At its best a sauna is a place of extremes. And sometimes it requires all my will to take it to the max. It’s not the heat that gets me so much as the cold.
The sauna I frequent is a little hut at the bottom of the garden. (Fairytale settings just spring from the German ether – thank you, Brothers Grimm) Around 5.30pm the potbelly is lit with pine. About an hour later it’s ready – depending on the ambient temperature and one’s predilection for heat. Fifty degrees Celsius is sufficient for my ageing parents. (Bear in mind that the highest air temperature ever recorded in Death Valley was 57°C (134°F) in July 1913.) However, for me it still feels clammy at 60 degrees.
Crank it up to 72 though, and I feel like I’m back burning firebreaks in my farming childhood. It’s bearable. But when someone throws water on the hot rocks it sears my skin until I feel like it’s peeling off. When I see someone reaching for the water pot and ladle, I draw my legs in and scramble to pull my towel over my back and head. Water vapour carries the heat from the rocks more efficiently than dry air.
Another trick to raise the perceived temperature is to whirl a towel above the occupants’ heads like a helicopter. The hot air is forced down in a suffocating cushion.
Traditionally, a sauna-goer rushes out into the snow or a cold lake to douse the fire within, render extremities unusable and undergo the thrilling torture of a switch between extreme temperatures. Because we always sauna in summer, we use a shower – a very cold one. Generally, the best I can do on my initial round is to apply water to my face, the back of my neck and down my legs. In the spirit of the sauna, I gradually increase my exposure over subsequent rounds as I heat up. Even so, the startling cold on my back always elicits a shock-coping gasp or squeal. The pleasure comes when the tap is turned off – a warm blanket spreads over me.
Between rounds, we sit outside on the swing seat, throbbing. Red currants (Johannisbeere) and raspberries (Himbeere) stand ripening in the field on the other side of the wooden palings. The smells of blossoms, Black Forest pine, cow manure and souring silage mingle in the air. With a cool beverage in hand and a wedge of ridiculously cheap brie at my side I am utterly content.
We have a yarn then amble back in for the next round. One day, six of us decided to go back in at the same time. I found myself crammed in the cubicle with the door shut, waiting for my turn to mount the steps, stake a claim, spread my towel and settle on the bench. I felt as if I was on Mt Everest in one of the famed traffic jams. The main difference of course was that the buttocks quivering with strain in front of me, and in which my nose was almost literally buried, were, in fact, naked.
Things are fairly relaxed in the sauna. The BB guffawed prior to our first trip when I told him I’d packed my bathers for the sauna. “It’ll be awful – sweaty and sticky and clingy.” Better, I thought, than being awful – bunched up with passing acquaintances with whom I hadn’t quite reached the level of intimacy where I expose my breasts and other bits as a prerequisite to conversation. However, sang froid to the fore. One doesn’t want to appear too constrained by Victorian sensibilities.
Now, years of saunas later, I am positively European, indeed almost Finnish, in my attitudes. Nevertheless, this is no peep show; rather, it is the serious business of relaxation. And health.
Our hosts and their guests attribute their good health (lack of respiratory illnesses, improved performance during exercise as well as general insusceptibility to ‘bugs’) to their frequent saunas. Indeed, the benefits of and counter-indications for saunas are well-documented.
This trip, we decided to give the sauna a really good go. The fire was ramped up, the dreaded water placed at the ready. Cooling drinks and camembert were in position.
At 84° my eyelids felt hot when I blinked. I tried to a) remember to look up, not down to protect them and b) not to blink too often. I switched to mouth breathing because inhaling through my nose burnt the skin around the base of my nostrils. Then, it felt like my trachea was drying all the way to my lungs.
I rarely sweat, in or out of the sauna, but I could feel droplets creeping, tickling through my hair and sliding down my underarms.
The first water went on at 86°. That was fine although my sunburn was bubbling.
I got out the first time, not because I was uncomfortable but because my hair was so hot and stiff I thought it might spontaneously combust. Before I went though, and after everyone else had vacated, I moved to a different position. Yow! Rapid relocation of my feet to the spots on my towel where they were originally resting. The remainder of the towel was too hot for them.
My smouldering skin turned the shower warm. I splashed it over myself with ease. No noises needed.
Outside, the breeze, uncomfortably cold before we started, was pleasantly balmy. I ruminated on the joys of being able to routinely handle low temperatures with such ease.
The second water was thrown over the rocks at 82°. Because of the moisture already in the air, it felt like a blunt axe was being taken to my windpipe.
When the sauna had emptied, I lay down to see how I’d cope with extra time. Despite the space (or because of it), it felt like a cocoon – just me and my body. I was concerned though, that if I relaxed too much, the heat would cause my brain to lose the ability to accurately process what was happening to my body, leading me to stay in too long and inadvertently damage myself.
My body was so hot that when the shower droplets hit it, they evaporated like beads of water on the element of an electric stove. At that temperature the after-shower blanket left on my skin was hot.
We topped out that day at 88.5°. The number seemed high at the time but when the sauna was new, the owners, putting it through its paces, reached 120°C (248°F). The window in the door cracked from top to bottom.
A sauna visit has spikes of hot and cold and the opportunity to challenge oneself at extremes. But more than that, the sauna has a cycle, a rhythm, like a day or a year or the patterns of a life. It gives time for companionship and community – around the hearth and in the fresh air; time for aloneness; time for food; the chance to simply be in your body in space; the chance to be warm without effort.
It gives rejuvenation and peace.