On a bright, cold autumnal morning in Northern Ireland’s Five Bubble LuxuryGalgorm Resort and Spa, me and a bunch of ladies are waiting for our Sauna Master in the outdoor pagoda.
As you do.
It’s 1pm and there are three of Celtic sauna rituals a day, each lasting an hour. Apparently, the sauna ritual originated in Finland, but the Galgorm Spa owners have adapted it to celebrate their beautiful outdoor spa area, sending two of their staff members to Austria for special training. Suddenly a dashing young man in a sarong appears, and tells us he will summon us to the sauna with a gong. He is our Sauna Master and his name is Jack. We look at each other with raised eyebrows. He is rather cute.
Duly, the gong resounds through the treetops. We rise and traipse across a wooden bridge to the large wooden sauna, hang our robes by the showers in the entrance – Jack advises us to keep on our slippers as the floor is hot – and sit in a row on one of the long wooden benches. Opposite us is a large glass window overlooking the plants in the gardens leading down to the river and the Galgorm forest beyond. It’s very hot.
Jack is grinning a lot, but not, I decide, in a sadistic way.
“Don’t worry. No one has died in a sauna ritual yet,” he jokes. We all laugh, relieved he’s not taking this too seriously.
Jack pours some essential oils on the coals, telling us to breathe deeply through our mouths. He then picks up a towel and wafts the heat towards us. It’s like being licked with flames. He then wafts some more and it becomes a sort of interpretative dance with towels. Some of us get the giggles. Most of us are enjoying the spectacle of a man in a sarong dancing with towels in a sauna, even if we do appear to be getting slapped with heat for thinking such thoughts.
After a few minutes of this, Jack goes out to fetch a large bucket of ice which he pours into our hands – the cold is shocking – then invites us to rub the ice all over our bodies. This isn’t just masochism for the sake of it: the shock causes our bodies to create more white blood cells to fight infection. Jack tells us he hasn’t been ill in the 11 months since he’s been performing the ritual.
We also get a cold glass of orange flavoured water which cools the insides and makes the heat more bearable, but also more intense.
Next there is more (even hotter) wafting, this time with citrus oils. It’s been fifteen minutes, and the sauna part is over. After a quick rinse in the showers, we head over the wooden bridge to the glass-sided River House which hangs over the river Maine.
“We have detoxed our bodies and now we’re going to detox our minds,” says Jack, relaxing in a chair looking not at all hot and bothered, while the rest of us are in various shades of puce.
We lie down on mats and close our eyes as Jack leads us through a guided meditation and cool down. He begins by inviting us to listen to the sounds of the trickling river and birds in the forest. My heart, thumping from the heat, gradually slows down and my limbs relax. Jack’s soothing voice tells us to listen to our thoughts, then to let them go. We relax each part of our bodies and focus on the breath.
After twenty minutes or so, the meditation ends and we sit up to gaze at the river just as the sun comes out, splashing light into the serene room. We have a chat about mindfulness, and Jack talks about how he trained to be a Sauna Master in Austria. “It was really hard work but I slept better than l had done for years,” he says. “You will all sleep well tonight.”
The ritual ends with us all heading over to the Orange Room – a beautiful space in the main building at Galgorm with long windows overlooking the gardens, river and trees – and sit at a long table sharing a drink of cranberry juice and getting to know each other.
Later, I see Jack in the normal Galgorm spa uniform, looking like an ordinary mortal. I wonder if he goes into a phone-box to change into Sauna Master….