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7 November 2016

Finnish Winters Staved Off by Sauna Culture

Saunas are an indulgence for spa days in America and the UK. Some people choose to warm up in a sauna before working out in place of a traditional warm-up routine. A staple in gyms, they’re somewhat avoided by the main crowd because of excessive body exposure. Never integrated into popular thought as more than a passing fancy, sauna culture is a foreign term to most. In Finland, saunas can be found in most buildings, including homes/apartments, offices, factories, hotels, ships, mines, and sports centres. In a country of 5.3 million people are 3.3 million saunas, averaging one per household. This is because sauna culture is baked into Finnish culture.

Perhaps this has a little bit to do with the climate of the Scandinavian country. It at least makes it into the top coldest countries on earth with winter temperatures ranging from -45°C (-49°F) to -22°C (-7.6°F).  Once the snow and wind enter the scene, there’s no escaping the harsh realities of winter, except for in the sauna. Entering a small room heated to nearly 100°C (212°F) is a mind-blowing experience in itself.

The process of sauna bathing is meditative and healing, a respite from the world of technology and information. You’re basically walking straight into a wall of heat. To do it right, you must enter naked, ideally after a shower. People are encouraged to stay as long as they like and return as many times as they like. To really get the full experience, it’s necessary to jump into a lake or roll in the snow afterwards. If that sounds like too much to bear, the faint-hearted will find that a shower has the same effect. Some hotel saunas have kept the tradition of the washing-lady, a woman who washes you after the sauna. In the warmer months, sauna-goers can expect to be given a “vihta,” a bunch of birch branches with which to whack the body, stimulating circulation.

Men and women go to separate chambers in saunas and, it is made very clear that sex is not a part of the bathing experience in any way. In saunas, eating and drinking is not allowed, and talking topics steer clear of any provocative topics. Afterwards, a cold beer is much appreciated.

Jarmo Lehtola of Saunaseura, the Finnish Sauna Society, said to BBC, “Children were taught to behave in a sauna as if they were in church.” Saunaseura is a cultural association dedicated to preserving sauna culture and modifying it for modern day application.

Nowadays, the standard sauna is heated by electrical elements. This eliminates the fire hazard posed by original smoke saunas and wood-heated saunas. However, those are still used throughout Finland today.

  • In smoke saunas, a wood-burning stove and several hundreds of pounds of rocks serve as the heating elements. Wood is burned for about five hours, directly heating the rocks, and filling the small room with smoke which coats the walls with a thick, black layer of soot. Once sufficiently heated, the flame is put out and the room ventilated through a small hole in the ceiling. It is then ready for use, yielding a soft heat and the pleasant ambience of woodsmoke. This is considered to be the best method.
  • A wood heated sauna, most closely related to ancient Finnish saunas, is simple by comparison. Burning wood is used to heat the mass of rocks and the room itself. Continuously heated stoves hold burning wood during the sauna bathing, achieving a high temperature.
  • An electrically heated sauna is the safest choice of the three. Wall- and floor-mounted heaters are simple to use with remote controls to regulate temperature and visible timers.

Historically, saunas were the place to bathe during winters when running water was non-existent. Sauna trips were prescribed for everything from heart disease to hypertension to the common cold. As a sterile place replete with hot water, saunas served as a birthing chamber before public health care became the norm. The sterility comes from the lining of bacteria-resistant soot along the walls of traditional smoke saunas. Saunas were used for purification rituals before marriage and as a preparation room for the deceased. Finland’s president from 1956 to 1982 advocated the diplomatic healing powers of saunas, conducting negotiations with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to remain neutral throughout the Cold War. All this should indicate the firm place that saunas have in Finland’s national culture. 

Jacqui Litvan

Jacqui Litvan, wielding a bachelor's degree in English, strives to create a world of fantasy amidst the ever-changing landscape of military life. Attempting to become a writer, she fuels herself with coffee (working as a barista) and music (spending free time as a raver).