Finnish sauna saved me and this is the only possible honest starting sentence for this post…
Years ago, I literally ran away from Paris to embark on a riding adventure vacation in Lapland. Among other things, I discovered the real Finnish sauna and its real function. It took very little to go from the shock of the first day to the daily ritual that literally saved me, allowing me to climb back into the saddle day after day.
What doesn’t define a Finnish sauna
Like most non-Finns, I had a completely distorted idea of the Finnish sauna due to my spa experiences, even luxury ones, or various gyms that offer the service.
At the time of my first holiday trip to Finland, I was enrolled in the Club Med République gym club, a few minutes walking from home (if you go to Paris and you can’t live without a gym club, I recommend it: open 364 days a year, 24h, with swimming pool, sauna, and Turkish bath) and to me, the sauna was the one I enjoyed after gym sessions: a small wooden room smelling of pine, with soft lighting, music in the background, towels, and shower with chromotherapy right outside.
If you describe a Finn this type of sauna, he’ll most likely tell you that this is a globalized and beauty salon-style sauna. That’s it.
Moreover, it has nothing to do with sex. I don’t know if this myth has been spread from old movies or out of place chatter of past tourists, but I assure you that, except maybe for private saunas in private houses, sex, in any form or degree, is not at all contemplated. Moreover, the relationship that Scandinavians have with their body and nudity has nothing malicious.
Things to know
First of all, the Finnish term sauna has a not entirely clear etymology, but my guide told me that it originally meant winter residence/shelter.
Until the end of the 19th century, it was also the chosen place to give birth! When they told me, I was amazed, but thinking about it, hygiene is guaranteed, thanks to very high temperatures, so in the past, it was certainly a safer and healthier place than a bed at home …
In Finland, there’s a sauna for every two inhabitants: there’s one (electric) in almost any house, condominium, and office and scattered everywhere between the coastline, lakes (floating saunas!), countryside, and natural parks. In Lapland, where saunas are wooden huts with fairy-tale charm or tipi-style tents, you’ll find everything you need to enjoy a relaxing free break at the end of the day, on condition that you leave it clean and tidy for the next visitors.
As mentioned before, it is a real ritual that has colonized the world from the Scandinavian countries. A ritual for the body, getting purified and relaxed, and the mind, and then it is a social ritual as well, a bit like the Japanese onsen, only the Finns are used to chatting. It is said that great managers reach the most important agreements in the sauna …
The temperature is traditionally between 80 ° and 100 ° (always around 100° in traditional wood-fired saunas), with a humidity rate that does not exceed 30%. This makes it an experience comparable to a medium-high level physical exercise.
Benefits and precautions
This is an essential experience to understand Finnish culture. Still, it should be avoided if, for one reason or another, your doctor tells you so, if you have open wounds, in case of serious heart conditions, if you have the flu with high fever or menstruation, or you are pregnant and is not recommended for newborns, but is fine for kids from 2 years old.
Among the benefits of the sauna, in addition to its relaxing effect, there is certainly the elimination of toxins, which also contributes to the beauty of the skin, but above all, the prevention of cardiovascular diseases.
High temperatures strengthen and accelerate blood flow, even more, effective if you practice a little sport and eat something light before entering, which helps prevent hypertension.
The Finnish cardiologist Jari Laukkanen has been studying the effects of the sauna for decades. His research has shown that it is an absolutely healthy routine: it seems that a daily sauna halves the probability of hypertension or coronary heart disease.
It also gives relief to respiratory diseases and nasal congestion and is particularly indicated in contractures and muscular traumas. In short, that’s what allowed me to enjoy a holiday on horseback.
I was also told that the Finnish sauna has beneficial effects on cellulite, holding back fluid retention, but I can’t confirm, alas …
How to behave in the sauna
Before entering the sauna, you should shower. In public saunas in town, you actually find showers and soap right outside, while if your first approach is like mine, in the middle of nowhere, you will find buckets and ladles inside to wash. In more basic versions, you’re supposed to jump into the icy water of a pond or a river… tough.
With high temperatures, fabrics can react, and therefore, for reasons of hygiene and comfort, you always enter a sauna naked.
Swimsuits are allowed in modern resorts and/or those that regularly work with foreign clients, but this is certainly not an authentic experience. Furthermore, separate saunas for men and women are popping up to suits tourists.
In public saunas, they supply or rent a pefletti, a small cloth to sit on. If it’s not provided, you can use a cotton towel, possibly not dyed.
If you feel particularly uncomfortable being a foreigner, you can also ask if it’s ok to use a towel to cover you. There should be no problem. I never asked, actually, because I was already accustomed to being naked as a regular hammam visitor, but mostly because my riding holiday was meant to be as authentic and disconnected to my daily life as possible.
This is obviously an activity involving sweat, and it is recommended to drink a lot. If you read this sentence and thought about healthy natural still water, you are wrong! The traditional drinks are beer and cider, and I must say I quite enjoyed both options! Around Kuusamo, I also happened to get treated to freshly grilled sausages, directly on the sauna stove … and that’s where I learned the beneficial sentence “anna minulle makkara kiitos” (i.e., pass me the sausage please). No comment.
Taking a sauna in Finland means getting in and out 3 times, with 15-minute sessions alternating with ice showers or baths and or diving in the snow. The first time is tough to resist inside for 15 minutes (you can, of course, exit when you wish/need!) and the impact with freezing water. My very first dive – being pushed from behind ’cause I wouldn’t jump – almost killed me. I thought I would sink as the frost was painful and paralyzing, but I started to appreciate everything in the following days, staying in the water with the locals, laughing, and swimming.
I haven’t told you about the steam yet, which isn’t a cinematic effect! It’s produced by pouring cold water on red-hot stones above the stove (kivet), both heated by an electric heater or using a wood fire. The water is taken from the bucket (ämpäri), which must always be left full after use and poured with the appropriate ladle (kauha). Why steam? To increase the temperature …
Inside, everything has a birch scent, whose branches are collected in small bundles called vasta, used to gently beat one another, reactivate the circulation and soften the skin. The first time seems a bit strange, and I have repeatedly asked myself if it really had a positive effect, but I would say yes with hindsight.
Now we come to the obvious, which is always better not to take for granted: in the Finnish sauna, you leave glasses, bracelets, watches, and any jewel outside! It’s burning inside!