There’s nothing quite as traditionally Finnish as sauna, and many Finns believe that you can’t truly understand the country or its culture without first experiencing sauna.
These wooden structures are an integral part of daily life in the Scandinavian nation. They can be found on the shores of numerous lakes, in private apartments and country cottages, within corporate headquarters, at the Parliament House, and even down in the depths of Pyhäsalmi Mine (the deepest base-metal mine in Europe). While five million people reside in Finland, it is estimated that there are over three million saunas — that’s an average of one per household.
But for Finnish people, the sauna is more than just a place to relax with friends and family; it’s a place for physical and mental cleansing. In fact, Finns think of saunas not as a luxury, but as a necessity, and many suggest that you should behave in a sauna as you would in church.
That isn’t to say that saunas aren’t for relaxation or fun, though — they are also seen as communal meeting grounds and, historically, as egalitarian places. Even in the military, saunas are treated as such, and no titles or hierarchies are used inside them.
Although saunas have existed in other nations for centuries, in Finland, they’ve become entwined with the national culture.
If you’re curious about the ins and outs of this ancient ritual, you’ve come to the right place.
SAUNAS, A HISTORY
Although the origins of the Finnish sauna are difficult to trace, the steamy relaxation havens made their first appearance in Finland’s rural areas, and the earliest versions date back to 7000 B.C. The proliferation of bathhouses was recorded in Europe during the same time period, but Finnish bathing habits were poorly documented throughout most of history. One of the first mentions of what is believed to be sauna customs was written by Nestor the Chronicler in 1112. He described “hot wooden saunas in which naked bathers beat themselves with branches and pour cold water over themselves” — intense, we know. But we’ll explain in a bit.
During the Reformation in Scandinavia, the popularity of saunas expanded. While the rest of Europe was bathing rarely, annually, or not at all, Finns began cleaning themselves in saunas at least once a week. This is when Saturday became known as the traditional sauna day.
As time passed, town saunas were built in public yards and, eventually, inside detached and terraced houses and blocks of flats, where they were shared by families living in the building. Soon, private saunas became more popular. One reason sauna culture is said to have flourished in Finland is that when people moved, the first thing they did was build a sauna in their new home. Today, this principle seems to be gaining even more ground, as people often build private saunas in their apartments and use them at least once a week.
TYPES OF SAUNAS
Traditional saunas are heated by wood, which is burned in a stove with or without a chimney. The latter — a smoke-sauna — is often referred to as the “original” sauna and is said to be the best. In such saunas, the stove door is closed after the wood has burned down and most of the smoke has escaped. This leaves the embers to heat the sauna to the proper temperature and give off a soft heat and the aroma of woodsmoke.
In addition to these main sauna types, there are also electric and mobile saunas, which you can find built into cars, buses, and trailers, and even attached bicycles! In fact, there are several companies in Finland that rent mobile saunas each year for the annual mobile sauna event held in Teuva.
THE SAUNA RITUAL
The basic sauna ritual is comprised of warming up, sweating, and taking in löyly vapor; whisking, washing, and cooling off; and repeating the process several times.
That said, let’s take it step by step.
Sauna typically begins by taking a shower. You then sit in the sauna as the room is warmed between 176 and 230 °F (80 and 110 °C). Water is then thrown on the hot stones topping the kiuas, the special stove used to warm the sauna. This produces a large amount of steam, known as löyly, and increases the moisture and apparent temperature inside the room.
Occasionally, you are given a bunch of leafy, fragrant silver birch boughs, called a vihta, to gently “beat” yourself. This has a relaxing effect on muscles, smells wonderful, and helps to soothe any irritation from mosquito bites. When the heat begins to feel uncomfortable, it is customary to go for a swim or take another shower. In the wintertime, however, rolling in the snow or jumping into a frozen lake is also common.
After cooling down from your first sauna, you then go back into the hot room and begin the cycle again. The number and duration of cycles vary from person to person based on preference. Usually, it’s common to complete at least two or three cycles, which will last between 30 minutes and two hours in total. In Finland’s many summer cottages, bathing sometimes extends well into the night.
The sauna session itself is then finished with a thorough wash and, oftentimes, by roasting a few sausages.
Depending on the size, composition, relationships, and the age structure of the group entering the sauna, three basic patterns can emerge: (1) everyone goes into the sauna at the same time, (2) men and women take saunas separately, or (3) individual families enter the sauna separately. That said, mixed saunas with non-family members are most common among young adults and are quite rare for older people or on more formal occasions.
Another thing to note is that inside the sauna, it is considered a faux pas to wear clothing, though it is acceptable to sit on a small towel or pefletti — a disposable tissue designed to endure heat and humidity. While cooling off, however, it is common to wrap a towel around your body.
Although mixed saunas are quite common, they are not viewed as uncomfortable or sexual atmospheres in the least. Sauna bathing is viewed as a ritual that cleanses the body and purifies the mind. Finns often describe the frame of mind experienced after a sauna as euphoric, or like a rebirth of sorts. Saunas are a place where unpleasant feelings fade away and you feel at peace with yourself and the world.
SAUNA ETIQUETTE AND PREPARATION
Basic sauna etiquette is simple. You undress and shower before going in. Otherwise, there are few rules. Stay as long as you feel comfortable, and return to the sauna several times if you wish!
Remember that bathing in a sauna with people is somewhat of a bonding process. In fact, it is said that in Finland, more important decisions get made in saunas than in meetings.
The most important thing is to relax, socialize, drink plenty of fluids, and enjoy the blissful, post-sauna feeling of having cleaned both your body and your mind.
In the words of the Finnish writer Maila Talvio: “The sauna is ready.”
Header image by Jennifer Burk