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Trends

Although the traditional practice of sauna bathing in a wood cladded room will never be untrendy, there are many recent developments on the sauna scene that merit investigation and coverage. At Saunaist we will cover sauna trends from both a bathing standpoint (ex. Aufguss rituals) and through a design lens (ex. glass and rock feature walls) and attempt to distinguish those evolutions that elevate the sauna experience from those that might be passing fads. 

 

In North America one of the more pronounced recent trends that sauna bathing has been swept up in is the biohacking health optimization movement. There is a cohort of people who are adopting sauna bathing as a practice primarily in hopes of gleaning its health benefits and slot it in next to red light therapy as simply one of the tools in their health and wellness toolbox. While Saunaist does espouse an ethos of “we don’t care why you sauna as long as you sauna” and a growing body of evidence does suggest that health benefits can be derived from sauna bathing, our driving purpose is to explore the sauna lifestyle and how its benefits go far beyond the realm of physical health benefits. 

 

We will however dig into the biohacking movement and the role sauna plays in it, as well as many other topics both here and in our newsletter. 

Public saunas - a return to our roots

The first trend we have to discuss is the renaissance of public sauna bathing in North America. Communal public bathing has a globe-spanning thousand-year-old history, from Mexico to Italy to Japan and from Greece to Pakistan and Turkey. These baths were multi-functional, serving as places of cleansing, relaxation, political discourse, and deal making. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Image Source: TOA Waters (No Known Copyright Restrictions)

 

For a variety of reasons (which we will later dig into in the History Section), the ubiquity of public baths waned throughout the centuries culminating in their death knell in the first half of the last century (in part due to the advent of residential plumbing). By the 1960s public baths had all but disappeared from North America and the few that remained were often dens of ill repute further eroding public interest and trust in public bathing. 

 

One of the few countries in which public bathing remained a stalwart was Finland where public saunas have continually operated throughout the country’s modern history. Owing largely to exposure to them during WWII, Germany adopted Finnish sauna culture in the years immediately following the war and the public bathhouse was reborn. Word quickly spread to Austria, Switzerland and the Netherlands who largely emulated the Germans’ unique take on Finnish sauna and soon there was a robust public sauna scene across central Europe that remains an integral part of European culture today. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Image Source: Saunalogia

 

Meanwhile Russia and its neighboring countries had their own ancient communal bathing traditions which similarly waned in significance as the centuries wore on. A sprinkling of public bathhouses remained throughout the years and only in recent decades has the custom reemerged as not only societally acceptable but desired. In tiny Estonia alone there are at least 50 public sauna centers with likely many more smaller facilities including some built into adjoining breweries. 

 

Shifting our focus to North America, when I was coming of age in the late 80s and early 90s, having experienced public saunas in Finland, I was keen to seek out their counterparts in Toronto. None existed. It soon became apparent that there was a dearth of public saunas throughout the continent. So, what happened?

 

One theory is that the recognition garnered by Finland’s new flagship public sauna Löyly upon its opening in 2016 helped to spark a new generation of saunapreneurs. Named one of Time Magazine’s 100 Greatest Places in the World in 2018, sauna tourism quickly took off. 

 

The advent of Covid also certainly played a role albeit counterintuitively at first. While global lockdowns barred the public from the few cherished public bathhouses that existed, it spawned a revolution in health and wellness awareness as well as the adoption of more holistic lifestyles. Slowly and then all at once, public saunas started dotting the North American landscape, from San Francisco to Toronto.

 

Two inflection points stand out from my personal frame of reference. The first was in 2005 with the opening of Nordik Spa-Nature in Gatineau, Quebec, just outside of Canada’s capital city Ottawa. Billed as the largest spa in North America, it took its cues from the numerous sprawling spas in Germany. Replete with 9 saunas and 10 outdoor baths, it was – and many say still is - the crown jewel of the North American spa experience, attracting visitors from across the continent. Others soon followed including Vettä in Southern Ontario and now Group Nordik itself has 3 locations across Canada.

 

Image Source: @scandinaveblue/Instagram

The second inflection point was in early 2022 with the opening of Othership, an urban spa in downtown Toronto with its 40-person sauna as its centerpiece. An instant hit, it has inspired a host of competition with at least 5 similarly sized spas currently in the design or construction phase in (disclaimer: I am the designer of all five). These two pioneers - Group Nordik and Othership – certainly played a role in launching the current Canadian public sauna boom which shows no signs of abating. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Image Source: Othership

While the scale might not be as large in other regions of North America, communal bathing is back, writ large. It would seem the public sauna is here to stay.  

Ancient Roman baths
german sauna
Othership, a social bathhouse and sauna in Toronto.
Nordic spa Canada
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