Finland has 3.2 million saunas in a country of 5.5 million people, which means that practically everyone has the opportunity to use a sauna regularly. While the sauna is a part of daily life as much as it is a part of special occasions, festivities and celebrations simply aren’t the same without a sauna.
In Finland, the sauna has a long history of being intertwined with the key moments of life: birth, marriage and death. Until the mid-1900s, Finnish women often gave birth in saunas, as they provided a hygienic and calm environment. The sauna also played an important role in wedding ceremonies, with the bride and the groom taking a sauna in their respective homes before marriage. When people passed away, their bodies were washed in the sauna before burial. As such, the sauna has played a significant role in both the daily life of Finns as well as special occasions.
There are also many superstitions related to the sauna. On special holidays, such as Lent, Easter, Midsummer, the Kekri harvest festival, Christmas and New Year, saunas were heated for the spirits that were believed to inhabit them. Finns were careful not to anger the spirits by speaking, cursing or making loud noises in the sauna. If someone were to make the mistake of taking a sauna too late in the day or behaving inappropriately, it was even believed that the spirit of the sauna could appear in the form of the devil himself.
When people entered the sauna, they typically greeted the spirit of the sauna, and thanked the spirit when leaving. The sauna was traditionally also believed to be inhabited by sauna elves, another supernatural being that sauna-goers needed to keep satisfied. Löyly, the Finnish word for the steam produced by throwing water on the hot stones on the sauna stove, has variants in several Finno-Ugric languages and its original meaning was ‘spirit’ or ‘soul’.
Taking a sauna has traditionally also been linked to Christian traditions in Finland. Christian holidays involved a focus on spiritual as well as physical purification, and taking a sauna was as reverent an occasion as going to the church.
Historically, sauna culture differed between western and eastern Finland. In the western parts of the country, the sauna was used as a utility building for a variety of chores ranging from butchering animals and curing meat to drying linen and malt. It was also used for doing laundry and performing cupping therapy. Many households used the sauna for its primary purpose only once a week. In eastern parts of the country, the sauna was heated more frequently and the sauna building was primarily used for bathing.
The Finnish sauna tradition can be traced back to prehistoric times. The oldest known saunas were made from pits dug in a slope or the ground, which were heated with rocks and lined with animal skins. This type of sauna was also used by Native Americans, which means that Finnic peoples are not the only ones who have a long history of using saunas. However, it is believed that Finns are the only people for whom the sauna was also a place for bathing.
Log saunas became common in the first centuries AD. Until the 1800s, saunas were primarily smoke saunas with no chimneys or windows. In rural Finland, the chimney sauna—which is today referred to as the traditional sauna—only surpassed the smoke sauna in popularity after the 1940s.
The number saunas shared by city blocks began to grow in the late 1800s as urbanisation took hold. Small city apartments lacked proper bathing facilities, which meant that the shared Saturday sauna became a weekly bathing ritual for the working class. While saunas were traditionally located in separate courtyard buildings, the shortage of available land meant that saunas began to be built in residential buildings. This trend was supported by the growing popularity of electric sauna heaters.
Once suburban residential development began in earnest in the 1960s, shared saunas in apartment buildings became commonplace. Many apartment buildings had a sauna for which each household had its own fixed weekly time slot. Some also had designated weekly public sauna hours for men and women.
In the 1970s, saunas built inside apartments began to replace shared sauna facilities. These days, new apartments typically have their own saunas. However, they have been criticised for excessive energy consumption, so the use of shared sauna facilities provided by housing companies is likely to continue.
Public saunas are seeing a resurgence in popularity, at least in Helsinki, supported by new trends such as the sharing economy and a greater sense of community. Several new public saunas have been opened in recent years, many of which also include other services, such as restaurants.
Men and women
Internationally, the sauna may be associated with sexually charged situations. In Finland, however, the sauna is a place for relaxation and bathing. Unlike in German saunas, in Finnish saunas men and women generally take turns using the sauna separately. Mixed saunas are a possibility for families, or when the sauna-goers agree to take a mixed sauna. Parents typically take a sauna together with their children.
In Finland, it is customary to not wear any clothing in the sauna. Finns typically have a very natural attitude towards nudity, starting from a young age. Taking a sauna in the nude is also the norm in public saunas, including those located at indoor swimming pools.
The intensity of the heat in a Finnish sauna is largely controlled by the frequency and volume of throwing water on the hot stones to generate steam known as löyly. It is customary to check with other people in the sauna before throwing more water on the stones. Sauna-goers are expected to regulate the intensity of their experience by moving down to a lower bench or leaving the room if necessary. In a German sauna, throwing löyly is the job of a Saunameister. Most Finns today prefer a gentle and somewhat humid löyly. A gentle pace and intensity for throwing löyly also means that the sauna session will be enjoyable for a longer period of time.
For most people, the preferred temperature for a sauna is approximately 80–90 degrees Celsius. The hottest place in a sauna is the upper bench, while the lower bench is cooler. The actual impact of löyly on the perception of heat is difficult to quantify, as it is influenced by factors such as humidity and the heat accumulated in the walls and benches.
Another aspect of the Finnish sauna experience is gently beating oneself with a bath broom made from birch branches and leaves. The bath broom is called vihta in most parts of Finland and vasta in the eastern part of the country. Using a vihta increases perspiration and relaxes the muscles. In fact, using a vihta or something similar is a common feature of all historical sauna cultures. Native American tribes, for example, used the leaves of the maize plant or other plants with large leaves for the same purpose.
Seat covers are used in Finnish saunas. Their use is mandatory in most public saunas, but they are also used in many private saunas. Seat covers serve several purposes: they maintain good hygiene, protect the benches and also provide insulation for naked skin against the hot benches. The seat covers used in saunas in private homes are often long linen towels that cover the entire bench. In public saunas, such as those at indoor swimming pools, disposable seat covers made from paper are used instead. When one is invited to a Finnish home to take a sauna, it is considered good manners to bring a towel as well as a seat cover. A small towel can be used as a seat cover in such cases.
Swimming, even ice swimming, is typically associated with taking a sauna. A dip in cold water feels refreshing between löyly sessions and cools down the body. However, ice swimming is not recommended for people who have a heart condition, a respiratory infection or a fever. If the sauna is not located next to a lake or the sea, cooling down the body can also be achieved by bathing in snow.
Beer and sausage
Traditionally, the beverage of choice for taking a sauna is cold beer, which is enjoyed during cooling-down breaks. It is a good idea to bring plenty of drinks when going to a Finnish sauna. Another popular custom is grilling sausages wrapped in aluminium foil on the sauna stove.
Foreigners in the sauna
For many foreigners, their first experience of a Finnish sauna is a memorable one. Getting into a confined space heated to almost 100 degrees Celsius, naked with strangers, sounds almost too peculiar for some.
The members of the Helsinki-based Finnish Sauna Society are used to introducing foreigners to the Finnish sauna experience. Having done this for years and years, they have seen many visitors fall in love with Finnish sauna culture. The simultaneously calming and refreshing effect of the sauna is a surprise for many first-timers.
Of course, some foreigners perceive the nudity involved with the sauna experience as too unpleasant to overcome, and not everyone likes the fairly extreme heat of the sauna.
Taking a sauna is considered to be healthy, and it is believed to help with a variety of minor ailments. The health effects of the sauna have been studied for several decades, especially in Finland, but also in Germany and Japan.
The health-promoting effects of the sauna include the moisturising effect it has on the skin. People who take a sauna frequently tend to have fewer issues with dry skin than those who take a sauna only on rare occasions. Studies also suggest that taking a sauna can help in the treatment of psoriasis and many other skin conditions.
Taking a sauna improves cardiovascular function, which makes it a suitable activity for those who suffer from congestive heart failure and high blood pressure. Warming up the tissues in the body also prevents the process that leads to arteriosclerosis. High temperatures also improve the circulation of blood to the extremities.
The heat in the sauna has also been found to alleviate chronic pain, rheumatoid arthritis and asthma symptoms, while also lowering insulin resistance, which helps prevent diabetes.
Taking a sauna does not pose a risk to pregnant women. However, saunas are not suitable for small babies due to their low tolerance for heat.
Taking a sauna can also alleviate the symptoms of depression to some extent, as the heat in the sauna releases endorphins in the brain. The relaxing effect of the sauna also helps those who suffer from sleep disorders.
Source: Finnish Sauna Society
Hanna Malmivaara, Vice President, Communications, YIT Corporation, tel. +358 40 561 6568, firstname.lastname@example.org