The health benefits of heat treatments are renowned. Inspired by the traditional cultures of Finland, Turkey, Russia and Morocco, the spa world has truly embraced the wellness rituals of getting hot, hot, hot. Here, The Spa Man gives you the low down on the best traditional heat and thermal experiences like the sauna, the Hammam, Rhassoul, Banya and Aufguss.
All hot and bothered
Getting hot and bothered may not be everyone’s idea of a good time, but the health benefits speak for themselves. Cultures around the world have been using steam and dry heat to cleanse and purge the system, whilst keeping warm and staying fighting fit. The Finnish Sauna is the most famous and found in local leisure centres, gyms, hotels and spas across the globe. The steam room is equally popular, but it’s the rituals that come with these heat experiences that really make things interesting. The Hammam for example is a vigorous body treatment unlike anything else that draws on local Islamic culture with regional variations in Morocco and Turkey. The Rhassoul originated in Morocco and further East, the Banya treatments of Russia and the former USSR really do spice things up combining extreme heat with rituals using birch branches (yes you do get lightly whipped).
So why do people do it? The health benefits of getting hot, hot, hot have been studied extensively and include: improved circulation, soothing muscle aches and pains, improved joint movement, and easing the symptoms of arthritis. Steam baths promise similar benefits and can also help with breathing and respiration. It’s simply a great way to relax. But one point to remember is that it’s always important to cool down properly afterwards, especially from the sauna. Traditionally that would mean rolling in the snow or jumping into an icy lake. But fear not, a cool to cold shower or a dip in the plunge pool will suffice.
Hot stuff in the Hammam
Steam baths have been around since the time of the Greeks and Romans who knew the benefits of the bath house. This concept has travelled around the world, but now both Turkey and Morocco lay claim to the authentic Hammam culture. Part of the traditional fabric of society, the Hammam was a place to meet, bathe and socialize. The name Hammam refers both to the bath house and the cleansing ritual. The treatment is vigorous (at times a touch rough) but life affirming nonetheless. And you will be cleaner than ever before with skin as smooth as a newborn baby.
You are washed, doused with water, and cleansed with traditional black soap (Savon Noir) made from eucalyptus and olive oil. Washed again, you will be scrubbed to within an inch of your life with a rough exfoliating mitt and doused again. In the public bath houses this would all be done in the communal space, in spas it’s a private ritual and well worth checking out.
Love it or hate it, there’s nothing quite like a Rhassoul Mud Ritual. Usually offered in a private steam room in the spa, or occasionally you may find the option of a group session in a hammam style steam room. Rhassoulis a product made of natural mineral clay mined from the Atlas Mountains of Morocco. It is combined with water to clean the body and has been used by North African women for centuries to care for their skin and hair.
Your spa therapist will provide you with a tub of the clay based mud to apply from head to toe, once you are nice and warm in the steam room. Your friend or partner can help by applying mud to the hard to reach areas – it’s quite a social spa ritual and great fun too. There may be a different mud for the face and then you just lay back to rest and relax, allowing the steam to open and cleanse the pores. All good fun with a purpose, once you shower the clay away, you feel refreshed, cleansed and totally renewed.
The sauna goes global
The sauna is undergoing a reinvention and is becoming a destination in its own right (with iconic locations on lakes and in the tree tops) as well as offering an experience rather than just a facility. According to the Global Wellness Summit it’s one of the key trends for wellness and spas around the world are introducing innovations including: sociable super-saunas, pop-up saunas as well as the rising popularity of the aufguss ritual.
A sweaty, dark room that’s pine-clad and steaming hot is most people’s idea of a Finnish sauna. It’s a firm part of the culture in the Finland where it’s believed there are around two million saunas for a population of just 5.3 million. Nobody does sauna like the Scandinavians and there has been a massive boom in public ones opening in Sweden and Finland over the past five years. The industrial harbour of Gothenburg is home to an industrial looking sauna which features a rusty steel exterior and a warm timber-lined interior. It’s free, it’s public and a must-visit on any trip to the city. In Helskini two new public waterside saunas – Löyly and Helsinki Allas have opened, boasting typical cutting-edge Nordic architecture. Doubling as a tourist attraction, they are also hoping to encourage the younger generation of Finns to embrace the sauna tradition.
However, we may have reached peak-sauna in 2016 when Burger King launched a Burger King Spa complete with sauna and snack bar. Part marketing gimmick, it did pay homage to the country’s rich history of sauna bathing.
Where sauna meets spa
Enjoying a sauna can either be a solitary or social experience. It’s generally a quiet affair in the UK, but saunas are now a firm favourite right across the country. Their popularity has grown in recent years and they have popped up at music festivals, by the coast and there was even an outdoor wood fired barrel sauna at Kings Cross in Central London.
The new Aqua Sana Spa at Center Parcs, Sherwood Forest really has taken heat treatments to a whole new level. The show stopping signature build at this recently refurbished spa is the stunning new Treetop Sauna. A first for the UK, the 10-metre high structure offers impressive views of the trees and river beyond. For other saunas with a view (and there are lots) you could check out The Four Seasons Park Lane in London, Moddershall Oaks in Staffordshire, The Spa at Mottram Hall in Chester or Y Spa at Wyboston Lakes in Bedfordshire.
READ The Spa Man’s review of Four Seasons Park Lane HERE:
Less well-known in the UK is the traditional Russian Banya experience where temperatures will often exceed 93 degrees and special felt hats are typically worn to protect the head from the intense heat. You get very hot and it’s not for the feint hearted. You lay on the wooden bench and are lightly beaten with birch or oak branches. The Banya Master (who is specially trained) will use the branches to gather warm air from the ceiling and swoop it over your body and continue the tapping ritual. It continues on your front and just when you feel like you are about to pass out, you take a cold ice bucket shower and then plunge in a cold pool. Invigorating and awakening, it provides a natural high and afterwards you simply rest and sip traditional Russian herbal tea with honey. You can add a massage or body scrub if you wish using traditional, locally sourced ingredients. To experience this in the UK head to Banya No.1 or the South Kensington Club in London.
READ The Spa Man’s review of No.1 Banya HERE
Aufguss and the sauna ritual
If you haven’t already heard of Aufguss, you will soon as the Global Wellness Summit identified this ritual as a hot new spa trend. It is believed that Aufguss is a ritual that originally derived from the Red Indians of North America, but it was the Germans who introduced the concept into spas.
Aufguss involves pouring water mixed with natural essential oils onto the hot stones of the sauna stove. The water instantly vaporises, spreading the essential oils into the air. The Aufguss Meister (a specially trained spa therapist) directs the hot and scented steam towards the bathers using different rhythmical movements with a towel (often twirling it around his or her head like a helicopter). The practice is sometimes accompanied by music and it creates an intensely hot, multi-sensory experience. Part theatre and part wellness ritual, it’s a group session and you may giggle to begin with as it’s SO different. But go with it, it’s definitely worth it.
Rudding Park in Harrogate has introduced The Art of Aufguss at its Panoramic Sauna which has views overlooking the spa gardens outside. Membersof the spa team trained with Art of Aufguss Champion Lay Pang Ong who is well-regarded as a pioneer of sauna reinvention.
READ The Spa Man’s review of Rudding Park HERE
Heading over to Northern Ireland, it’s hard to beat the riverside location of the stand-alone sauna at Galgorm Resort and Spa. It has a large double aspect windows with views of the River Maine and forest beyond. And to top that off, the team have created a new sauna ritual that blends spa culture with Celtic charm.
Taking inspiration from the traditional Aufguss sauna experience, the Celtic Sauna Ritual combines Celtic music and aroma inhalation, the sauna master uses towel rituals to agitate the air, moving heat around the sauna to increase body temperature. This is concluded with meditation in the River House to deliver a new perspective on relaxation and mindfulness.
READ The Spa Man’s review of Galgorm Resort and Spa HERE