Life is better when you have a Sauna
The Sauna is a living institution in Finland. It is said there are more than 3 million saunas for the 5.5 million people in Finland. That’s more than the total number of cars in Finland. The Finns I’ve met along the way tell me the Sauna is an expression of lifestyle in the family or is frequently used as a tool for business to improve client relations.
For outsiders to Finnish culture, the Sauna may have only really been seen in their upmarket Gym or when staying at a nice hotel spa. The thought for most of having a Sauna at their home could feel alien to the majority of humans living on Earth. And yet the average family in Finland will have at least two saunas, one in town and one in the country cottage. You have to understand the Finns aren’t short of a few Bob; so having a cottage in the country is very common among its well educated, wealthy, homogenous population.
To truly understand the Sauna and the Finnish culture of Sauna I tried my best to immerse myself in the experience when and where I found it in Finland. Although this wasn’t going to be too difficult as I found the Sauna to be everywhere I went. From the humble city apartment to the numerous hotels and public locations. The hardest part of trying to understand the Finnish culture of the sauna was breaking the ice with the average Finn who is infamous for being people who naturally socially distance well before there was any Pandemic and arent well known for small talk.
Unless it’s a modern electric sauna - which is what you will find in all city apartments in Finland, the traditional sauna is heated with dry wood, Alder, Aspen, birch or even pine. In the old days heating the sauna used to be the work of women, but now it's generally the work of men and in Finnish tradition, a matter of honour to them. It is said that every Finnish man knows how to build “The best Sauna” and how to heat it and that of course, the best sauna is the sauna that he built himself.
In Finland, it is said all saunas are different and if they have been individually made then each one is unique. However, there are various types of sauna and thankfully the best place in the world to experiment with the different types of sauna is of course in Finland.
Also called savasana or savu sauna, the smoke sauna is the oldest and most traditional type of Finnish sauna that has been used to be a thousand years. It is a log house with a big stove but no chimney, only some shutters (lakeinen) to let some of the smoke out. The sauna is heated for hours, once the room reaches the right temperature “the häkälöyly”, the fire is put out and the room is ventilated. The room is designed such that it is able to retain heat for quite some time after the fire is put out. The smoke will make the interior completely black. All shutters and the door is kept open to let the harmful fumes and carbon monoxide are able to get out.
Wood burning sauna
Also called a wood stove sauna, a wood-burning sauna works by burning wood in an oven which in turn, heats up stones that can retain and spread heat in the sauna room.
The electric sauna is the most common type of sauna in Finland and works the same as a wood-burning sauna. The key difference is that the oven, or heating element, is powered by electricity rather than by burning wood.
It was in the Lakelands of Finland where I really got to grips with the different array of saunas. Most notably at a destination called Revontuli - a resort that markets itself as a Northern Lights Resort. To get here I travelled up from the beautiful capital city of Helsinki to Jyvaskyla - you may have seen my video on Jyvaskyla before continuing further north-east to the Revontuli. It was here that the local Finns gave me insight into the Sauna culture as well as a place where I was able to sample 6 different saunas. From Smoke Saunas to Tent Saunas I got to see the pros and cons of each - visually the most impressive was a very special glasshouse sauna with a magnificent view of the sky above.
The average Finnish family will aim to take a sauna about twice a week, and traditionally this has been on Wednesdays and on Saturdays. The sauna is the hottest place where people go voluntarily, with temperatures up to +90 C (+ 194 F). The heart of the sauna is the stove built of stones. The Finns call the steam“Löyly” that rises off the stove. The steam that rises off the stove when water is thrown on them is the spirit of the sauna. Up until the 19th-century men and women and children and the servants bathed together in the countryside, strict rules in the community prohibited any indecent behaviour.
Sauna has been the secret weapon in the wars for the Finns – dugout saunas were built and bathing was mandatory in the army, also cutting the hair and cleaning the lice out of one´s hair while taking the sauna. “If there is time to fight, there is time to have a sauna” is the saying. The sauna is a good place to discuss differences of opinion on many matters, also political. In the sauna, everybody is equally naked as on the first day and in the sauna, the big and the small directors can get equal.
President Kekkonen of Finland often discussed political matters in the sauna with his guests and during the days of the Soviet Union, it was common for the communist leaders to conduct meetings in the Sauna. The invitation to take a sauna with your Finnish hosts after an official negotiation is a gesture of hospitality. This is done to seal and celebrate a good contract agreed with both parties and to show mutual trust and friendship. This has been the tradition for several hundred years.
In Finland’s Parliament House, there is a sauna for men and one for women. It’s common for corporations in Finland to have stylish and handsome saunas for the use of their executives and business guests. The employers´ unions and the trade unions meet in the sauna. The technology of the sauna has changed very little in the course of the centuries. The sauna is getting ready for the bathers.
The sauna etiquette is all about respecting your fellow bather. When intending to throw water on the stove you always first ask the approval from other bathers and then after throwing inquire if more is needed and also ask the quality of the löyly. You stay in the löyly as long or as a short period of time as it feels good. There is no other rule in this behaviour.
Löyly is an ancient Finnish word that is also used to mean the “soul of a human being” or the “soul of the sauna”. “Vasta – vihta” Birch twigs are bundled and bound together leaving the under part of the leaves on top. You softly beat this bunch - the vasta all over your body, starting from the head. It is a custom that you also provide the vasta treatment to the person next to you by beating his or her back as wished, especially if you are sitting next to an elderly person
Tradition is no matter what the temperature outside - You go swimming in the lake or the sea - with or without ice - or if the ice is simply too thick in winter, you can roll in the snow to refresh yourself in between the löyly experience. When leaving the sauna, one adds firewood to the stove (if the stove is of the sort that is heated continuously) and fills the water buckets as a polite gesture for those coming to the sauna next.
The best thing about the Sauna experience is the science that backs up the health implications of having a sauna. The heat immediately brings the blood pressure down and allows one to start relaxing. The heat and the steam open the pores and allow sweating. The heat relaxes muscles, the breathing gets slower and one feels good. The sensational shock of cold water or snow releases the stress-relieving hormones in a burst. You experience a tsunami of dopamine, endorphin, serotonin and all the healthy highs. The cold shock also boosts all the vitals in your body, your blood circulation and other fluids circulating inside you are rearranged. After the dip, you feel different and great. In the sauna you can disengage your mind from the outside world – the sauna experience can be like a mental rehearsal and a meditation - everything just feels better after a good Sauna session.
To book a truly unique Finnish Sauna experience like I did. Check out Revontuli - The Northern Lights Resort. Either contact them direct or book via Booking.com. Have a wonderful time and think of this blogger as you sit there and unwind.
I am not sponsored by the Finland Government or any Travel Group, I simply have written this post as I enjoy travelling. Please do check out this blog for more independent travel ideas and my YouTube Channel. As always, videos can always be found on YouTube & Odysee. I use both as sadly YouTube is now censoring content whereas Odysee is for Free-Speech.
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Thank you - Alex van Terheyden AKA The Wondering Englishman