the finnish sauna experience
// “sauna to the finnish is sacred” //
this is the description a man in helsinki gave us when we went in search
of a sauna experience in helsinki. we quickly realized how true this statement
is – saunas are not taken lightly around here! one of my favorite things about
visiting new places is experiencing and learning about the things that are important
to the people there. here in finland, learning about the sauna ritual was amazing.
i’ll be honest with you, i haven’t been to many saunas in my time so when
i heard how serious the finnish take them, i was quick to research things like what to wear in a sauna, how long you should stay in one, and other etiquettes.
there is an old finnish saying which tells you to sit in the sauna
as devoutly as you would in church. this may be surprising to you
(it was to us), because i’ve never thought of saunas having meaning.
it’s difficult for outsiders to understand the importance of the sauna for the finns
…so, we learned all about it and here are some facts that i was so fascinated by!
- the finns are prepared when it comes to saunas – it’s estimated that there are around 2 million saunas in finland alone! there are 5 million people in the country, so that is a pretty good sauna-to-citizen ratio. I had heard a little bit about full spectrum infrared saunas but I didn’t really know what to expect when I was in Finland.
- 99% of finns regularly go to the sauna, and usually a few times a week (a lot go almost daily).
- originally there was a day specially set for the sauna: saturday was sauna day, and marked the beginning of the day of rest on sunday.
- now people go to the sauna on all different days, but almost every finn still goes to the sauna on christmas even and midsummer eve as per tradition.
- finnish saunas sit at 60 to 100 °C (140 to 212 °F) and for beginners, the time to stay is about 10-15 minutes.
- after the lšyly, people go out of the sauna to cool off – one favorite form of cooling is a dip in the baltic sea or in one of the 200,000 lakes in finland. (a cold shower serves the same purpose but isn’t as fun! :)
- on average, people return to the sauna to take lšyly about three times in a session, after which they wash, dry themselves and have a light meal. it is also recommended that people drink water during sauna since you lose a lot with sweat!
- the finns treat the sauna as a form of cleaning and bathing, in which hot and cold alternate.
- if you don’t know how a traditional sauna works, it is a space heated by hot stones. the platform and benches are above the stove, and humidity is increased by löyly: throwing water on the stones. this makes the temperature decrease, but the added humidity feels hot on the skin.
- finns also use the vasta or vihta, which is a bunch of leafy birch twigs soaked in water and whisked on the body to relax muscles. (at a lot of saunas, there will be a finnish lady who does this to the bathers – quite the experience!!)
- the warmth of the sauna eases muscle tension and generally relaxes the body after hard work.
- finns take sauna in the nude, which can be a little bit surprising to first-timers! swimsuits are fine, but they have no place for the finns in their saunas.
- the sauna has become universal, as a “sweat bath” known all over the world.
- the oldest saunas in Finland were caves dug into a slope; the same type of sweat lodge that american natives used on the prairies.
- unlike central european countries, finland has never lost its sauna tradition. in the middle ages, saunas were shut down all over europe, and by the late 17th century, virtually all saunas had disappeared from europe. this was because the sauna was looked upon as a den of iniquity which bred bad habits like drinking and debauchery, and spread disease. in finland, it had none of these negative connotations (it’s sacred to them, remember? :) and so it remained.
- another reason for the disappearance of the sauna in european cities was a shortage of wood, which was needed to heat the sauna. this is a problem finland has ever had or probably will ever have, which you’ll see when you visit this beautiful wooded country :)
- as it is such an excellent form of stress relief, the sauna is sometimes used as part of business negotiations or political talks. in sauna people tend to lose their notions of rank and are able to relax…i think our politicians should try this! should we install a sauna in congress? :)
- saunas used to serve many purposes for the finnish. along with bathing, it was used to nurse the sick, wash clothes, cure meat, and even see both ends of life:
- traditionally in finland, the sauna was the place where new life began. women would give birth in the sauna becuase it was a sacred place of ritual, easy to heat water, and provided privacy for women. up until the 1940s this was very common…can you believe that?!
- another thing that is hard to believe ^^ finns are taken to the sauna for the first time around 4-6 months – as babies! saunas are okay for kids, but for less time and parents have to be really careful about it. 98% of pregnant finnish women go to sauna as well — crazy!
- the finns never take alcohol into the sauna – it does not belong there, and it’s dangerous as it numbs the senses.
- for the finn, the sauna is the beginning and end of all things good: it refreshes the mind as well as the body. the physiological effects of the sauna have been studied worldwide, and although there are no magical aspects or curing of diseases, the health effects of the sauna relieves stress & minor symptoms, cleansing the body.
how interesting are these facts? i loved learning more and then experiencing
the finnish sauna. there are a lot of options and some of the best places
are in other parts of finland outside of helsinki, or there is an option of
the finnish sauna society where you’ll get quite the full experience, but
as beginners we opted for a more personal sauna session at living day
spa & sauna right in helsinki. it’s a little more modern and offers all
different services, but the sauna is traditional and included with any visit.
the sauna lounge room was the best – with sparkling water, teas,
snacks, fruit, and lockers to get outfitted in the sauna robes:
haha, no idea if i put this on right… but here goes! we enjoyed the sauna
and especially the fact that steam is incorporated into finnish saunas. it was
like a steam room and sauna combined here, which was amazing! i think the
very best part of saunas is the way they smell – that cedar wood is unmistakable
every time you open a sauna door, and there are few things better. it takes me back
to my childhood, since my grandparents had a sauna in their park city, utah home for
après-ski sauna sessions, and during the summer they would store all of the toys and
train sets in here so all of the toys would smell like cedar and my cousin and i would play
in there for hours (with no heat on obviously :) maybe that’s why i love the smell even more!
we walked back out onto the streets of helsinki feeling like locals –
relaxed, de-stressed, and happy from our sauna experience!
thank you living day spa – helsinki for welcoming us!