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Sinful saunas

Sinful saunas

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Sinful saunas

What began in the mid-1950s when the first sauna arrived in Schwarzenberg (then thought of as a breeding ground for sin) is now a much-used and beloved health-promoting treatment in Bregenzerwald.

When the mere act of turning a page in a book earns you a nasty stare, there’s only one place you can be: the relaxation room of a sauna. The rules in this room, a unique combination of monastery-like silence and the freedoms of nudist beach, are so sacred that communication here is considered tantamount to sin – especially among passionate sauna enthusiasts. However, strict adherence to these rules is not for nothing.  Sports physician Rudolf Rüscher explains: “Relaxation after a sauna is just as important as the sauna itself. By alternating between physical tension and relaxation, we can train our entire internal regulatory systems including heart rate, respiration and blood circulation.”

Which leads us to the question: can sauna be sin? Some sixty years ago, of course, many indeed considered using the sauna to be sinful. “Back when my aunt had a sauna built in her guesthouse, it was still considered an affront to good morals and a great nuisance,” says Heiner Bertle, the nephew of Hedwig Jennis.  She was the first to operate a public sauna in Schwarzenberg in the Bregenzerwald. Guests were not alone in using the sauna, which at that time was modestly outfitted with two lounge chairs and a plunge pool. Increasingly, more and more Bregenzerwald residents began using these new “hot-air baths” (strictly separated by gender, of course). “Nevertheless, half the village crossed itself and prayed the rosary,” says Bertle, describing the situation in the mid-1950s. The point was never to loosen morals in Schwarzenberg at the advent of the nudist movement. And yet today, sauna use is more popular than praying with a rosary. Almost every hotel in the Bregenzerwald has its own sauna area and  well-attended public saunas from Krumbach to Schoppernau underscore just how much Bregenzerwald residents like to sweat.

Sauna use is good for the heart

A study by Innsbruck epidemiologist Peter Willeit, which was published at the end of 2018 in cooperation with the University of Eastern Finland, showed that regular sauna use is indeed more beneficial than many prayers. The long-term study of 1,600 Finns, which has been running since the mid-1980s, came to the conclusion that four to seven sauna visits per week reduce cardiovascular mortality by up to seventy percent. Even those who only make it to the sauna two or three times a week profit a 29% lower risk. Sports physician and passionate sauna-goer Rudolf Rüscher doesn’t need a study to intuit that sauna use has a positive effect on our immune systems. “During a sauna session, our body temperature rises by one to two degrees. This is similar to a fever reaction: the production of white blood cells is stimulated, and this has a positive effect on the immune system.”

Sin yourself healthy!

Proper sauna use is something that has to be learned. According to Rüscher, following the physical exertion of going to the sauna, one should ideally move around, preferably outdoors. This helps the body to redistribute the excess heat and opens the vessels, thus helping the body to further shed warmth. Once the blood circulation has stabilised, it is best to go under the cold shower or into the cold plunge pool. “The whole process is not just good for the blood vessels either. Sauna also has a positive influence on our heart volume, blood pressure, heart rate and our entire vegetative nervous system. So if you’d prefer to believe, as the residents of Schwarzenberg once did, that sauna is a sin. Go ahead and sin, sin, sin!

Author: Michaela Bilgeri
Issue: Winter 2019-20 Travel Magazine