Sauna is the most famous Finnish word, adopted to many languages. There is probably not a single spa/health center that cares about its name without one. It’s one of life’s simple pleasures, but it takes a bit of time to get used to it, particularly if you start using sauna outside its original context. Often, once things leave the place of their origin and are adopted elsewhere, they might transform into a version of themselves, adapted to the local need. In this text I will be sharing what I have learned in Finland on how to use a Finnish sauna.
For Finnish people, sauna is an integral part of their life. Even in modern times, with central heating and hot water available everywhere, the sauna baths are as common as they used to be hundreds of years ago. The combination of wood, fire and steam represents the deep connection that Finnish people have with nature. Relaxing, both for the body and mind, sauna is also central to festivities and celebrations.
If you are interested in the history of sweat baths and the Finnish sauna, you can find a very good introduction here.
Types of sauna
There are several types of sauna that are still in use, the two main ones are:
-Smoke sauna is the oldest type. It is a room without a chimney that has a stone hearth in the middle for lighting a fire. After the room is heated enough and the smoke is taken out, the sauna is cleaned from the remaining amber and ash and the sauna is used with the remaining heat form the stones. This type of sauna is not very hot, due to the airing it gets up to 60 °C, but it is generally more humid that the other types because of the water used for the cleaning of ash.
-Modern fire/electric saunas use a sauna stove, either heated by burning wood/oil or electric ones. The stove consists of the heater and stones on top of it that accumulate heat. This type of sauna has a much drier heat, so to provide humidity, löyly is required: this is a Finnish word for sauna steam. Water is ladled on top of the sauna stones and, due to the high temperature it is almost instantly converted to steam.
How to do a sauna bath
I will now explain how to have a sauna bath in a public Finnish sauna.
No matter what type of sauna you are using, you should always shower before going.
Most public saunas in Finland will offer either wooden planks or paper towels for you to sit on, for hygiene reasons, so do use them, or take your own – a small towel will do.
After you have showered, or dipped in a cold lake (if you are brave), you are ready for your first sauna bath. As you enter the room, you will notice that there are benches along the walls and they usually have 2-3 levels. The topmost level is where it is hottest, so I suggest you start with the middle one until you learn how much heat you can handle and what is the pleasantest for you.
One of the things that you will notice is that breathing is awkward in the beginning – this is normal, because you are not used to breathing in such hot air. All saunas have good ventilation, this is one of their major requirements so do not worry about not having enough air.
The people who sit next to the stove will pour water over the sauna stones – be ready for this, because the steam will travel fast and will burn a bit. You can’t get burned (unless you stay for an unusually long time) but it will feel a bit painful in the beginning. The steam will condense on your skin fast. This is not sweat yet – it will take you some time to start actually sweating.
Stay in the sauna as long as it feels comfortable – this is very individual, so don’t try to follow other people’s rhythm. After you have gotten enough heat and sweated profusely, you are ready to cool off. By far the best way to cool off is to take a dip in a cold lake. In winter, the saunas on the lakeshore will have a hole in the ice where you can do this. There are a few things to have in mind if you are going to do the “avanto” – winter swimming:
-never do it on your own
-always wear a hat
-breathe deeply and don’t stop breathing
-if you are not used to it, just dip quickly and get out, no need to actually swim.
After the dip in the lake, allow your body to recover a bit. Most saunas will have outdoor benches for you to sit on. Enjoy the view and the conversation with other bathers until you notice that you are getting cold – it’s time to go back to the sauna heat.
Remember to hydrate your body by drinking plenty of liquid during the sauna session. Alcohol is not advisable.
Repeat this as many times as you want. After you have finished, you should take a shower. Since your body has lost a lot of minerals, you can always grill a “makkara” – Finnish sausage to replenish them. There’s always a grill.
Sauna is a relaxing experience and it is good both for your body and for your mind. Nowadays, when there is so much talk on mindfulness and being in the moment, sauna can be the perfect place for practicing it: the intense heat and cold combination will shift your focus from the mind to the body and to being present in the moment.
I hope you enjoy your sauna bath!