How London became obsessed with saunas
I’m in Hackney Wick for my first festival of the year, sitting in a container with 15 other people and wearing a swimsuit — it’s hot, about 87°C — others are wearing less, but everyone is donning a woolly hat. Guitar music plays from a Bluetooth speaker and a man starts to whip a towel around in the air above our heads. Some whoop, others chant and begin to stamp their feet on the wooden benches. Welcome to Saunaverse, the UK’s first sauna festival at the Community Sauna Baths in east London — and my first aufguss ritual.
“Aufguss” is from the German word for “infusion”, and our aufguss master Chris explains the ritual is a multi-sensory experience which combines heat therapy, sound and smell to coax you into a relaxed and meditative state. As he douses essential oil-infused water onto the hot stones and waves his towel in circular motions, the even hotter steam catches my throat and eyes — but it does seem to bring with it a weird sense of calm.
London is home to an emerging sauna movement thanks in part to the arrival of the Community Sauna Baths (community-sauna.co.uk), which opened on a derelict site at the back of a Thirties’ public bathhouse at the beginning of 2022. On non-festival days, for £10 (or £15 during peak hours), you can enjoy an hour and a half of circuiting the wood-fired saunas and cold plunge facilities.
As my partner and I arrive at 11am on the second day of the festival, I catch a flicker of bewilderment in his eyes as he takes in the scene of the open-air Astroturf-ed sauna space, where house music plays from a DJ booth, there’s a bubble machine and everyone roams around in swimwear in mid-Feb. There are 10 saunas of varying sizes, ranging from converted horse boxes to traditional Finnish styles — all divided into ‘clothing optional’ or ‘clothing required’. Cold water eccentrics bob in converted whisky barrels for their icy post-sauna plunge — one guy sits breezily meditating for more than six minutes. It’s very much no frills, but on a gorgeous crisp winter morning, everything somehow looks like it’s been Instagram-filtered.
Charlie Duckworth, who co-founded the Community Sauna Baths with four others, has always loved sauna culture but was frustrated with London’s offering. “They’d either be too cramped or wouldn’t be hot enough, and there was nowhere you could go regularly and it not break the bank,” he says. “We’ve got lots of regulars — almost no-one comes just once. At first we were attracting people like me who have been looking for this in London, but recently we’ve found there are so many people who are new to sauna and it’s having quite a transformational effect in terms of mental health and mood, according to the feedback we’ve had.”
There is something about being in a sauna, offers Claire Bracegirdle, who is giving a talk on the UK’s emerging sauna culture and runs the Wild Saunas (@wildsaunas) Instagram account, “that makes speaking to other people easier. The way your brain relaxes in a sauna, it eases social anxiety.” Tom de Wilton, “a fellow sauna nut” and owner of The Saunaverse, who is collaborating on the festival and has personally built a number of the saunas, agrees: “As soon as you’re in a sauna, everyone’s titles fall away. Being in a hot sweaty room there’s nothing else to do but talk.” And he points out that if you do find yourself sat next to a bore there’s an easy escape: “You just say ‘I’m too hot!’ And leave.”
On a previous visit, a friend and I head for a 2pm Saturday afternoon session to catch up. It feels like a nice alternative to the pub and the 90 minutes flies by. This is the point, says Duckworth. “There are lots of health benefits of sauna which are really interesting, but for me, I don’t drink, so it’s like the only place really that is social, and there are no phones, that you meet new people — where else does that happen without alcohol?” Incidently, booze is served at this festival, it just doesn’t feel like a focal point.
In the last few months, bookings at the sauna baths have gone “a little crazy”, he says, and there’s already another project in the works — the team are currently preparing a new site in Stratford. “We think this could be a really interesting case for unused space in London — mobile sauna fits that niche nicely.”
So, what kind of benefits can you expect from taking regular saunas? A culture prominent in Scandinavia, the Baltics, and central and eastern Europe, but one that is perhaps most closely associated with Finland, where studies have found regular sauna use may protect against dementia.
It raises the heart rate in a similar way to gentle exercise, helps heal achy or stiff joints and muscles, promotes better sleep and many swear by that post-sauna glow on their skin.
For best results, “try the hot room and steam, a cold plunge, relaxing outdoors, breathing in fresh air, then repeat”, advises Mika Meskanen, co-founder and chair of the British Sauna Society, a non-profit association set up to promote sauna culture in the UK. “After three circuits or so, you will feel sublime. The Japanese have a word for this: ‘totonotta’ — roughly translating as ‘everything being set right’. This way you’ll get both heat and cold exposure benefits, a cardio workout, ‘happy’ hormones and the most tangible benefit of all: feeling relaxed.”
He’s not wrong. After two hours of sauna-ing followed by barrel-dipping, we sort of stagger/float back along the River Lea. It’s not dissimilar to that warm gooey feeling I get after an acupuncture treatment. We’re both absolutely ravenous (happily, the baths now offer wood-fired pizza for that post-sauna hunger) and are on a natural high from all of the communal buzz. That Sunday-induced anxiety that was hanging around earlier this morning has completely melted away.
SIX TIPS FOR THE PERFECT SAUNA
Wear a sauna hat
It insulates and moderates the heat exposure to your head and protects your hair and ears (which get very hot).
Be a good sauna guest
Always shower first and sit on a towel. Each sauna will have its own rules on clothing (whether or not it’s optional) - adhere to it.
Take your time…
Take all things sauna-related slowly. Around 1.5 hours is a good starting point for three circuits of hot-cold relax.
…But don’t clock watch
Sauna bathing is a reflective practice like yoga, not a competitive sport. Instead of measuring time, listen to your body and build your own awareness of how much (or little) is good for you on a given day.
Hydrate well during breaks, before going back in the hot room.
Make it a habit
Those seeking long-term and lifelong health benefits will want to build a sauna habit. Finnish studies suggest four or even more sauna sessions per week. Find your sauna tribe and share.