And Then I Jumped Into the Baltic Sea
What it's like to experience the Nordic tradition of SaunaGus.
Picture this: Northern Denmark in October, just a half hour's drive north of Copenhagen. The Baltic Sea settles comfortably against the shores of North Sealand, while the sky illumines myriad shades of grey. Lush greenery and the changing colors of leaves make for a stark contrast against the blackened seaweed strewn across the beach, punctuated by the mysterious blues and greens of the shallows. The Skodsborg air is fresh, briny, roiling with pearly moisture –– and the shafts of light piercing the blanket of fog overhead reminded me of my home of San Francisco, really.
But I wasn't at home. I was halfway across the world, a California girl on a Scandinavian adventure, experiencing a plethora of centuries-old Danish traditions for the first time.
Now, what you can't really picture is just how pure and serene and cold it is out here, in that electrifying, shake-your-bones kind of way that only unequivocally Northern lands can be. You know, the North, like in Game of Thrones. And make no mistake; I was told, laughingly, that this is pretty much a modern Winterfell. Against this backdrop, the Kurhotel Skodsborg has been perched, overlooking it all, since the days of the Danish King Frederic VII, who even had a summer home here.
The illustrious spa resort is known as a location to which one can escape from the city, relax, and indulge in many a Nordic wellness tradition, some of which have been upheld for hundreds of years. One such tradition is known as SaunaGus. So what exactly is it? Put simply, SaunaGus, or "Mist Sauna," is aromatherapy in a sauna, followed by a dip in ice-cold water. This Nordic bathing ritual –– that of rapidly switching from a sauna to cold bath –– dates all the way back to the Vikings.
As for the physical experience itself? Anyone who's sat in a sauna at a spa before, myself included, can attest to the fact that the heat within that small space is pretty extreme. But a SaunaGus session is intense in a different way. The "Mist Master," or instructor, works with aromatherapy oils, releasing different scenes throughout the sauna session to invigorate the senses of those taking part in it.
At temperatures of 100 degrees Fahrenheit and greater, your body quickly enters fight-or-flight mode –– especially when the instructor uses her considerable upper body strength to whip a towel around her head, distribute the oil-infused steam with gusts of heat, and take it to the next level.
Our instructor, Tina, used pure and energizing Nordic scents like lemongrass, juniper, and tar. Different Gus instructors use different scents, however, and in another session that involved Sara's use of unique scents like pepper and whiskey, which gave the entire session a spicy and woodsy feel. Some instructors even incorporate performative aspects, like spoken word poetry and more, into their sessions.
And while not all SaunaGus sessions are followed by an ocean plunge, all must end in an extreme temperature change, which could mean an ice-cold dip in a tub just outside the spa.
As for the ocean dip, our group was told that people are used to seeing it here –– groups of SaunaGus goers in flapping white robes running across the road in their spa slippers to the ocean. And we're talking at all times of the year. But it makes for a hilarious image nonetheless, and we got many a thumbs up from drivers on that rain-slicked road leading to the Øresund Sea.
That being said, it's still hard to imagine anyone doing this in the frigid, dark and snowbound Danish winters. It's no small wonder that those born in such a climate live long and healthy lives. Their immune systems are strong as all hell for a reason.
But I wasn't really thinking about that when I walked down the jetty myself. I'm usually not one for plunging headfirst into the cold (who is?), but after the sweltering sauna aromatherapy experience, I no longer felt intimidated. Surprisingly, I felt ready.
So, I stepped down the stairs and slipped into the Øresund Sea before I could think twice about it. And let's just say that Baltic waters are NOT WARM. At any time of the year they are utterly frigid. But in mid-October?
When the human body goes from one extreme temperature to the next within a short window of time, it's almost like a slap in the face for your immune system. Not only does it completely reinvigorate you mentally, increasing mindfulness in the process, but it sends your blood pumping, hot and thrilling, through your veins like tiny little shocks of lightning pulsing beneath the skin. I could feel every nerve ending as if electrified from the inside out, and I thought, Am I a Viking yet?
In a way, the sensation disassociates you, while also planting you firmly within your physical frame, making you suddenly aware of every single body part. Everything our body does to keep us alive –– including maintaining our body temperature –– is quite literally plunged into sharp relief.
Nordic wellness is the real deal, people. And it's a powerful and cleansing feeling, make no mistake: One I would gladly take part in again (and I did, incidentally –– in a second, shorter session two days later, as pictured below). It's one I would gladly try at home as well! SaunaGus in San Francisco, anyone?
Learn more about the SaunaGus experience on the Kurhotel Skodsborg website, here.