For an activity that requires so little activity, sitting in a sauna can be surprisingly good for you. Adults who frequent saunas tend to be safer from heart disease, dementia and stroke, research in Finland suggests, and if they also regularly exercise, the combo may reduce risk of death more than saunas or exercise alone.
Some of the earliest saunas — a Finnish word for bathhouse, now part of English and an array of other languages — were built in Finland up to 10,000 years ago, originally as earthen pits covered by animal skins, and later as small structures with stoves and chimneys. Many other cultures also have steam-bath traditions, some dating back thousands of years, and while the Finnish concept has been widely adopted around the world, it's also commonly reshaped by local customs and adaptations.
Germany, for one, has created a distinct, more structured twist on this ancient Finnish tradition. Known as sauna aufguss — German for "sauna infusion" — the practice has drawn more international attention in recent years, spreading into a variety of spas outside Germany, appearing on lists of wellness trends and even inspiring heated competition at an annual Aufguss World Cup.
In light of this growing popularity, here's a closer look at sauna aufguss:
Aufguss stands out from traditional sauna methods in a few ways, only one of which is included in the name. At a Finnish-style sauna, users typically make steam by pouring water onto hot stones in the sauna stove, while drains and vents help keep humidity levels at about 10% to 20%, according to the Harvard Medical School.
Aufguss also involves adding water to hot stones, but as hinted by its name, the water is first infused with essential oils, or aromatic compounds extracted from plants. When this water is vaporized by the stones, its steam carries particles of botanical compounds into the air, spreading them around the room.
Relaxing, with rules
Aufguss sessions are led by a towel-twirling 'sauna meister,' and tend to be more structured than traditional Finnish saunas. (Photo: Thermen Berendonck/AUFGUSS-WM Association)
Pouring the water is often an informal process at Finnish-style saunas, with bathers adding water to the stones on their own. In aufguss, however, the watering is typically left to a specialist, either an employee of the spa or an authorized guest known as an aufgussmeister or sauna meister. In addition to pouring water, a sauna meister also rhythmically whips around a towel, directing the aromatic steam toward the bathers.
This likely began as a practical measure, according to Aufguss.it, a site that promotes the practice in Italy. The towel-waving may have arisen from the need to re-balance temperature and humidity in the sauna after periodically opening the door to let in fresh air, but then evolved into a more complex ritual. That included addition of essential oils to the water, as well as the use of snow and ice rather than liquid water, which is said to allow more control over steam production and reduce the risk of burning the plant essences on the hot stones.
Since aufguss is so focused on the artful distribution of steam and heat throughout the sauna, it's considered a faux pas to arrive late, leave early or otherwise open the door while a session is in progress. Aufguss tends to be rigid about rules in general, but that structure is part of the appeal for many people.
"I really, really came to enjoy the aufguss experience because it's a guided steam experience and you get pushed a little bit," sauna meister Karoline Lange told the Minneapolis Star Tribune's Erica Pearson in 2019. "I then appreciated the rigidity of it, in the sense that it starts at this time, no one leaves, no one goes in and out. There are rules that you kind of have to acknowledge to make the experience really nice and meaningful."
A competitor creates steam during the 2019 Aufguss World Cup. (Photo: Thermen Berendonck/AUFGUSS-WM Association)
The towel-waving motions eventually became more refined, Aufguss.it explains, going from simple moves like "the helicopter" and "the wood cutter" to elaborate whirlwinds of terrycloth. Different types of aufguss began to emerge, some adding music and lights for a more multi-sensory experience.
In a dramatic performance called "show aufguss," the ritual is built around a theme, focusing less on relaxation than choreography, creativity and entertainment. There is even a competitive form of aufguss, in which sauna meisters pit their skills against each other in front of judges and audiences, sometimes in large "sauna theaters" that may seat 200 people or more. Meisters are judged on criteria including professionalism, heat distribution, fragrances, waving techniques, emotions, theme and show elements, as Elizabeth Bromstein wrote for Spa Executive in 2018.
The world's best sauna meisters compete annually in the Aufguss World Cup, delivering acrobatic, time-limited performances, often with themes, narratives and costumes. After attending the 2018 World Cup, Josie Thaddeus-Johns described it for The Outline as "short-story sweatathons complete with emotive narrative arcs, elaborate props and dialogue," citing creative ways the meisters worked the towels and steam into their stories.
Despite the differences between "classic aufguss" and show aufguss, a meister needs to master the former before trying to perform the latter, as World Cup judge Lasse Eriksen told Thaddeus-Jones. "I can tell really quickly if you have someone competing who doesn't really know the sauna," he said.
Aufguss combines the high heat of Finnish saunas with the heavy steam of Russian banyas, along with some aromatherapy and a yoga-like vibe thanks to the sauna meister, as Pearson describes it in the Star Tribune. Although it's a relatively recent tradition, reportedly beginning in the 1970s, it has become popular not just in Germany, but also in nearby countries like Austria, Switzerland and Italy.
And while it's still fairly obscure outside Europe, its profile does seem to be rising. Pearson was covering aufguss for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, for example, because Minneapolis is one place where aufguss is making inroads in North America, thanks to sessions held in a rooftop sauna at the city's Hewing Hotel. Aufguss is also available at Thermea by Nordik Spa-Nature in Winnipeg, where sauna meisters use music and essence-infused snowballs, according to Bromstein.
To see some meisters at work, check out the videos below: