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I exit the searingly hot 120-degree chamber door and step out, delirious, into room temperature air, gasping for a cool breath. It may sound like I’m describing an escape from a Central Line tube carriage in high summer, but I’m on the north Danish coast at one of the world’s most historic healing sanctuaries and I’m one of three rounds into my first taste of saunagus therapy. Welcome to the spine-tingling, life-changing antidote you never knew you needed, said to remedy stress, toxins and the daily tedium that plagues our weary digitally obsessed bodies.
At the end of the 19th century, having spent a considerable amount of time practising in the US, esteemed physician Dr Carl Ottosen decided that pharmaceutical medicine and surgery were no longer his bag; fresh air, water, light, massage, gymnastics and a vegetarian diet were the key to preventing and healing ill health. As a Scandinavian, Ottosen was well aware of the damaging effects that the dark and cold can have on one’s physical and mental wellbeing so, after marrying a Norwegian nurse, he founded one of the first health sanatoriums in the Nordic region. It quickly became the go-to health resort du jour for the Danish glitterati, from the royals to various cultural figures of the 20th century. Today, the light-filled, glass-panelled spa quarters of Kurhotel Skodsborg continue to tantalise, thanks to a spruce up under the exacting direction of Henning Larsen architects. Blending surefire Nordic traditions with modernist touches, it’s an expansive (and expensive) labyrinth of pools, grottos, treatment rooms and, of course, saunas.
I find relief under the rain shower in a twinkling grotto before dunking my whole self into an icy plunge bucket. I have just undergone 20 hardcore minutes of being blasted with essential oil potions by toned, tanned Thilde, a certified “gusmester” (mist master) and an undeniable poster girl for the benefits of saunagus. She delicately pours her concoctions over a large cylindrical ice cube resting on a hot stone, while Twin Peaks-esque music – feverish, ethereal and somewhat eerie – plays softly from a condensation-covered speaker in the far corner. I whisper my curiosity to my companion who tells me it’s German ambient jazz by Bohren & der Club of Gore which she often plays in her dark, smoky bar. We chuckle guiltily. We’re hungover, naturally.
With no rest for the wicked, an elixir of basil and marjora – a combination said to be good for blood circulation – signals to the body to sweat (as if I wasn’t already). Thilde moves with the steadiness of a jujitsu master. She’s a martial artist of the sauna, later telling me about the Gus Championships held in Austria each year: “People have their own style, own combinations, own movements and music preferences.” I am both flabbergasted and amused at the idea of a judging panel sitting in near-nudity in a sauna with clipboards.
Next up is the blue camomile – ”precious, expensive, more difficult to come by” – and tea-tree oil, a scent I’ve felt comforted by since the pubescent days of acne woe. While tea tree is antiseptic on the skin, the camomile is anti-inflammatory containing a powerful compound called azulene which is soothing and gives it a blue hue. Like most of the oils Thilde has curated, it is also rejuvenating. What follows is a replenishing cocktail of flowers; geranium, lavender, patchouli, petitgrain and bergamot. The final oil, which contains the skin-healing cicatrizant, was a turning point for my companion who smiled and mumbled something along the lines of “I love Earl Grey tea…” while in lotus position. Breathing through my mouth, I discover, opens the senses beyond what my nose can handle and it is, as my companion astutely asserted, like a sweet cup of tea gently poured over my body and down my oesophagus. That or lavender tea, which is apparently all the rage among plant-based dieters these days.
Thilde leads us down to the ocean’s waters, just in front of the gleaming white property. Far from freezing, it is still a cool relief following round two’s intense detoxification process. Stage one and two mix grapefruit and pine essence to stimulate the gallbladder, juniper and cedar wood which activates the kidneys and a powerful sandalwood-vetiver combination that engages the uric bladder. Sure enough, I am a peeing machine that evening, despite sweating gallons. “Be sure to hydrate plenty,” reminds Thilde as we float in the blue waters on this cloudless summer’s day. I listen, for she is the gusmester and I am her slave. Her mastery of the non-intrusive detox is the most meditative I’ve experienced. The sun beats down on us as we pat dry our refreshed bodies and make our way back from the sea to the sauna for the final round.
As we enter round three I am a little high, extremely zen and all together unintimidated by the notion of 20 extra minutes of sweltering dry heat. I contemplate a life of gus for myself. I can see myself artfully swishing the white towel and running through healing agents with my favourite music playing.
Thilde tells us more about her training with a saunagus veteran in Copenhagen’s Frederiksberg district: “A woman who’s practiced for years and whose knowledge of essential oils goes as hard and deep as the oils themselves during a proper gus session. She is die hard about it. Completely devoted.” Is this part of a wider cult? I begin to question. Are the oils I’m inhaling intoxicating, bewitching?
The final round of the saunagus session is designed to cleanse and close the body and I’m delighted to breathe in fennel – which purifies the respiratory system – before a heady concoction of herby sage, thyme, rosemary, peppermint, eucalyptus and cajeput (white tea-tree oil). Thilde informs us that these combinations are antiseptic, antifungal, antibacterial and immune boosting. I feel each and every ill-advised menthol cigarette being deleted from my system with each breath.
As we enter the last stages, my body is comfortably familiar with the process; I’m breathing deeply and calmly in perfect time. Lemongrass wafts over me, signalling to the body to stop sweating. A final dunk in the plunge pool, a paleo lunch and a rosé on the terrace later and I’m reborn into the church of gus.
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