Soak cares away with a step into Finnish sauna culture

By LISA KLEIN

Saunas are enjoyed by people all over the world who want to work up a relaxing sweat, but nowhere is the practice as important and ingrained in daily life than where it originated: Finland.

Travelers to the Nordic nation in northern Europe have a unique chance to experience sauna culture, and its health benefits, for themselves.

“The word sauna comes from Finland,” said Carita Harju, executive director of Sauna From Finland, an organization that promotes the practice globally. “Sauna has been part of Finnish life for centuries and remains an integral part of Finnish culture and identity.”

Hot habits

Traditional saunas are both wood-paneled and wood burning, although many modern versions have electric heat. The fire heats both the room and sauna rocks, which water can be poured on to create steam.

Generally, Finnish saunas are low in humidity, but the high temperatures will certainly make bathers break a sweat. It is tradition to take a break in the cool outdoor air or a plunge in cold water.

The country has developed its penchant for heat over thousands of years.

“The first saunas were built in the Stone Age by digging a pit in the ground and heating stones placed at the bottom of the pit,” Ms. Harju said. “During the Iron Age, saunas began to be made from wooden structures and had heaters and benches.”

Households usually had their very own sauna – many still do – and it has long been a central part of Finnish life.

A sauna at the lakeside Kinkamon Pirtti lodge. Photo by Julia Kivelä, courtesy of Visit Jyväskylä Region

“Due to the high temperature, the sauna was the cleanest place in the home, where babies entered the world and the sick and wounded were treated,” Ms. Harju said. “The dead were also washed and dressed in the sauna before being sent on their final journey.”

The sauna even became an extension of the kitchen, being used to cook meat, bake bread and soften hard root vegetables. Today, many a Finn still enjoys a “sauna sausage” cooked over the stones.

The practice has a place in Finnish folklore as well – spells, songs, poems, spirits and elves are all part of the sauna’s past.

Most people in the country sauna at least once a week, and the country has about 3.3 million saunas for 5.5 million residents.

In 2020, the United Nations recognized the importance of the sauna tradition in Finland, adding it to the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Bathing benefits

Sauna bathing is not just a cultural tradition. It has proven health benefits as well when practiced on a regular basis.

The high heat increases heart rate and blood flow in a similar way to mild or moderate exercise, and regular sauna sessions can offer cardiovascular protection.

Also, it can sooth away muscle aches, help breathing in those with asthma, boost the immune system, increase quality of sleep and decrease levels of stress and anxiety.

Sauna boats ready for bathers. Photo by Julia Kivelä, courtesy of Visit Jyväskylä Region

Sauna culture may be a part of why Finland has topped the UN’s World Happiness Report five years in a row – the nation certainly emphasizes wellness and comfort along with social stability.

Visitors can easily get a taste of sauna life anywhere in Finland, but the pinnacle is the Jyväskylä region, which is an area in the south scattered with more than 3,700 pristine lakes and four national parks. It is called the “sauna region of the world.”

The options truly are endless, from age-old smoke saunas that have no chimney and release smoke just before bathers enter, to saunas that float in the middle of lakes for easy plunging in between sessions.

“In the region, you can relax on the benches of the world’s largest smoke sauna in Tupaswilla, get familiar with the history of the Finnish smoke sauna in Sauna Village, enjoy a floating sauna raft on the lake or throw steam while sitting on the benches of an urban city sauna,” said Johanna Maasola, tourism coordinator for the Visit Jyväskylä Region.

Just make sure to drink plenty of water and bring a sauna whisk – a tree branch that can be used to tap the skin and sooth muscles. 

“Finnish sauna should be a pleasant and relaxing experience,” Ms. Harju said. “Go into the sauna with an open mind. Breathe and relax.

“The most important thing is to listen to your body’s sensations and act accordingly,” she said. “On some days, you might feel like staying in the sauna for a shorter time. On other days, you could spend a whole day sauna bathing.”

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