Tuesday, September 7, 2010

A few words about sauna.

I'm feeling a little bored and insomniac tonight so I thought I'd write a little about the sauna culture in Finland.  Probably no other part of life here has gotten as much press around the globe, seeing as the word itself is the only Finnish loan-word in the English language, but also more recently with the recent death of a Russian contestant in Finland's sauna championships.

Here in the States the sauna is seen as something of a luxury: something that people only encounter in spas, expensive hotels, or gyms.  It's often confused with a steam room or draped in the exotic tones of Turkish bathhouses.  At any rate, a culture of sauna is definitely not something that most people in the states could really have, unless you happened to grow up around Finns in Michigan or Minnesota.  It really is a unique thing that is a significant part of life here as well as the Finnish identity when abroad.  Well, so is salmiakki, but that hasn't quite caught on as much with the rest of the world.

First, let's set one thing straight.  Finns take their vowels seriously and they have a lot of them, and pronounce them all.  "Sow-nah" (to rhyme with cow), not "saw-nuh".  And that's not hard to pronounce, it just sounds a little funny at first.  If you want hard, feel free to wrap your tongue around "jäätelö" or "höyryjyrä".  Or even "löyly", which is the steam you get from throwing water on the sauna rocks.

Now that we can say it properly, let's talk about the actual mechanics of the sauna.  Unlike a steam room, which is constantly heated by huge amounts of steam to an insanely high humidity, a sauna is normally fairly dry.  The dry heat allows much higher temperatures to be tolerated and too much steam can actually be fatal, as unfortunately demonstrated by the recent sauna competition.  The room itself and everything in it is generally made from pine or another soft wood, and the heater is usually electric with a pile of rocks on the top.  The rocks are heated by either the electric coils or by a wood stove, and are there to retain the heat for the sauna bathers to enjoy.  The rocks need to be a specific kind of rock that will not crack or split when cold water is thrown on them to create steam.  Older saunas often have a wood stove with a chimney and particularly old saunas don't even have a chimney.  In these savusaunas the smoke builds up inside until it is forced out through a small window with the first bursts of steam.  These are hard to find these days but some people still have one out in the country where they spend the summer.  Most sauna afficiandos would agree that a wood sauna has the best and softest heat, and that being in an electric sauna is, in comparison, akin to being inside a microwave.  Electric stoves take much less time and work to heat which is easier for apartment life, but there's an element to sauna heating that approaches an art that is lost with modern methods.  Even a newcomer like me can tell the difference when the heat is coming mainly from the stove, or when it's coming from every surface in the room, as it does after five hours of slow wood heating.  And it can be quite hot: 80 C is probably the usual around here, with the hardcore/experienced sauna bathers cranking it up to 100 or 110.  And the competitors?  They train at 140 C.

So now that you have this hot room made of wood, what do you do in there?  You go in there and bathe, that's what.  Yes, in your birthday suit.  Yes, with other people of the same sex or with your family.  Contrary to what America thinks of the sauna, it's not a place to get your mack on - the heat alone would make you pass out.  It's a place to bathe, so the nudity is practical, and they are always done segregated by sex.  The sauna is a tradition stretching back to the ice age and it's a place to be respectful: a quiet, clean, meditative and thoughtful place, where you can collect your thoughts.  In the old days, people used to have a sauna on Saturday evenings, so they'd be cleaned up for church on Sunday.  You could have a special sauna for Christmas or Easter as well.  Only a couple of generations ago, the sauna was where most people were born - in a rural society it was the cleanest place available.  It's also rumored to have healing properties: there's a saying that if sauna, booze and tar don't help, then your ailment is fatal!  And while most people are born in hospitals these days, nearly every house or apartment has a sauna available, and over the entire country there are almost as many saunas as there are cars.  Even my apartment has one that is available for free on Wednesday evenings.

Inside the sauna you can always find a bucket of water with a ladle for throwing water onto the rocks.  By adding bursts of steam you can make it a little more hot and humid, or you can throw just one or two to keep the air on the dryer side.  One of the optional parts of the sauna is the vihta or vasta, depending on what you prefer to call it.  It's a bundle of soft thin birch branches lashed together that is used to smack yourself on the legs and back, supposedly to increase circulation, or just to feel more manly.  It does, however, make the place smell wonderfully of birch, even if you end up covered in leaves.  When you feel like you're getting too warm, you can go out and jump in the lake, or just stand around outside and have a beer, and then go back in when you're ready.  Rinse and repeat: it's easy to spend half a day doing this.  Eventually, you shower down when you're done, and then can go back into the world feeling like your skin has been cleaned from the inside out.

Most of the saunas in the countryside are located next to a lake, so that one can emerge from a nearly boiling-temperature room to run down a pier and jump into a chilly lake.  Apparently this feels refreshing, though I can't say I've had the courage to try it yet.  In the winter people cut a hole in the now-frozen lake, or just dive directly into the snow.  And anytime of the year, sauna is always accompanied by beer and perhaps a snack such as makkara (sausage) to replenish liquids and salts.  It's a good excuse for a party, an excursion to the countryside, or just a break in the daily grind.  At any rate, I've really come to love how relaxing it is, whether with friends or alone.  And hey, all that flushing of the pores does wonders for the complexion!

Hopefully I'll have my own someday that I can heat up whenever I feel like it, but for now I'm happy to use my building's sauna and my friend's amazing wood sauna on special occasions.  It really is one of the things I enjoy most about this place.


  1. I am really enjoying reading your updates here--thank you for sharing :) I'm glad you're settling in, and I'm glad I'm learning!

  2. OK, I have to admit, that sounds really good.

  3. That's true, a lot of people don't realize that saunas aren't just for luxury, they're also good for improving your health. Thanks for the tips for Finnish saunas. And if you want to have your own sauna, you might want to check out infrared sauna units.

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  4. You really did a great job by posting about the sauna.Thanks for your nice information about it.
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