The Ritual That Will Supercharge Your Sauna Sessions

We recently got acquainted with "aufguss," a Northern European pastime

November 6, 2023 6:41 am
A "saunameister" performing aufguss in a sauna.
Your sauna experience doesn't have to be a dull sufferfest. In many countries around the world, it's accompanied by a multi-sensory show.
picture alliance via Getty Image

“I’m working on a two-day streak since I last hit someone,” Alex said, beginning to sling the spa towel around his fingers and forearms with the self-assuredness of a Friday pizzaiolo.

“Just kidding,” he added, getting a laugh from our group of 25, most of us sitting cross-legged in bathing suits or bikinis. Finally, the stinger: “It’s actually just a one-day streak. Let’s have a great sweat…and a good time.” He launched the towel into the 170°F air, whipping warm wind into every corner of the subterranean sauna. The terrycloth danced from his knuckles to his elbows, sometimes lurching dangerously close to the foreheads of those in the front row, though never actually lashing someone in the face.

After a bit of posturing, Alex took a handful of snowballs from a platter, and deposited them on the igneous stones piled up across the room’s four stoves. As the ice turned to vapor, he ladled scoops of balsamic essential oils — sage and cypress — into the steam. Celtic music, as promised at the very start of the session, began to crescendo.

I sat back, not knowing what to think — and what a rarity that was, what a relief. Surrounded by flutes and fiddles, drowning in aromatics, sweating with purpose, and watching this talented man prance around like some sort of Saturnalia steward, I felt equal parts overwhelmed and relaxed. All hail aufguss.

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Aufguss, Explained

Clearly, my most recent session wasn’t the typical sauna affair (what I’d describe as rows of strangers with Airpods in, sweating on each other’s feet). New York City’s popular Bathhouse includes aufguss offerings as part of its daily programming; five times a day, a “saunameister” invites everyone scattered throughout the Williamsburg-based spa to head to the Tropical Sauna for a 10-minute show.

Our attendance was nearly 100%. That’s partly because there are only so many times one can cycle between a cold pool, a hot pool, and a very hot pool before looking for inspiration elsewhere. But also because aufguss is still a relatively unheralded experience in the States. The collective intrigue was genuine and palpable.

While sauna sessions are often seen here as means to an end, a sort of wellness podcast recommendation (re: increase heart health with three dedicated sessions a week), they have a rich heritage in Northern Europe as a shared social experience. In Finland — the planet’s undisputed sauna mecca — locals are known to take business meetings and even cook sausages inside saunas.

Aufguss, stemming from the German word “infusion” describes any guided wellness experience in a sauna. Think: music, oils, vapor, a towel shaman of some sort. Germany takes the ritual very seriously, even hosting its own aufguss championships, but the practice has history all over the continent. It’s closely related to a Finnish concept called löyly, which describes the steam that storms through the room after water and oil are dashed upon the rocks. It pulls the heat from the pores of your skin, makes it momentarily impossible to breath and melts your cranium into pudding, sort of like that final scene in the first Indiana Jones. Well — not really. But it feels like it.

A Better Session

Why, on Earth, some of you may be wondering, is this desirable? What makes aufguss “better” in any way than the usual sufferfest of an extended sauna session? Are the health benefits somehow doubled? Quadrupled?

Not exactly. In fact, sauna sessions at their most basic aren’t the slam dunk that most articles and podcasts would lead you to believe. There’s a well-established correlation between heat stress and improvements in heart health (in one study a few years back, sports scientists declared time in a sauna comparable to completing a “short, moderate workout”), but time in a sauna probably shouldn’t be the centerstage of your wellness routine. They’re more of a sideshow with cardiovascular upside.

Aufguss certainly makes a sauna hotter, pushing the room towards the 200°F mark. (The practice appears to have originated out of necessity: to “reheat” the rooms after doors/windows were opened and new air was circulated throughout.) In turn, this makes the entire experience more intense. But instead of sweating over whether the method is more effective, I’d urge aspirational aufguss attendees to appreciate the ritual for what is is: a shared, multi-sensory sequence of moments.

Those 10 minutes were the absolute furthest I’ve felt from my phone, the news cycle, intrusive thoughts, email notifications, [insert shit distraction here], I’ve felt in weeks. Maybe months. It reminded me, ironically, of an ice bath-breathwork class I took earlier this year. The physical sensation was different (obviously), but the rebellious nowness of it — that peculiar feeling of careening back to the present, of briefly and successfully clogging up the hamster wheel — was the exact same.

It’s an amazing feeling, and there are other ways to attain it, beyond watching a man hot-box a wooden room. But aufguss has got to be one of the most offbeat and surreal methods of getting there. Try to find the ritual in your area; you might be surprised — the practice continues to expand throughout America. At the very least, allow the idea to dismantle your clinical or prescriptive approach to your health club’s sauna. Sauna bathing is more than getting fit, or getting in and out. It’s a chance to unwind and unravel, to experience a moment from all of its individual angles. We don’t get that too often these days. But that doesn’t mean you don’t deserve it.

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