• Emily McDonnell

#6: Sauna paradise

How sweating in front of strangers helped me learn to value my body.

Stereotypes exist for a reason. I’m a Brit, and we are an incredibly reserved people. I’d heard tales of German sauna culture, and the whispers that you must be naked.

So given these very true realities, our love affair was an unlikely one.

Copyright Vabali Spa Berlin

The thought of being undressed in front of dozens of strangers made my blood run cold. I have memories from trips to the swimming pool, of taking my swimming stuff on and off with one hand, while tightly holding a towel around my chest (in an attempt to stop strangers from staring at my bare flesh) with the other. I’d never even considered sunbathing topless because, well, that was something nobody else needed to see.

It wasn’t that I was judgemental about those who did strip off, it was just that I *thought* I wasn’t someone who would expose my body to the elements in such a way. To be honest, I was probably a quiet combination of impressed and jealous.

Funnily enough, however, this aversion to public nudity didn’t really affect my day-to-day life. Then I got a German partner, a partner whose family home has a sauna in the garden. This whole German-naked-sauna thing was going to have to become something I tried at least once.

Luckily for me, Berlin boasts what I am referring to as sauna paradise - aka the fancy intro to German sauna culture, otherwise known as Vabali. Rather than the standard one or two saunas that most places across Germany have, Vabali boasts 11 saunas, several Jacuzzis and an outdoor pool. It all sounded so magical until I remembered the catch - no swimwear, anywhere. At least there was a restaurant that served wine, just in case I needed something to take the edge off…

I’m told that doing things that scare you is good for the mind. At least, that’s what I kept repeating to myself while stood in the changing rooms. Deep breath in, deep breath out. So long clothes. Go time.

I’ve been trying to work out why I've found being naked in front of others such an overwhelming idea. After all, everyone has a body, right? In my mind, it was a twofold socialisation problem. Growing up in the 90s and 00s in the UK, I was told that the ideal beauty standard was to be tall and slim (with curves), to have blond hair and blue eyes, and to be elegant and confident. And as a girl, being beautiful was important. I saw photo after photo of these gorgeous models, perpetuating this notion. So as a short, dark-skinned, brunette, very-clumsy, kinda awkward kid, my brain took note that I didn’t fit the label of “beautiful”. Alongside this, I learned that female bodies are sexual objects, and should be covered so as not to attract unwanted attention. The combination of these two pieces of information in my teenage brain made the idea of being undressed in public absolutely abhorrent.

But yet, here I found myself, stood outside in the middle of Berlin in the wind and the rain, with absolutely nothing on. And it felt so normal.

In the saunas there were bodies. In the Jacuzzis there were bodies. In the pool there were bodies. There were bodies all around me. Every single one was different, and no one blinked an eye at the appearance of one more naked human. A sense of relief washed over me: what had I been so scared of?

I spent the next 4 hours floating from sauna to sauna, letting hot air wash over me, my body be cleansed and my mind drift. In each 15-minute sauna session, I felt another muscle relax, and not once did I feel watched. I realised how much work my body does for me every day without me ever having to think about it. It carries me from A to B, it flushes my system with oxygen and it fights off illness. It’s a powerhouse, and I had wasted so much time being embarrassed about it.

Ok, so since I had my revelation it’s not like my self-confidence has gone through the roof, but I do have a whole new appreciation for myself and I feel much freer in my own skin. I’ve finally understood that making myself small because I don’t fit into a certain beauty box, or that I need to hide to avoid unwanted attention, is complete nonsense.

From now on, me and my body are going to take up a lot more space. Here’s to the sauna, thanks for the clarity.

Sauna secrets, etiquette and tips

  • In Germany, wearing swimwear in a sauna is considered to be unhygienic, hence why nudity is required

  • While in the sauna, you need to make sure you have a towel under you at all times (including under your feet)

  • Shower before and after your time in the sauna

  • The recommended rhythm is 3 rounds of 15 minutes, with a 20-30 minute break in the middle (there are sand timers inside the saunas)

  • There are different temperatures with different humidities: play around and find out what you like. My personal preference is around 80 degrees (Celcius) with a very low humidity

  • Drink! You sweat, a lot. Replenish the water you lose

  • There are apparently lots of health benefits associated with sauna use, and include the improvement of cardiovascular performance, boosting muscle recovery and flushing toxins out of your body

  • You need to know about Aufgüsse! These are little events that intensify the benefits of the sauna! The person leading the Aufguss will pour water enriched with natural essential oils on the stones, and spread the air through the sauna with a towel or fan. You can’t enter a sauna if an Aufguss is in process, but you can leave whenever you want. I always take a ball of ice in with me to cool me down in case it gets too hot (found outside most saunas)

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