Sauna is an essential part of the Finnish identity and the way of life. In fact, one could say that if you don’t know sauna, you don’t know the Finnish culture. Dim lights, wooden scents and the soft cleansing steam are all part of the traditional Finnish sauna experience – and so is nudity, dipping yourself in an icy lake and whipping your skin with birch twigs. Learn more about the wonders and peculiarities of the Finnish sauna culture in this article!
Finland and its many many saunas
Ok if we’re being entirely honest, sauna is not just a Finnish concept. Various types of warm bathing places have existed in other cultures as well, such as thermal baths in ancient Rome or hammams in the Middle East. However, saunas as we know them today have existed in Finland for centuries. In fact, unlike in many other cultures with sauna-type of traditions, the Finnish sauna has thrived throughout the centuries, becoming an inseparable part of our national culture. Today sauna still brings together people from all walks of life regardless of their age, gender or social status – a good example of an equal activity in our equal society.
There are about 3,2 million saunas in Finland, a country with a population of 5,5 million. Saunas can be found in private apartments, summer cottages and in corporate headquarters. Even our president and the prime minister have official saunas. The Finnish sauna was also added to the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Lists in 2020, ensuring the vitality of the sauna tradition and highlighting its cultural importance. Needless to say that saunas are a pretty big thing for us Finns.
A traditional Finnish sauna building.
Most traditionally the Finnish sauna is a small wooden cabin on a lake or sea shore, separate from the main building. This is the type of sauna you can find in virtually every summer cottage – which are also very common in Finland. The sauna itself is a room with wooden walls, ceiling and benches to sit or lay on. The room is heated by burning wood, preferably chopped birch, in a stove (‘kiuas’) or by using an electric stove.
Finnish sauna mythology and sauna rituals
In the Finnish culture sauna has been regarded almost as a holy place which has special healing powers. Sauna was at the same time a place to heal sicknesses, to give birth and to cleanse maidens before sending them off to marriage (a tradition which is actually still common in modern-day bachelorette parties in Finland).
As people were quite superstitious in the olden days, sauna was considered to be the home of spirits and elves. Elves were kind of like little house gods that protected – or hurt – people, depending on how they were treated. Elves were considered the masters of the sauna building that would protect the sauna from unwanted visitors or accidents. In exchange for protection the elves needed to be respected: in many houses it was the custom to greet the elf when entering the sauna or ask permission to warm up the sauna.
In the olden days, löyly was considered to have either healing or destructive powers – depending on how you behaved in sauna.
Löyly (= throwing water on the stove to increase the humidity in the sauna) was thought to originate from the daughter of air and the god of haze, Auteretar (autere=haze). Sauna spells that paid homage to Auteretar or her son Auterinen were also a common ritual. These spells were uttered before entering the sauna to prevent the bad löyly that stroke to wounds and ailments and to welcome the good löyly.
Over the years, people’s belief in these sauna myths has faded. However, these folk traditions still live in the minds of the Finnish people as entertaining stories.
How to do sauna the Finnish way
If you have never experienced sauna, the idea of sitting in a hot room half-naked (or naked, if you want the most authentic experience) and sweating your ass off might seem like a crazy thing to do. However, sauna has numerous health benefits from relieving stress to decreasing blood pressure, not to mention that it simply makes you feel amazing. Sauna is a place for physical and mental cleansing and decompressing from everyday worries. Going to sauna is also a social process: people build friendships in sauna, make important business decisions in sauna and even have dates in sauna.
An important part of a sauna evening is to take a dip in a lake.
Are you supposed to go to the sauna nude?
This is the question that seems to raise the most concern among the non-Finns. The short and simple answer is: yes. In private saunas Finns tend to go to the sauna naked as a jaybird. Women and men usually go to sauna separately especially if nakedness is involved. However, there’s nothing wrong with wearing a swimsuit or a towel in sauna if you feel more comfortable that way. In fact, in public mixed saunas swimsuits are a must. And despite the nakedness, there is nothing sexual about sauna – unless you are alone there with your loved one.
Löylyt keeps the sauna nice and humid
Sauna is usually heated to 70–100 ℃, depending on the preferences of the sauna-goers. If the room gets a bit too hot, you can always take a step down to a lower bench. An important part of the sauna experience is to throw water on the rocks on top of the stove to increase the humidity in the sauna. This is called ‘löylyt’, as mentioned before. This can be done by the person who sits closest to the water bucket.
Whip the worries away with vihta
Another part of the traditional sauna experience is whipping yourself with ‘vihta’ or ‘vasta’. Vihta is a whisk made of fresh birch twigs. While the idea of whipping yourself with birch twigs might seem just as peculiar as the idea of sweating naked in a hot room for fun, it is actually really good for the skin as it increases blood circulation. It also leaves a wonderfully fresh smell on the skin.
Forget about the time
Another essential thing to know is that you don’t need to look at the clock during the sauna evening. The point is to go to the sauna many times and to take breaks by cooling off on the terrace or by dipping in the sea or lake. You can also enjoy cold drinks while cooling off and maybe eat a sausage roasted in tin foil on the sauna stove. Wintertime is no exception to these rituals: then the cooling off is done by ice swimming, which is a big thing in Finland, or by rolling in the snow. The alternation of the hot and cold makes you feel invigorated and refreshed.
The sauna evening ends with washing yourself. It is good to take a few minutes to let your body temperature return to normal before getting dressed. Remember to drink plenty of water after the sauna!
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