Mikkel Aaland is on a mission to find ‘the perfect sweat’ – a mission which is taking him around the world to film an eight-part TV documentary. What he’s discovered along the way is an explosive rebirth of ancient sauna (sweat) bathing traditions.
“Everywhere I go, I meet young people who are hungry for authentic, healthy experiences,” he says. “Millennials are infusing new life and excitement into sweat bathing rituals.
“In Russia, for example, the banya was mostly a place to clean and drink vodka, but now young people have transformed it back to its original position as a healthy place you go to relax and share community. In Finland, in the 70s, public baths were closing on a near daily basis and now the opposite is true. Almost every month a new one opens, crowded with enthusiastic patrons.”
Aaland has a life-long passion for heat experiences and in the mid 70s he spent three years researching and writing Sweat, a classic book detailing global bathing traditions. A lot has changed since then, he says, including the accumulation of serious medical research proving the benefits of thermal experiences. He also feels the world is more stressed out than ever and Perfect Sweat, the series, “is all about educating, inspiring and motivating as many people as possible to include the healthy activity in their daily life”.
Teaming up with local guides and directors, Aaland has already filmed episodes on the sauna in Finland and the banya in Russia and is set to focus on the Islamic hammam, Japanese mushi-buro, Mexican temazcal and American Indian and Eskimo sweat lodge.
“In the series I always ask what makes a perfect bathing experience? For some, it’s about who they’re sharing the bath [sauna] with. Others say the physical characteristic is the most important – does the bath get hot enough? Is the steam just right?
“One of my favourite responses came from a banya steam master outside Moscow who said ‘you have to allow time for the perfect bath’. Her words are a good thing for those of us living busy, hectic lives to take to heart.”
During his travels, he’s noticed that a number of luxury spas and wellness retreats are starting to embrace bathing traditions – which are increasingly popular with tourists and locals alike – and that those which offer just standard a steam and sauna room are missing a trick.
“I think of bathhouses like I think of restaurants,” he says. “There are restaurants that serve cheap, fast food with little attention to quality… The discerning customer will always go for quality and authenticity.
“I love what’s happening all over Europe with the sauna aufguss movement – spas that feature aufguss rituals have experienced a huge uptick in customers.”
Aaland, who’s in talks with streaming companies such as Netflix and National Geographic, hopes to finish filming Perfect Sweat by the end of 2019. The series is being made in cooperation with Seattle-based Bray’s Run Productions and Helsinki production company VAARA.