Why I Love Saunas (and Finland)
If there is one thing I learned during my stay in Finland, is that saunas are not as scary as I made them out to be. Years ago, I would never have found the thought of sitting in a scorching hot wooden room for 15 minutes enticing, let alone enjoyable. But time has a habit of changing your perspective, especially when you find yourself in the very country that invented saunas for three entire months.
Saunas are amazing. Absolutely nothing beats the feeling you get when stepping out of a sauna after sweating an entire pint of sweat in the span of a few minutes. Though many variations of the Finnish sauna can be found all over the world, let’s first take a look at what constitutes a traditional Finnish sauna before moving on to other types.
A Short History of Saunas
As I mentioned earlier, saunas were invented by Finnish people – not “regular” Finnish people, though. According to Wikipedia, they were invented in Ancient-Finland by early Scandihoovians. The name “sauna” derives from ancient Finnish and means “winter dwelling”. As expected, the first saunas were nothing like the normal saunas we encounter today; made from pits dug in a slope, early saunas contained a fireplace on which stones were placed and heated. Water was then thrown over them to create steam — the basic concept of the modern day sauna.
Those “winter dwellings” were very versatile, hence the reason why they became so popular among Finnish people. Not only could they take care of their personal hygiene in a sauna; they could also live in it, cook food in it, and even give birth in a highly sterilized environment. In a country where the temperature can drop as low as -40°C in the winter, saunas proved to be a life-changing invention for many people.
Saunas play an important part in understanding Finnish people and their culture. It is said that over two million saunas can be found in Finland. This does not seem like much until you realize that only five million people inhabit this country.
The normal temperature in a sauna ranges between 80°C and 100°C. The humidity level in it is extremely low, the secret behind why Finns are able to enjoy such high temperatures. Saunas are typically taken naked although few Finns ever complain about foreigners covering their body with a towel to feel more comfortable. Taking a shower before entering the sauna is considered to be the polite thing to do. In some regions of Finland, the use of fragrant boughs of silver birch called vihta (or vasta) is also common. They are used to massage the skin and give the sauna room a lovely, natural aroma.
After a relaxing sauna, many Finns like to go outside and take a dip in one of the thousand lakes that can be found in the country. If they do not live close to a lake, some of them enjoy rolling around in the snow in order to cool down.
Benefits of a Sauna
On top of being deeply relaxing experiences, saunas also offer many health benefits:
Many people underestimate the benefits of sweating daily. Since we are unknowingly assailed by countless toxins and chemicals every day, regular saunas help flush out these toxins from the skin and reduce levels of lead, copper, iron and mercury.
2. Cleanse the Skin
Considered to be one of the best skin treatments, sweating in a sauna helps clean the pores and get rid of dead skin cells and bacteria. Regular use of saunas also gives the skin a soft and glowing appearance.
3. Provides Relief From Stress
Saunas in Finland can be a deeply personal experience. In a sauna, worries dissipate to the rising temperature, the heat cleansing both the skin and the mind at the same time. Additionally, saunas can prove to be a unique social experiences — they don’t always have to be enjoyed alone!
4. Soothes Aching Muscles
Endorphin is a pain relieving chemical that is released under high heat and which provides a sense of relief from muscle soreness. The increased blood flow in a sauna also accelerates the natural healing process and helps rid the body of any lactic acid after a long workout.
Types of Saunas
The traditional Finnish sauna is known as smoke sauna and consists of a pile of rocks that emit steam after water has been thrown over them. There is no chimney in a smoke sauna and the humidity in it is higher than in a modern sauna.
The woodstove sauna is most common among rural areas of Finland and consists of a metal stove with stones on it. Similar to the smoke sauna, water is thrown over the rocks to create steam. The stove is usually heated with birch to give the room a pleasant aroma.
Electric saunas are relatively new. As the name entails, they do not require any wood to burn. Some electric stoves come with a large slab of stone on which water can be thrown in order to mimic the effects of a woodstove sauna.
One of the newest sauna variations come in the form of the infrared sauna. It drastically differs from the traditional Finnish sauna by using infrared heaters instead of stoves. The infrared light that is emitted from those heaters is then absorbed by the skin and is experienced as radiant heat.
There is a reason why saunas have been around for so many centuries. Regardless of what type of sauna you find yourself into, you can always expect an enjoyable, relaxing experience that provides countless benefits. Of course, hydrating yourself before stepping into a sauna is absolutely crucial if you want to maximize the amount of time you can stay in it.
If you think saunas are not for you, think twice about it. I too used to believe that until I was proven wrong. Saunas have now become a daily ritual for me; through them I have been able to understand what it means to be Finnish a little bit more. And though it is with regret that I must depart from this wonderful country in a few days, I am already looking forward to my next sauna in the wintertime.