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August 10, 2011
 by Steven Hill

SAUNAS, AUF GUS, AND THE CULTURE OF HEALTH…When I think about health and health care in Europe, I don’t think immediately about hospitals, doctors, and insurance premiums.

Instead, I picture bike paths and walking trails crisscrossing the cities and countryside, and Europeans of all ages, including seniors, pedaling from town to home with their daily bread in their handlebar baskets. I picture fields of organic grains and grasses tossing in the breeze, and European gourmands with their “slow food” philosophy. I picture cheese, bread, and wine makers using the same time-tested formulas for their savory products that have been developed over centuries, and I picture Europeans strolling leisurely and lingering for hours over food and drink in outdoor cafes, hobnobbing like hobbits at an unhurried pace. For many Europeans, health and la dolce vita are a passion, and those values are reflected in many aspects of their lives.

One aspect where it is reflected is in their bads. No, not ‘bad,’ opposite of ‘good,’ bads -- pronounced ‘bods’ -- which is the German word for sauna or health spa. Bads, which are where people of all ages soak their limbs in warm healing waters, steam baths and swimming pools, have been common in Europe for over two thousand years, dating back to Roman times. Today, all across Germany you can see dozens of towns with names like Bad Mergentheim, Bad Reichenhall, Wiesbaden and Baden-Baden; in France, instead of ‘bad’ they use the term ‘bain’ and you can see dozens of towns with names like Aix-les-Bains, Evian-les-Bains and Digne-les-Bains. These places are ones where the entire town, historically, has been a magnet frequented by local denizens as well as distant travelers looking to "take the waters," that is the hydrothermal springs that leak from the earth in those parts and that were claimed to have medicinal properties. Most European nations are dotted by numerous spa towns, from Scandinavia in the north to Hungary in the east.

Visiting a bad in Germany today is a wonderfully rejuvenating experience. My favorite bad is in Fussen near the Austrian and Swiss borders. In the downstairs of the large yet elegant gymnasium-sized structure there are several swimming pools and hot tubs where children as well as adults cavort, and there is also a few water slides providing great fun for the ‘kinder’ (like the Fussen bad, all the ones I have visited have been very family-oriented environments). There is also an outdoor current pool, where an artificially produced undercurrent pulls you around an island in the center upon which are piles of sparkling quartz crystals, football-sized, refracting the daylight. The stunning view across the valley is of the nearby Alps, as well as the famous Neuschwanstein Castle, which is the real-life model for the fairy tale Disneyland Castle. Also on the bottom floor of the bad there is a crystal meditation room where you can lie on cots quietly in a twilight-like environment, and the entire ceiling and front wall are covered in large quartz crystals that glow dimly with soft pastel backlight.

But the real health treat is upstairs, which is for adults only. That's where the bads -- saunas -- are located. There are a half-dozen different bads, each stoked to a different temperature. There also are cooling-off pools, hot tubs, another small swimming pool, a bar with health drinks, beer and snacks, and a rooftop where you can relax in a lounge chair and enjoy the alpine view. According to the sauna experts, sweating is as essential to our health as eating and breathing. Sweating rids the body of wastes and helps keep the skin clean and pliant. Other health benefits supposedly result from the heat producing an artificial "fever" which coaxes every organ of the body into action. While outwardly relaxed, your inner organs are as active as though you were jogging or mowing the lawn. At the same time, you are being cleansed from inside out by the skin -- your body's largest organ -- and its excretion, sweat. In this sedentary age, many people simply don't sweat enough, and antiperspirants, cosmetics, synthetic clothing, smog, and a physically idle lifestyle all conspire to clog skin pores and inhibit the healthy flow of sweat. One way to counteract this is by some serious sweating in a bad.

And Germans are serious about their bads. It is very frowned upon to wear clothes of any kind, even a bathing suit, in the saunas. So be forewarned, the parts of our bodies known as “private” are in visible abundance. For this American, seeing so many naked adult bodies of all ages, shapes and sizes was at first a disorienting experience. Most Americans are not used to taking their clothes off in front of each other, but after 15 minutes or so of teenage-like reticence, skulking embarrassment and furtive glances in all directions, it feels pretty natural. Outside the sauna itself, many people mingle au natural while others step in and out of white terrycloth bathrobes or wrap their bodies in towels. Yet the real highlight of the bad is what is known as the auf gus.

The first time I experienced the auf gus was wildly memorable. I was sitting inside one particular bad with a few others, when suddenly a whole swarm of naked bodies filed in. There was hardly enough room for us all, these bads are low-ceilinged chambers, almost like a cave. But about 30 people squeezed in, sitting on benches on three different tiers. Suddenly the door flew open, cool air rushing in. A tall strapping German with a Leroy Neiman handlebar mustache strode in carrying two buckets, one with a ladle and the other filled with ice. This man was the auf gus.

He began speaking in German in a friendly but lecturing tone, talking briefly about the history of the bads in Germany. While the cool air still poured in, he talked about the traditions and practices, the types of herbs used, and more. He went on for a couple of minutes, and then he shut the door. The excitement and drama among the Germans huddled in the cramped space was palpable. And infectious, by now I was wondering what the heck was going on. The auf gus picked up the bucket with the ladle, dramatically scooped out the liquid inside and began pouring it over the hot rocks in the center. Immediately a hissing steam emitted from the volcanic hot core, with the fragrances of citrus, lavender and other sensual herbs perking our nostrils. He did that again, and then a third time. Each time the chamber filled with more and more fragrant steam, making it hotter and stuffier inside. I can only take my saunas so hot, and I didn’t know if I could stand much more of the intensity, yet the vapors kept building, sating our nostrils and pores.

Then, the auf gus did something that really blew us all away. He took a white towel and rolled it up lengthwise until it was long like a snake. And then he began rotating that above his head like it was the blade of a helicopter. As he rotated it you could feel the billows of fragrant heat rolling about the chamber, increasing still more in intensity, surrounding and enveloping you. At this point the sweat began screaming from my pores and orifices. At first it was a bit unnerving, the acrid heat almost unbearable. I could feel myself losing my left-brainedness and entering a stream of consciousness. Amongst other things, my feverish brain couldn't help but reflect upon all these Germans sitting inside this modern-day gas chamber, but with a completely different goal, this time one of health. By then my body had begun to acclimate and I felt a moment of exhilaration. I had a sense that the toxins were crawling forth from my skin and looking for someplace cooler to hide, but they weren’t finding it.

But the auf gus was not finished, oh no. He unrolled his towel so that now it was spread full, and this time he stood in front of the row of huddled naked bodies in which I sat. With a swift motion he snapped his towel -- hard -- in our direction. He did that two more times, and after each snap we felt a blast of heat, like a volcano rush, roaring toward us and hitting us full-on, scorching my face, my nostrils, ears, groin, everything. It was nearly unbearable. I felt an urge to bolt from the bad. Sweat was pouring from me, it seemed like all my skin was one big pore just gushing rivers of sweat. I put my head down and tried to hold on. I saw others doing the same. I could think of nothing, my internal dialogue was stopped, any rambling thoughts had wilted away and what remained was an incredible lightness of being, holding on in survival mode from the riveting furnace blast. The auf gus snapped his towel in front of each row of bodies, round and round the chamber, several times per row. And then he mumbled something in German, gave a slight bow, dumped his bucket of ice over the still-steaming rocks, and exited the bad. Everyone clapped, exhaled, stretched. The ritual was over. People hung around for a few more minutes, and then slowly one by one the rosy-cheeked devotees trickled out.

I was limp, the effect was stunning. I tingled all over, my pores felt scoured and cleansed. The herbs, the citrus, the sweat, the inhalation and exhalation of steam, I walked out of there feeling like I was transparent, light as a feather, walking on air, to greet an amazing view of the Alps, Neuschwanstein, the fresh air and the sunshine.

Whew, yes, the Germans, take their bads very seriously. That afternoon I returned twice more for the auf gus treatment, and now I find a local bad or thermal bath whenever I am in Germany. Also in France, Scandinavia, Budapest and elsewhere (in Budapest, highly recommended are the large communal thermal baths at Hotel Gellert and Szechenyi). This dedication to such an elaborate ritual of sweating and soaking is an indication of the high prioritization that many Europeans give to the body and to health. For many Europeans, health and la dolce vita are a passion, reflected in their hobbit-like love of leisure, nature, relaxation, good food, a stimulating glass of wine or dark, earthy beer, and steeped in the values of health, family, and quality of life. It is this outlook that they bring to their social capitalism and its well-defined family-based support system, instilled into them in both intent and design. It’s also the values they inject into their formal health care system, where the non-profit nature of it prioritizes “people before profits,” unlike the U.S. healthcare system which is run as a for-profit commercial enterprise and dominated by corporations and CEOs making tens of millions of dollars in annual salary and bonuses. As the French are fond of saying, la sante d'abord, “health comes first,” and that principle is reflected in so many ways throughout European society.

Steven Hill 5:54 PM Permalink | Trackbacks
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