This is a guest post by Kristen Bagley.
Traveling and experiencing different cultures is my passion. When I travel, I seek out locals only places and activities. Recently, I traveled to Denmark. A friend mentioned that people swim in the canals naked and sit in saunas. I thought it crazy funny, then I looked into it. I discovered that Scandinavians have been doing this for years, because it’s energizing and mindful. In Malmo, Sweden, about a 30-minute train ride from Copenhagen where I was staying, there is a bathhouse and spa, it didn’t disappoint. If you visit, call in advance and schedule an authentic Swedish massage, or other spa treatments. I decided the day before and missed the opportunity to follow my swim with a massage. I went without any expectations, except to get out of my comfort zone. It was a very cathartic and soulful experience, one that I will NEVER forget.
Malmo is located in southwest Sweden on the coast. I took the train from Copenhagen to the city center. Then I caught a bus from the train station to Ribersborg, about a 10 minute ride. Located on the beach is the Ribersborg Kallbadhuset (the bathhouse) which was built in 1892. I made a day of my visit, and returned back to Copenhagen the same day. Don’t miss out on this. http://www.ribersborgskallbadhus.se/
It felt like every part of my naked body was going to freeze off in the barely above freezing water of the Baltic Sea. I’d forced myself into the cold water for only 12 seconds, which felt like an eternity. As I stepped up the ladder into the cold and windy spring air of southern Sweden my naked body felt exhilarated. I walked quickly to my towel to hide my body as other naked women walked passed me to enter the sea. It felt strange to be so exposed in the outside air and around other women; who were comfortable with complete nudity with no shame. My nervousness revealed that I wasn’t Swedish, and my accent made it obvious I was American.
I was welcomed with friendly smiles, women telling me how the process worked, and through body language I felt like they were saying, “we don’t judge you by your body, you’re one of us”. I’ve struggled to accept my body after bearing four children. It has changed from my tight perky teenage body, to stretchmarked mushiness, which has war wounds of the sacrifice of motherhood. I’ve never felt comfortable exposing my physical self to doctors who see everything, let alone to other women. Something was different, I felt a great sense of peace as I looked around the dressing room, and walked on the pier. These were real women, who wore their bodies with pride. It appeared they had no shame, and the sense of relief was peaceful.
I sat alone drying in my towel on the deck of the pier, soaking in my bravery. I felt overwhelming emotions of happiness. It was an entirely new feeling, I’d never felt happy when out of my comfort zone. Entering the sauna in complete nudity was the next step, which would complete round one of three dips in the sea, drying off in the air, and sweating it out in the saunas.
The dry air of the sauna was suffocating as I breathed. It was a challenge to come to a calm and comfortable state in the heat, and being naked made it harder. As I quietly sat, a friendly woman in her late forties who could tell I was uncomfortable began conversing with me. Her warmth welcomed me and instantly our personalities bonded. Other women began to make small talk with me and were curious about why I was there, how many children I have – since my body revealed I have had them. Never in a million years did I think I would make acquaintances while naked in a sauna, but I sensed a strong feeling of sisterhood. I wondered if they were part of the “women’s club”, a club only emotionally strong, faithful, and concerned of other women’s feelings, can be accepted into.
While sweating it out and adapting to the cultural experience, many other women of all ages entered the sauna. Again, their naked bodies told their physical stories of life, some resembled women in Botticelli’s paintings. Stretch marks from pregnancy, wrinkles from living life, an elderly woman who battled with cancer evident by her single mastectomy, a grandmother with her aged body accompanied by her college age granddaughter, to a twenty-something Canadian women with a vibrant personality and a body to match. There were a few other women, like me, in their 30’s and 40’s. Some were alone, and others with best friends. We were strangers to each other, holding no judgements. Without clothes, jewelry, or other material items, I didn’t know anything about how they lived – from rich to poor, I couldn’t tell. I knew we were all women seeking peace of a centuries old mindful practice, and who have fought inner battles that our bodies couldn’t show.
I took my second and third dips in the sea, all more exhilarating than before. I could feel my blood pumping and my emotions being forced to the present. I was more comfortable with each breath. More comfortable sitting the air-drying. The kind woman from the sauna who had taken me under her wing, dried with me on the pier, she shared her life story of love to the heartbreak of losing it, I shed a tear and the empathetic pain entered my heart. With no more words, we bonded. We understood each other, while in our most vulnerable state.
I never learned the names of the women, I didn’t need to, we would never see each other again, but their souls opened mine. Likely, a common practice for the other women, but for me it was a vulnerable cultural experience in a different culture. It was enlightening and spiritual; a feeling more powerful than anything I have ever felt at church.
After my three turns, I dressed and departed. I looked back to the building, the piers, and the sea, knowing I had been forever changed. I caught the bus, and the train back to Copenhagen, Denmark. I felt doubly liberated from my enlightening adventure; and for traveling solo to another country, which I had never done before.
As I sat in my hotel and dressed for a date with my husband, I shed tears of peace, happiness, love, and strength. I felt a release from my struggle with adulthood depression and anxiety. It was clear to me, that the experience had worked, and for centuries before, this is how people coped with their emotional battles. My heart was happy and it ached too. I’m an American woman who did not find happiness in anti-depressants; instead I found it in Malmo, Sweden. I long to return, unfortunately the journey is unrealistic on a regular basis, but I have the memories, and the hope to return.
I hope that American women can learn to love and respect their body for the gift it is, the miracles that it performs, and the soulful practice of female bonding. Along my journey and especially In a few short hours, I was reminded our female battles are the same throughout the world. That we are good enough without plastic surgery, makeup, and status. We are women, and our love is to be shared with other members of the “women’s club”.