I’ve done some rather extreme things in the pursuit of wellness. I’ve guzzled gallons of magnesium citrate-infused water to flush out my system at the VIVAMAYR clinic. I’ve let a woman shower my legs with a jet of freezing water for a full hour to up my circulation at the Grace Belgravia. I’ve even allowed - no, encouraged - an acupuncturist to go to town on my face in order to relax furrowed muscles and promote calm, resulting in a liberal carpet of needles being applied to my face.
This week, I took things further. I was on a holiday at one of my favourite hotels in Austria, The Stanglwirt. Renowned for its wellness efforts, they’d added a wing since my last trip that's a paean to the powers of contrasting temperatures, aka sitting in a hugely hot sauna, followed by quite literally hotfooting it over to an icy pool for a dunk. On repeat. Naked. Yes, naked. As in, not a stitch of clothes in sight.
Despite having an Austrian mother and Hungarian father, my attitude towards nudity is decidedly British - pretty much the only time I’ll disrobe in front of a stranger is for a wax, and even then I talk non-stop in an attempt to distract myself from the trauma of being legs akimbo in front of a stranger under bright lights. When confronted with a beach teeming with bronzed bodies on a summer holiday, it takes me a good few days to don a bikini. When I do, I am aware when in said state of undress. I check nothing’s shifted aside or popped out. I do not jump/roll/change position speedily.
Given my feelings on public nudity, I don’t suppose you’ll be surprised to hear that the prospect of joining the twenty or so hotel guests who were happily bounding from ice pool to 95 degree sauna to waterfall shower to steam room IN BROAD DAYLIGHT filled me with trepidation. But my appetite for superior wellness triumphed - Austrians eulogise the ability of ice interspersed with heat to diminish cellulite, promote glow, tighten up saggy skin and basically make you feel more robust, so I decided I should probably join them.
And join them I did. Slowly at first - think clever boob-covering positioning in the sauna, a last minute abandoning of my towel before throwing myself into the ice water, and avoiding the five Austrians who were casually having a chat starkers outside the sauna, hands on hips, nips - and other things - on display.
After about ten minutes of sitting strategically, a wonderful thing happened: I realised nobody really cared that I was naked. That may sound like an arrogant admission - I am under no illusion that my body is especially noteworthy - but I’d always assumed that because I was self conscious when naked that other people would be paying attention. Turns out, nothing could be further from the truth.
Once the knowledge that everyone else was far too interested in the spa action to be interested in looking at me had sunk in, I started to feel a bit more liberated. The towel remained on its hook, not clutched around me like a safety blanket. I started to focus on my own experience of the spa, taking time to register the cold that enveloped my skin, and the delicious, embracing heat of the sauna. Naked though I was, I felt confident because I’d challenged myself and my preconceptions of my boundaries - and emerged victorious.
After four days of visits to their spa, I started to understand why they revere the alternation of hot and cold so - my legs were less puffy, had greater tone, and felt more energised, while my skin started to take on the backlit quality of all those healthy Austrians I’d been so envious of on arrival. Most of all, I felt more comfortable in my skin; there's something about realising you aren't especially remarkable and that your bodily flaws aren't a big deal that makes you feel empowered.
As my holiday drew to an end, I mentioned my newfound passion for naked spa-ing to the resident fitness buff, Bjoern Schulz, who smiled knowingly and added ‘yah, you can swim naked in some of the lakes in Austria too.’ Suddenly, I felt very British again, so I scuttled off promising that I might try it while fully aware that I wouldn’t. Well, not without a big fat glug of schnapps to lend me some Austrian courage.