29 Jun Stripped, Whipped, and Scrubbed: A Traditional Latvian Sauna Experience
“Make sure you go in the nude,” my new friends shouted amidst fits of laughter, “it will totally be worth it!”
Ummm, yeah, not gonna happen…I thought to myself as I clutched my swimsuit tight.
I was standing inside a hotel lobby in Sigulda, a small town about an hour away from Riga, Latvia. It was time to experience my first traditional Latvian sauna ritual, and I had absolutely no idea what to expect.
I was on a press trip as part of the Women in Travel Summit Conference (WITS) with a group of 7 ladies. Our mission was to explore Gauja National Park and the adventures in the surrounding area. The two-day trip was filled with a wide range of activities (think caves, e-bikes, wineries, and bobsledding), and tonight’s agenda included the traditional Latvian sauna. What transpired throughout the evening consisted of all forms of unexpected events—it was some parts uncomfortable, some parts relaxing, and some parts hilarious. Let’s just say it was unlike anything I’d ever experienced before.
Our group split into two so we could alternate between the sauna, dinner, and free time. I was in the second group, and It was already getting dark when it was time for our sauna to begin. My group hopped in a car for the short ride to the sauna. The sauna was located on the far end of the lawn at our hotel, Spa Hotel Ezeri. When we arrived at our destination, we found two cabins next to a small pond.
Sauna traditions are serious business in northern European countries, and Latvia is no exception. While each sauna throughout Latvia might do things a bit different, the general routine is typically the same and guests often have sauna masters guiding them through the ritual. Sauna masters undergo a training and certification process, and we had two masters that led us through our journey.
“The first step is to strip naked, take a shower, and grab a robe,” one of our sauna masters exclaimed. “When you are finished, head on over to the sauna so we can get started.”
We looked at each other with pause. I didn’t want to get naked with two other people I had just met that morning, and from my new friends’ expressions, I’m pretty sure they felt the same way. We all decided to shower with our swimsuits on and then donned our robes. After some hesitant chatter, and a few rounds of “I will if you will,” I decided to just embrace the experience and go for it. I carefully removed my swimsuit from under my robe, trying to preserve any shred of modesty that I could. I reluctantly made my way to the sauna building with one less item than I had planned.
The sauna masters were waiting for us when we arrived at the sauna. We got a rundown of what the sauna experience entailed, which was basically an alternating cycle of hot and cold with relaxation breaks in between. Then we got right to business. Little did I know the comedy of events that was about to occur during the next couple of hours.
First, we all sat in the sauna together, with nothing but towels wrapped around our bodies and little pointy hats on our heads. From what I understand, the pointy hats act as an insulator and are worn to keep your head cool. I picked the silliest looking option available—I figured why not have some humor to distract myself from being naked with strangers.
After our initiation to the sauna and a bit of chatter, we retreated to the common room to relax. We were served tea with a snack tray made up of fruit and cheese. More conversation ensued, but I couldn’t quite relax.
About 15 minutes later, it was time for our next bout in the sauna. This go around we had to shed our towels, but the hats stayed on. The second cycle included an invigorating and very thorough salt scrub to cleanse our pores.
Once I was fully marinated in salt and sweat, it was time to head outside. I was told to stand in the grass as I awaited my fate. An ice-cold bucket of water was then dumped over my head. Refreshing is not quite the word I am looking for, but I was told it was a necessary shock to my system in order to reap the full benefits of the ritual. The extreme change in temperature is good for exercising your blood vessels and it is said to improve the elasticity of your skin.
More tea drinking, fruit tray nibbling, and relaxation followed. The difference? This time I was starting to feel a bit more relaxed.
Then, just when I thought I was starting to get the hang of this sauna experience, things started to get really interesting. If I must say, the strangest part of the evening was up next. It was now time to get whipped by a bundle of branches. Yes, you read that right…whipped by a bundle of branches. The switches (or bundles) of branches are made from a variety of trees and plants, such as birch, oak or juniper. The bundles can be customized by the master for a variety of healing properties and scents.
I entered the steaming hot sauna, reclined on the bench, and then proceeded to get swatted. It felt like the sauna master was playing whack-a-mole over my entire body. The swats were punctuated with a brisk rubdown where the branches generated more heat than I thought possible. The heat intensified with every movement as the sweet smell of the leaves infused the air. When I started to get too warm, another bundle of branches was dipped in cold water and smushed onto my face. This part of the treatment was almost like an aromatherapy massage.
Up next, I had to run outside in the nude to descend into a freezing cold pond with the help of a man I had met less than two hours prior. I was wrong…things could get stranger…I thought to myself as I climbed down the metal ladder. The water was another intense shock to my system, but I was instructed to fully submerge my entire body. And I did because at this point in the evening, why not?
Then…to top off the “what in the world is happening” quota for the evening, I was led to a sack filled with hay on the porch of the sauna. I sat back and had layers and layers of thick blankets placed on top of me. I was left alone on the porch; the weight of the blankets was so heavy I could barely move.
As I rested on the sack of hay, listening to the sounds of the night, I reflected on what had transpired in the previous couple of hours. Just as I was on the verge of an uncontrollable fit of laughter, an overwhelming sense of calm washed over me.
The cold air rushed through my lungs as my body rested in a soothing warm cocoon. It hit me that sometimes the best thing we can do for ourselves is to learn to embrace life’s weirdness no matter how unnatural it might feel or self-conscious we might be. Modesty is deeply rooted in my being, but it was so freeing to show up exactly as I am and to let go of the notion that I have to act, look, or be a certain way. Shredding a few layers of that modesty, helped me crack a layer of my shell and let a little more of my light come out. The lessons I learned in the sauna have stuck with me, and they have been an integral part of helping me be more myself no matter what others might think. It was a fantastic experience that I’m so grateful to have had.
Sometimes a glimpse at another culture’s traditions does more for your soul than you realize. It can help you let go of stress, it can rejuvenate you, and it can do wonders for your health. And, if you remain open, it might even impact your outlook on life.
Special thanks to Magnetic Latvia, Sigulda Aizrauj, Enter Gauja,Women in Travel Summit, and their partners for hosting me on this two-day adventure in Gauja National Park and Sigulda. As always, all opinions are my own.
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