There are two types of people in this world: there are those who go to saunas for relaxation. Then there are those who turn relaxation into a competition. Yes, there are literally people who go to saunas to challenge one another on who can stay in a sauna the longest. Back in 2010 I read a story about that Russian guy who died in a sauna competition in Finland. The relaxation aspect of it I can get, but I think it’s a bit crazy that people take it to a whole new level and put their bodies through stress just for sport.
On my recent jaunt to Germany, I visited to the town Wiesbaden, a town known for it’s hot springs and saunas. It’s your typical south German spa-town (hence the name “baden”). After two weeks of backpacking, I decided to try out the relaxation benefits of saunas and went to the Kaiser Friedrich Therme, which is described as an “Irish-Roman Bath”. It was a luxurious — ornate ceramic tiles, several pools all different temperatures, a wide range of steam rooms and saunas, illustrious ceiling paintings and Roman columns, a juice bar — I felt like a GODDESS!
Now, if you’ve never been to a bath house or sauna in Europe, prepare yourself, because part of the challenge isn’t just trying to outlast the heat — it’s trying to outlast the heat while bare naked! That’s right. Unless you specifically hunt down a facility that isn’t “textile free” then you are going to have to drop all concerns about body image. But, you’re not alone. Everyone is naked with you, so if you were one of those people who could only do a presentation in class if you imagined everyone naked, then you’ll be fine. Luckily, I visited on Lady’s Night, so all I had to witness was all of the gorgeous sizes and shapes that the female body comes in.
After showering and getting comfortable in my nudity, I decided to see just how relaxing these saunas could be. There were so many different types of sauna experiences and temperatures to choose from. The Stone Steam Bath and the Sudatorium where reminiscent of your run-of-the-mill saunas. The Russian Steam Bath was like walking into a cloud — the constant steam felt great on my sinuses though. My favorite part of the Kaiser Friedrich Therme was switching back and forth between the Thermal Sitting Pool, which was 37° C, and the Cold Water Pool, which was at 23° C. At first it was shocking on my body, switching between hot and cold, but eventually my body no longer felt the temperature change. It was invigorating!
By this point I felt like a sauna champ. Sure, I took breaks in between to recooperate as you’re supposed to, but overall this wasn’t that hard on the body at all. I conquered the sauna!
That’s when I decided to see just how far I could push it. I became that second type of person and I got a little competitive. There was one sauna that I hadn’t yet tried. It was called the Finnish Sauna. I’ve come to learn that the concept of the Finnish Sauna is to take you through all of the circles of Hell. Every hour on the hour would be what’s called the “infusion” where they would create steam with water infused with herbs and other aromas to help detoxify and enhance the sauna experience. Sounds great… in theory.
In practice, “infusion” is more like this.
You take your seat in a room that is already 85° – 90° C. Then a naked, burly man comes in and tells you in a gruff, south German dialect about the infusion with an emphasizes on the fact that YOU CANNOT LEAVE THE ROOM until the infusion is complete. He then ladles the aromatic water over the rocks. Steam begins to fill the room — it feels quite nice at first. He continues. There’s more steam and it’s starting to get a little hot. Suddenly, he stops. Wonderful, we can leave — that was the perfect amount of Finnish Sauna. No! Instead of leaving, the burly man then takes a towel and whips the hot air and steam off of the rocks and directly INTO YOUR FACE. The intensity of the heat makes it almost impossible to breathe because it feels like you’re burning the inside of your respiratory system. He then repeats this life threatening process three more times.
Elenor Roosevelt once said, “a woman is like a tea bag. You never know how strong she is until she’s in hot water.” Well, baby, I was steeping. By round two I slowly began inching closer to the door in hopes it would be a few degrees cooler closer to the exit. The heat kept getting more intense — I thought my face would melt off. By the end of round three, my entire consciousness was focused on not throwing up and passing out. I was finished in the Finnish sauna. OH GOD — LIKE THAT RUSSIAN GUY IN FINLAND!
When the infusion was finally finished, I was the first one out of the room — I practically trampled the naked German man who did the infusion on my frantic search for relief. I dove into one of the showers to cool my body off, ran for the bathroom to gather myself. Luckily, nothing awful happened. I guzzled a gallon of water from the sink, stared at myself in the mirror, and gave myself a little pep talk. “You win — Kae Lani — You win at sauna. I then went to one of the rest areas and flopped into a lounge chair. My body was still soaked from a cocktail of sweat, steam, and shower, but I didn’t give a damn — my body had literally gone through Hell and back.
Relaxation can be hard work.