What happens in a sauna?

Saunas can be enjoyed in many different ways: long discussions on various topics such as politics are common, business deals are made and concluded in the sauna. Sometimes the sauna is the perfect place for a heart-to-heart. Often, however, true to their reticent nature, the Finnish like to enjoy the warmth of the sauna silently. Sauna etiquette is important: be respectful, and take your cue from your sauna hosts.

Traditionally, Finnish women would give birth in the sauna, though the sauna wasn’t turned on during labour. This may seem a bit unusual, but because of its high temperatures and easy access to warm water, the sauna is a hygienic, almost sterile environment – the perfect place for childbirth. Saunas were also once used to clean the dead and store their bodies before burial – saunas are a huge part of Finnish life quite literally from cradle to grave.

Cooling down after sauna

There’s nothing quite like going to the sauna to unwind after a stressful week at work or simply to escape the gruellingly cold winter days. But getting warm in the sauna doesn’t stop there – next on the agenda is cooling down, of course!

This can be done in a number of ways. Classics include: rolling in the snow, taking a cold shower (simple but effective), or even just sitting outside to enjoy a nice, refreshing beer or lonkero (a Finnish ‘long drink’ made up of gin and grapefruit soda). One of the best ways of cooling down is to jump into a soothingly cold lake on a summer’s evening.In the winter, this translates to dipping yourself into a hole cut in the ice called an avanto – not for the fainthearted.

Saunas – a nice way to make friends

Nordic people (cough, the Finnish) are known to be somewhat reserved. Finns in particular have a bit of a reputation for not talking to strangers, and being hard to coax a smile out of.

However when it comes to sauna, the Nords are surprisingly forthcoming. Sauna is seen as ‘natural’ – people who are total strangers to each other will take all their clothes off and spend some time together in the sauna. It’s custom to be naked in the sauna, if not a rule. In a public sauna – at a swimming pool – you’re not actually allowed to take your swimwear into the sauna. However, saunas are almost always separated between women and men.

The history of saunas

The sauna isn’t a new invention: it appeared on the scene around 2000 years ago. The original sauna differs to the modern one but the idea was pretty much the same: pits were dug in the ground first, then a fire was made, onto which stones were placed. Water was then thrown on the stones to create steam, which is called ‘löyly’ in Finnish- the steam is what creates the warmth.

Different types of sauna

Traditional sauna

The most famous sauna is the wood-burning sauna – the ‘traditional’ Finnish sauna (nowadays, more common in the countryside). It has a chimney and uses burning wood to heat the stove called ‘kiuas’ in Finnish. Wood saunas have a more authentic feel – nothing quite beats the scent of burning wood, and looking after the fire is part of the whole sauna experience.

Modern sauna

The electric sauna was invented in 1938. this allowed greater control over the temperature in the sauna, as well as eliminating the need for a chimney and a fire. Electric saunas are common in public places and at homes.

Smoke sauna

A third type, found mostly in Finland, is a smoke sauna (‘savusauna’) – this is one of the oldest types of sauna and is seen as the original sauna. It doesn’t have a chimney, as they were introduced later. A fire is used to warm a large stove with stones on top and smoke fills the room. The fire is allowed to burn to its embers and the smoke is vented out, leaving a warm sauna to enjoy. Smoke saunas have a pleasant smell and are heralded by sauna connoisseurs.

Fun fact: the ‘steam sauna’ (or steam room) has absolutely nothing to do with the Nordic countries, and was actually invented by the Romans. Steam rooms do not have a stove but a steam generator, which boils water into steam that is released into the air.

Tips on having a good sauna: dos and don’ts

  • It’s important to remember to stay hydrated when spending time in the sauna
  • Ask permission to throw water on the stove from your other sauna-goers. They will always say yes, but it’s good to ask
  • Don’t just chuck the water in brusquely: it’s more about a sharp wrist action. And aim well
  • A cardinal mistake is to leave the sauna while the steam is still in the air after throwing water onto the stove  (especially if the thrower is you)
  • Know your limits and spend only a few minutes in the sauna if you can’t handle it (or sit down at a lower level. Lower rungs can be positively cool, even in a hot sauna)
  • Wet the wooden benches so they are comfortable to sit on. People often have special sauna towels to sit on, and public saunas often provide disposable ons. Find out what the etiquette is
  • It’s often required that you shower before and after the sauna in swimming pools
  • Use sauna products like honey, sauna scent etc judiciously, especially when with others
  • Sauna is a place of peace so limit loud noises
  • Lay back on the sauna bench and take it all in. Stretch out your whole body for ultimate relaxation.

Saunas are used to party and celebrate – when a firm finishes its quarter, it’s common to hire a sauna for the work team. Large parties almost always have a visit to the sauna, it’s just a question of who goes first – men or women.

Aside from sauna being used for parties, it is also a common family pastime. Families spend quality time together and the stove is perfect to grill a few sausages – delicious.

There’s also an unspoken competition on who can last the longest in the sauna, where the older men test the limits of younger sauna-goers. This once became an official competition at the World Sauna Championships which were held annually in Heinola, Finland, from 1999 to 2010. People competed from 20 different countries to see who could last the longest in the sauna. Yes, it sounds crazy and it was – after a near death and a death in 2010, the competition was deemed too dangerous and was stopped.

Sauna health benefits

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Not only are saunas are a great place to relax, they also have many health benefits. Sauna can have the same effect as exercise on your cardiovascular health. It can also help you to sleep better and flush toxins out of your system – sweating has been used as a therapy for thousands of years.

A common Finnish ritual in the sauna is using a ‘vihta’ – a bunch of branches tied together (almost always birch) which you use to beat yourself or another person. This is meant to relax the muscles or help with mosquito bites.

For Finns and Nordics alike, sauna is a magical place. Just ask them about sauna, and you will probably open