Rumour has it, those of purest Nordic blood pry their eyes open at the crack of dawn and jump in the nearest body of water they can find. This is a routine that doesn't stop once the leaves begin to fall off the trees - it goes on until the dead of the winter, when the water temperature falls to the single digits and a pile of snow overlooks the harbour. For some, this is an absurd idea, inviting all means of discomfort, but for the vikings who do this regularly, this is a natural way to start the day.
Around 20,000 Danish people swim in the frosty sea during the winter. Within Denmark, there are nearly 80 swimming clubs to be part of, with saunas and camaraderie in the shared passion for this activity, and in most places even a waiting list.
An easy way to rid yourself of the morning grog in your eyes is by taking a shower in cold water (or I guess, drinking a coffee), which isn't much different to jumping in the icy ocean. The shock to your body's system is sensational and a strategic and refreshing way to get ready for a long work day. While there isn't a well of evidence proving all the health benefits, it's significant for one's wellbeing in many ways. The instant cold relieves pain and arthritic tendencies, while the immediate intensity of the sauna's heat helps to flush toxins out of the body and enhances the metabolism and blood circulation. Most Danish people swear that they hardly ever get sick and feel drastic improvements in their overall health. Not to mention the adrenaline rush one receives after even just a dip in the water and the therapeutic elements behind it.
The idea of hot and cold is not foreign to me. For dancers and athletes alike, we're often told one of the best methods to relieve pain and swelling is by taking a contrast bath. Alternation between hot water and cold water for 30 seconds to a minute, ending on cold, promotes the blood circulation in the injured area.
So, the past few weeks, I've taken this is a Scandinavian experiment. Once a week, with my Tall Friend Sam and new friends each week, we've jumped off the harbour at Refshaleøen, scrambled our way up the ladder and scurried into the picturesque sauna provided by the people at La Banchina. Then we repeat. The cost is 40 DKK but the effects of it are enough to last all week. I've been a fan of the sauna for a couple of years now - it's maybe probably the only reason why I go to the gym honestly - but the sauna experience after winter bathing is life changing and like no other.
While the water has been around 2 degrees, the sauna hits the perfect temperature when enough wood is left to heat it up. Sometimes, it's just been my friends and I inside the sauna, but other times, we've been lucky enough to meet interesting people - travellers and local Danes, all craving this unique experience and supporting one another for one last winter dip.
We typically go in the water 3 - 4 times, but this is a very personal choice. The best way to jump in for the first time is to completely remove yourself from the situation - don't think of how cold the water will be, don't think about the terror that is jumping, don't think about what will happen next. Just clear your mind completely and go off the edge of the pier. The cold doesn't hit you right away. For me, the shock leaves me numb, and I only register how freezing it is when my head surfaces and I'm splashing around to find the ladder.
When I come out of the water, I feel as though I've been bathed in confidence. Good job! You jumped in cold water in the middle of winter! Not many people can imagine themselves doing that - I surely didn't. This is why I felt proud of myself. The walk to the sauna is my favourite part for this reason. My reward (the sauna) is coming soon and I like to indulge in this moment of confidence that can very often be so hard to find.
It takes a few moments for your body to adjust to the new temperature within the sauna. There is a prickling feeling on your skin. Your toes tingle and your fingers ache a little bit. Then the icy droplets of water on your skin transition into a satisfying sweat. Your head begins to clear up. Everyone is speaking in hushed, relaxed tones about very simple things. It's early enough to feel optimistic about the rest of the day, the rest of the week.
The second time jumping in is the easiest for me. After my first session of heat in the sauna, I feel ready to have that cold again. I crave it. Sam enjoys the third time the most, explaining that by this round, his body has adjusted to the temperatures. He feels warm on the inside and is more able to appreciate the experience. We both particularly enjoy watching our bodies steam in the cold air as we exit the sauna.
Following the entire experience, we dry off, reflect on the practice, and let ourselves relax, over bites of delicious pastries at the cafe. We all are decorated with flushed cheeks, hair curls framing our faces and the lingering taste of the ocean's salt on our lips and skin. For the rest of the day, we feel exhausted. Our bodies feel heavy and perhaps the most natural course of action to take next is to nap. But we question if the exhaustion comes from this dramatic experience, the intensity of contrast from the two extremes, or perhaps it's the tiredness of the week being drawn out from our bodies.