Saunas and Finland are fairly synonymous. The art of sauna bathing is an integral part of life in Finland. It’s considered a necessity, not a luxury. Finns use saunas on a regular basis. Some incorporate it into a daily morning routine. Others might visit a sauna weekly or monthly. There might be something to this practice since Finns are repeatedly ranked the happiest people in the world.
While a foreigner might feel intimidated at the thought of getting naked to hang out in a hot box and sweat with other people, it’s the way Finns relax and unwind. It’s also a way to connect with family and friends. Sharing a sauna is a bonding experience in Finland, but it’s not considered sexual or intimate, despite the practice of going in the nude. Conversations and decisions are made in a sauna. It is even said that more decisions are made in the sauna than in the boardroom in Finland.
If you are thinking about creating a sauna experience at your modern cabin, take a cue from the Finns on the art of sauna bathing. It truly is a magical experience that will leave you feeling both relaxed and invigorated. If you do it regularly, you may also noticed the health benefits of the suana.
The traditional Finnish sauna is heated by a wood fire that in turn heats a basket of rocks. The rocks become extremely hot and when water is splashed on the rocks, steam is created. This is also referred to as a wet sauna.
The heat in the sauna is usually kept between 175-230 F ( 80–110 °C) while the steam creates up to 30% or more humidity. The contrast of being in a hot steam sauna followed by cold water is the traditional way to sauna. Once your body is hot, you might jump in a lake, river or the sea. Or a roll in the snow. Or simply taking a cool shower if the other options aren’t appealing.
The Finns have a concept called Sisu which generally translates to grit, bravery or hardiness. That’s why you might see Finns plunging through the ice after a sauna or engaging in winter swimming. The alternating hot and cold, also known as contrast therapy, has been touted to have various health benefits.
A dry sauna can be heated by electric stove, gas or wood-burning. It offers similar benefits to a wet sauna but provides dry heat without the steam. Some users find the dry heat more tolerable than the humidity of a wet sauna.
The oldest type of sauna in Finland is the smoke sauna, which does not have a chimney. Wood is burned and smoke fills the room. When the sauna reaches the appropriate temperature, the fire is extinguished and the room is ventilated. Smoke saunas are considered traditional although they are not as widely used today due to the time and effort required to operate them. Heating a smoke sauna can take most of a day.
Regardless of the type of sauna you use, there are some basic rules for how to practice the art of sauna bathing.
9 Tips for Taking a Sauna Like a Finn
Saunas are typically taken in the nude in Finland. Nudity is no big deal in Finland and clothes and swimsuits are generally not used. But if you’re feeling shy, wrap a towel around you.
Men and women visit the sauna separately in Finland unless they are members of the same family. If the sauna is a mixed-use sauna, bathing suits are usually worn. When in doubt, ask your host.
It’s common practice to take a shower before you enter a sauna. Once inside, sit on a small towel for good hygiene. Grooming inside the sauna (shaving, tweezing, washing) is considered a faux pas.
Conversations in a sauna tend to be quiet ones, not boisterous. There is an old saying in Finland, that you should behave in a sauna as you would in church. Meaningful conversations take place in the sauna but not loud music or boisterous behavior. This is a time for connection and relaxation.
Eating and Drinking
Eating or drinking is normally reserved for post sauna bathing. It is traditional in Finland to enjoy a cold drink (beer or cider) after a sauna. It’s also a good idea to have water nearby to keep hydrated.
A traditional Finnish sauna may include roasting sausages – either on the open fire or in tin foil directly on the stove. Beer and sausage are enjoyed after a sauna.
Beat yourself with a branch
It might sound odd, but birch twigs (called a “vihta” or “vast”, depending on the region) are used in the sauna to improve circulation. Finns gently beat their bodies with fresh birch twigs in the sauna to improve circulation and relax muscles. It’s also invigorating and feels great on your skin. Plus a wonderful scent of birch spreads through the sauna.
A traditional Finnish sauna uses water on hot rocks to create steam. There is no rule about how often you can throw water on the rocks to make it more steamy. But in general, it’s common courtesy to ask your fellow sauna go-ers if they are ready for more steam before going for it.
Jump in the Lake
Once you’re hot, it’s customary to cool off by jumping in a lake or the sea or even rolling in the snow. Or simply taking a cool shower. You might do several rounds of heating and cooling yourself during a sauna experience. It’s really up to you and your comfort level. This part of t he process is unique and why I find it more invigorating that a hot tub.
Keep it Natural
Lighting in a sauna is generally dim – either from daylight or light from the dressing room. Colored lights, loud music, or strong scents are not traditional to a real Finnish sauna. Fresh birch or natural oils may be used to enhance the experience.
Relax and Breath
A sauna experience should be relaxing and provide downtime to rejuvenate your soul, clear your mind and connect with yourself and friends. It’s the perfect antidote to life’s business.
Make sure to take the time to slow down and fully enjoy the experience. If you want to add to the experience, you can also incorporate aromatherapy by using some of these recommended essential oils for the sauna.
There is nothing quite as magical as practicing the art of sauna, jumping in a cold lake and star gazing under an open sky.