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Finland – The Sauna Superpower

People have luxuriated in the hot water vapours of sauna sweat baths in different forms on all continents in the world. Many native peoples used steam or sweat baths to heal both physically and spiritually. The Finnish sauna tradition dates back to the Stone Age. The Finns have contributed to the development of the sauna culture more than any other nation. Elias Lönnrot, physician and editor of the Finnish national epic Kalevala, offered a diverse description of the ancient Finnish sauna as a place for washing, birthing and dying, and a venue for magic, witchcraft and shamanism. Many of us continue to attribute our health, energy and youthfulness to the benefits of the sauna. The sauna culture and the ritual of löyly, casting water on heated stones, capture an essential aspect of Finnishness. To the Finns, the sauna is a holy place and its peaceful and mythic nature might just make the world a better place.

The History of Sauna

The first saunas were ground pits in the Stone Age

Finns may well have up to 10,000 years of experience in saunas. Our ancestors evidently knew about sweat baths when they arrived in the North. They would dig a pit in the ground to serve as sauna, as it was easy to reconstruct in the next living and hunting grounds. In the large, roughly round pit, our ancestors would burn wood under a pile of rocks, or simply heat stones in an adjacent fire and then place them in the middle of the sauna pit. They would then bend suitably thin tree trunks to cover the pit and hang an animal skin cloak over them to form a tent. Then it was off with the clothes and into the sweat tent to throw water on a pile of heated stones!

From ground saunas to smoke saunas

At the end of the Stone Age, people began to settle in more permanent small cottage groups and were able to build permanent saunas, too. Three of the sauna walls were dug in the earth and the sloping roof was constructed from tree bark and peat piled on top of tree trunks. An ‘enclosed’ stone fire was built by the door of the ground sauna and half a log was attached to the rear wall to serve as a seat.

Timber construction skills developed in the Iron Age. The introduction of iron saws allowed the production of straight corner structures. This signalled the advent of timber above‑ground saunas. The kiuas or heater was constructed according to the old principle, a pile of rocks smoking by the doorway. These intricately carved smoke saunas are the ‘mothers’ of all modern saunas. Their characteristics included good, soft steam and the protection of the ‘saunatonttu’, the guardian elf of the sauna.

This arch-sauna remained the prevalent model for 1,500 years. Smoke saunas lost popularity in the 1940s and 1950s owing to the large quantities of wood required to heat them and the long‑term heating period. However, the smoke sauna made a comeback in Finland in the mid‑1980s. One of the primary reasons for this was general dissatisfaction with the hard steam generated by the electric sauna heaters, which had become fashionable towards the end of the 1950s. However, according to some estimates, the decline of the sophisticated sauna culture was signalled by the introduction of sheet metal‑coated cylinder‑shaped sauna stoves in the early 1900s. The glowing‑hot iron parts of the heater easily made the steam too hard and spoiled the bathing comfort, particularly if water was cast directly onto hot iron.

An inward‑heated sauna stove is different. The flames, hot air and smoke gases heat up the stones on top of the furnace. The hot smoke then lingers in the sauna, warming up the walls and ceiling, thus producing an even bathing temperature together with the heater. A warm smoke sauna carries a mild scent of smoke combined with the tang of resin and tars emanating from the heated wooden surfaces. The activated charcoal that accumulates on the wooden surfaces effectively cleanses the air.

Even today, ‘ruin stoves’ are constructed on‑site in smoke saunas, either using the old method of piling up rocks without mortar or using bricks or slates. Does the type of heater matter? It sure does. The Finnish Sauna Society, established to promote the noble art of sauna bathing, relies on peridotite from Orimattila. Peridotite is the royalty of sauna rocks, with a high specific weight and good heat conductivity. It heats well, binds heat evenly for a long period and does not produce unpleasant‑smelling gases like softer rocks. The wood used to heat the stove also affects the sauna experience. Dry, peeled, over one‑year‑old birch burns cleanly without producing much soot. Heating the sauna with unpeeled alder for two consecutive baths after 5 or six heatings using birch will produce a sweet, rich scent that lingers in the sauna.

The Health Effects of Sauna

At least 15 dissertations have been completed in Finland concerning the health effects of the sauna. The first scientific study was completed in 1765. In the light of current information, four out of the ten conclusions in that study are accurate. During a sauna bath, both skin temperature and the heart rate increase, and water evaporates from the body in the form of sweat, reducing the need to urinate. Also, “after a hard day’s work, a sauna bath will quickly make the bather happy and supple” – the sauna relaxes sore muscles.

Two harmonious explanations have been uncovered for the relaxing effect of sauna bathing:

  • According to the biochemical explanation, a sauna bath increases the release of endorphin hormones in the brain, producing a happy sensation.
  • According to the psychological explanation, the warm and soothing atmosphere of the sauna, combined with the dark walls and pleasantly scented air of a smoke sauna, allow bathers to return to their childhood or even their mother's womb and experience a sensation of wellbeing.

The sensations of relaxation and wellbeing related to sauna may be caused by a transmitter, which has been shown to be connected with reduced levels of stress and anxiety, an increased tolerance of pain and improved growth and tissue healing.

Sleep and Sauna

A sauna bath relaxes both the body and mind so that the bather feels comfortable and calm. Because a sauna bath increases internal body temperature, it promotes sleep and increases the quantity of high‑quality sleep. Sufficiently deep sleep improves memory functions, learning and problem-solving skills. Through improving the quality of sleep, sauna bathing promotes thinking skills and supports important decision‑making. Moreover, many important decisions are made while relaxing in the sauna. Changes in neurotransmitters largely explain the effects sauna has on falling asleep and sleep quality. Serotonin is an important neurotransmitter involved in the control of sleep. Increased temperature increases serotonin production. As the body temperature increases, the quantity of noradrenaline in the brain decreases, reducing alertness and increasing deep sleep.

Sauna instructions – sauna and inner peace

The Finnish sauna is a holy place, a centre of calmness. In order to reach inner peace in the sauna, you should adhere to certain traditions.

If you talk in the sauna, you should do so quietly and only discuss matters of utmost significance, such as goodness and beauty, the spirit of löyly, the dark walls of a smoke sauna, the beauty of nature, the scent of birch branches and similar topics, which promote general wellbeing. It is also good to pay respect to the spirit of the sauna through silence.

A sauna bath is meant to cleanse the body inside out. You enjoy a sauna bath naked, allowing your bare skin to relish the air that has been cleansed by the activated charcoal of a smoked sauna, the running of clean water and the caress of a breeze. To cleanse yourself from the inside, consciously breathe out all futile stress and worry through your feet and inhale extremely pure hot air to your heart, imagining it entering through the top of the head.

You can have a drink of water while taking a break from sweat bathing – perhaps with a touch of blueberry or lingonberry sprigs.

A birch branch whisk is designed to enhance the sauna experience – birch leaves deep cleanse and revitalise the skin. You can also make a whisk using branches from a different tree and flowers or herbs according to your mood and level of tiredness.

Generally, you should accommodate other bathers while using the whisk. Waving the whisk generates hot air currents that easily hit other bathers. Other than that, you can use the whisk as much as you like. Just remember to apply it from the extremities towards the heart.

In a Finnish sauna, bathers always throw water on the stove. You can try different ways of throwing water: pour a whole scoop quickly in one go or let it trickle slowly. Concentrate and feel the different qualities of heat produced through different methods – you will soon find the perfect amount of water and method of throwing. If the heat is too intense, you can always exit the sauna to cool off and then return refreshed.

The traditional beach sauna is a way of life and an experience that allows individuals to connect with themselves and the surrounding natural environment, feeling the presence of every detail – the call of a black‑throated loon across the lake, the refreshing caress of the wind on sauna‑hot skin, the smell of the birch branch whisk in the sauna, the dark walls of a smoke sauna and the clear taste of water. A sauna bath by the lake has a double salutary effect, as it is combined with the power of nature. While sauna bathing in the wild, remember to observe the wonders of your surroundings like a child, fully aware of the moment through all the senses and breathing.

We must also remember that the elf protector of the sauna will bathe once we are finished, so we need to leave the sauna clean and wish the elf a pleasant sauna bath.

Various volumes of the Sauna magazine

Photos: Mikkeli Region, Mr Harri Heinonen, VisitFinland