons which have gathered in your skin in the vicinity of your pores.

And then the Saunameister ladles the rest of the water in his bucket onto the stones. Once more there’s the hiss of instantly boiling water. He takes his towel and begins to whip the superheated air in your direction. He’s really putting his back into it now and you don’t envy him; just sitting here is hard enough, the idea of having to work under these conditions doesn’t bear thinking about. From various corners of the room you hear involuntary gasps, but you know that it’s nearly over now. He wishes you pleasant sweating and there are murmurs of thanks, perhaps even some polite applause. Most of the guests follow him quickly out of the sauna.

Now comes the difficult – but in my opinion – essential part. After leaving the sauna, immerse yourself completely in a cold pool or take a quick cold shower (originally the Finns came out of the sauna and rolled naked in the snow!). You can feel all your pores slamming shut with the shock, your heart takes a leap and your blood pressure briefly bounces up as a result of the sudden constriction of your blood vessels in response to the cold. Half a minute or so is quite long enough and when you’ve towelled off you’ll find that you’re still basically warm from the sauna – even if you’re standing naked, outside, in winter.

As your heartbeat comes back down to a normal pace you find a marvellous sensation of complete physical relaxation setting in. Now is the time to put on a bathrobe and find somewhere comfortable to sit or lie down. In winter I often make my way to a comfortable armchair or lounger in front of one of the open fires; when the weather is warm (as it was on my last visit) I usually make my way to what they call “The Garden of Stillness” in H20, where no talking is allowed, and sit or lie in the sunshine.

One of the positive characteristics of our local sauna complex is a sense of peace and stillness. This is not the case everywhere and I have been to other complexes where there is an atmosphere of bonhomie more suited to a barbeque party. Some may enjoy it, but my own preference is expressed well in the Finnish saying, “saunassa ollaan kuin kirkossa,” – you should sit in the sauna as in a church. It is not a coincidence that the sweat lodge has deep religious significance in the Native American culture. The Finnish word löyly is, so the experts say, impossible to translate completely but it is generally used to describe the heat of the sauna room. It also, however, has other connotations denoting “spirit,” “soul” and “life.” For me there is something meditative about a day in the sauna, the deep physical relaxation freeing the mind to think of … nothing.

Usually, the last Aufguss I take part in is a traditional Finnish one, which H20 offers three times daily, the birch ceremony. In this, the sprinkling on the hot stones is done with bunches of leafy birch twigs which have been previously soaked in the water for a number of hours and the heated air is fanned with the twig bunches instead of with towels. For the third round, you can turn your back to the Saunameister or (if there is enough room) lie on your stomach and have your back lightly beaten with the twigs.

Pure, unadulterated physical luxury. We all need it every once in a while.

Pictures retrieved from:


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