A wooden tinderbox no larger than 10x10 feet is packed tight with a dozen strangers. We share an uncomfortable silence, as the atmosphere intensifies from tepid to near-sweltering. A damp towel is my sole solace, protecting me from a wooden bench that would otherwise scorch the skin in these increasingly oven-like conditions. A woman stands tall, fanning us, one at a time, with direct blasts of supercharged heat. This is SaunaGus (or in German ‘Aufguss’, which is the term catching on in the States) -- a sacred Northern European ritual that’s slowly wafting its way Stateside.
More than just a personal apres-workout relaxation, Aufguss is a performative, ritualistic experience to purify mind, body, and soul, and is shared between a group. You’ll find (attired, it should be said) people of all ages and genders together in the hot room, led by a guide -- a ‘SaunaMeister,’ as the Germans call it -- many of whom are assigned almost shamanistic reverence.
Though Saunagus traces its lineage back to thousand-year-old Scandinavian bathing ceremonies, it was the Germans who helped revitalize the tradition beginning in the 1950s, and now -- thanks to the hard winters and influx of Nordic and German immigrants -- it’s Minnesota that finds itself as the epicenter of burgeoning interest in the United States.
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John Pederson is the co-founder of Sauna Society Outfitters, a Minneapolis-based company that’s one of the first to bring this ‘thermic bathing tradition,’ a fixture in colder European climates, to a North American audience.
“In Germany, many public saunas feature a ‘SaunaMeister’, who helps guests enjoy the full health benefits of the experience,” explains Pederson, of a country that now counts more than 12,000 public bathing facilities. “They lead full warm-up and cool-down cycles, incorporate steam-pouring, breathing and cooling techniques into the session.” And they each have a style and personality all their own. So it’s not uncommon, as Pederson points out, for participants to plan their visits based on the schedule of their favorite Meister.
“I tried to register for a SaunaMeister training program, but the best one was only taught in German,” he recalls. “Turns out German is very difficult to learn, so I decided to start a Sauna co-op instead.” In Minnesota, he was able to shake out a community of thermic bathing enthusiasts and crowdsource funds for a mobile sauna unit.
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One of those enthusiasts happened to be an engineer on the buildout of The Hewing Hotel, a boutique luxury property that opened in downtown Minneapolis in 2016. It didn’t take long before a more stable platform presented itself. “We participated in a small sauna experience with Pederson,” says Katie Szczepaniak, the hotel’s Director of Lifestyle. “We knew right away we had to bring this offering to our guests. So we partnered with Sauna Society to begin programming as soon as our rooftop opened.”
For $40, guests can now choose between a handful of guided regimens, including a monthly Full Moon Steam Medley, and the ever-popular, Aufguss with Alex -- hosted by German-trained SaunaMeister Alex Triotzsch. “We’ve had a waiting list for almost every session,” says Pederson. “I think it's because the sessions help people enjoy the full physical, mental and social benefits available and at the heart of every thermic bathing tradition.”