My palms were far beyond clammy. They were completely committed now to downright slick and sweaty. As I grimaced and wiped them on my towel, I couldn’t help but imagine them turning prune-like. They had devolved into the type of palms that make a soft slapping sound mid-handshake and cause the person you’ve just met to grimace in thinly hidden disgust while trying to quickly retrieve their hand….desperately looking around for something or someone to wipe it on. Which, you might think, is to be expected given my seat perched inside the beautiful and newly renovated upscale dry-sauna on the fourth floor of the Hotel Josl in Obergurgl, Austria. After all, isn’t the whole point of a sauna to sweat? To allow ones body to purge itself of contaminants? To sooth the muscles and to encourage a hearty rush of circulation through the body?
The catch was, I’d just entered the dry sauna and assumed my seat. My body hadn’t had time to warm to its core. This was nerves plain and simple. I’d spent the day with fantastic guides introducing me to the finer parts of ski culture. The gear. The locations. How to ski. The snowshoe hike. But now? I was on my own with only a confusing mixture of poorly written online guides to sauna culture and etiquette bouncing around my head. As I sat inside the wood-lined room trying to relax and enjoying the intense heat I stared straight ahead. I’m not sure why, after all, without my glasses on the world was one giant blur. Then, of course, there was the fact that the room itself was empty. Never the less, it just seemed like the appropriate thing to do. Just as I’ve found myself standing at a stop light in the pouring rain at 4AM with a small group of Danes at a deserted intersection here in Denmark waiting for the light to turn. Social protocol demands it. Even when it goes in the face of reason and common sense.
I’m not sure how or why I’d never done a sauna as an adult. I remember them as a child, and even from my high school days, but those were different. I just followed along with what the others were doing and for whatever reason (it being conservative Arizona a likely factor) we always wore our bathing suits. About a year ago, some of you may recall my awkward introduction to the Turkish Hamams…which…I suppose…was a very similar experience minus the naked massage and the rotund Turkish man rubbing my nearly naked body down. It was with some shock then that I strolled into the hotel’s sauna expecting the usual American structure – sex segregated changing rooms, lockers, people in swimsuits, etc. – only to discover a room full of quasi-naked people relaxing in naught but their towels with a bank of mixed-gender shower alcoves along the side wall. My face went white as I quickly realized that the jeans and t-shirt I was wearing over my swim-trunks beneath the robe the hotel had provided were grossly out of place. I was completely over dressed. I quickly made a U-turn and headed back to my hotel room.
In a flurry of key strokes I searched the web trying to find a more in-depth write-up on the etiquette of sauna culture. My original research had obviously been flawed. After finding a few posts that argued the finer points of nudity, I toyed with tossing in the towel and abandoning my adventure. Then, reminded by the ache in my knees and back from a day spent learning to ski, I sucked it up, stripped down to my swimsuit, wrapped my towel over it to try and hide it, tossed on my robe, and made the trip back to the 4th floor. I was ready. I was prepared. I was strangely terrified…and then the elevator doors opened.
This time as the door slid open I kept my eyes peeled, watching what the others were doing and then carefully trying to emulate them while looking as casual as possible. I kept my composure and made my way towards the three shower alcoves, only losing it slightly as an older gentleman exited completely naked and shrugged back into his robe. That’s when I realized that I was STILL over dressed. My American prudishness was in full form….which left me somewhat annoyed with myself. I don’t mind being naked, in fact, I thoroughly enjoy it. I also don’t have any moral objection to people spending time together socially in their natural state. Yet, at the same time I also come from a culture where even in high school after gym class none of the men would shower out of fear of being naked around other people. Even simple things like a visit to the doctor for an annual check-up is the source of anxiety for a lot of young American men. There are exceptions of course, but for the most part young people in the US have been drilled with a puritanical message that you only spend time naked with romantic partners. Anything else opens you up for judgement and/or comes with the risk of implied ulterior motives (read: how you doin’ darlin’).
So. There I was, staring at the three open shower stalls trying to decide what to do. Do I just go for it, pocket my swimsuit, and embrace it? Or, do I keep the swimsuit on and chicken out? It was right about that time that the first woman I’d seen in what I had thought was a male-only sauna area emerged and walked over to the recovery/relaxation area. Needless to say, I chickened out and left the swimsuit on. All the while internally mocking myself for being such a giant baby about it. I stripped off my robe, tossed the towel aside, and quickly rinsed off. Then in a flurry of motion I toweled off quickly, eager to re-disguise my swimsuit. I made the brief trip to the now empty sauna, swung the door open, slid in, and plopped down on a bench.
Feeling self-conscious and convinced I was making a plethora of faux pas, I sat staring straight ahead. The door opened and butterflies lurched in my stomach. A middle-aged man made his way in, still wrapped in his towel and sat down. Good I thought – maybe I’ve got this figured out. Then the door opened again and another man entered. This one yanked off his towel, spread it out on the wooden bench and then settled in. He was stark naked. The whole time I did my best to stare at the wall with a blank look on my face. 20 seconds later the door opened and this time two women entered. The butterflies were back. Is this normal? Is he going to cover up? Are they going to join? Just how exactly does this work?
They peeled off their towels and tossed them onto the bench before settling in around me completely naked. At this point the small sauna room was also getting somewhat full, which meant simply staring at my wall was no longer an option. I needed to move to make space, which also meant violating my sprawling space bubble and saddling up nearly knee-to-knee with one of the other men and one of the newly-arrived women. Then it dawned on me. This was a new first. In my nearly 28 years, I’d never been surrounded by so many naked people, in such close proximity. Which, you can imagine, did little to help the internal narrative running through my mind – a raging debate between my intellectual brain which casually noted that naked bodies are not inherently sexual and that the experience itself was only minimally arousing. Luckily, as I started to relax it dawned on me that it was just a comfortable extension of the shared experience we’d have all been engaged in if we were clothed. Meanwhile, my paranoid brain raged with fear and uncertainty – what if my primitive brain won out and arousal ensued. How embarrassing, humiliating, and what sort of violation of the common norms would that be? All the while the wealth of obtuse American norms and cultural quirks polarized the experience…a fascinating counter to the much more relaxed approach to nudity and group nudity I’d encountered already in Denmark, and knew was much more common within Austrian and German culture.
All the while sweat slowly began to form all over my body and time ticked by. It was only then, as I watched the others from the corner of my eyes that I observed and realized that the “decorations” I had seen earlier were in fact hanging sand timers which we could use to judge how long we’d been in the sauna. It was a fitting moment of clarity and epiphany as my brain otherwise raged against itself trying to find balance.
Slowly the nervous sweat that clung to my palms was replaced by the clean sweat of relaxed perspiration. My sore muscles gradually gave way and the heat penetrated me to my core replacing the cold of a day spent outside covered in snow. My condition as an uncertain and nerve-wracked mass of self-consciousness and uncertainty had now transformed into comfort and growing confidence.
As I left the sauna, rinsed off, and headed to the relaxation chairs I enjoyed a spectacular sunset over the Alps. I realized that the experience had been far more than an introduction to sauna culture. It had been an opportunity to enrich and truly mature my personal relationship with the human body. As I laid there relaxing, I realized the next time I was ready to join the others. Strange as it is to say, in a way, it felt like a small piece of me that was long neglected finally grew up. I silently resolved that on my next visit I’d leave the suit behind and embrace the vulnerability that goes hand-in-hand with spending time naked with others. As fate would have it, I wouldn’t have long to wait before I put my resolve to the test but THAT is a story for next time.
**My visit and stay at the Hotel Josl occurred as part of a press trip arranged by the Tyrol Tourism Board and their local partners during which I was hosted as their guest**