Finnish sauna: my favorite ritual in the northern lands

Going to sauna was undoubtedly my favorite activity in my days in Finland, where it is almost a religion. About five million people live in Finland and according to official statistics there are between two and three million saunas. The numbers speak for themselves, right?

Since ancient times, the sauna occupies a sacred place in the life of the Finns, linked to life and death. Births happened there and the bodies of the deceased were washed there and prepared for the funeral. In the modern times these rituals no longer occur in the sauna, but it still retains its sacred character.

For Finns it is normal to go to the sauna between one and three times per week, alone, with friends or with family. The most commonly used sauna is probably a private one in the building they live, but they might also go to a public one in the neighbourhood. It’s also common to have one in a countryside cabin by a lake, for the summer. An average finn would go to more or less 7 different saunas during the year. As I wanted to really dive into the sauna culture, so I went to thirteen different saunas in a month.

Most saunas are usually next to a lake, of which in Finland there are many, exactly 187,888 and the ritual includes being five, ten or fifteen minutes inside the sauna, which can be between 60 and 100 degrees and then take a dip in the lake. And the cycle is repeated as many times as each one wants.

One of the lakes where we took a dip, in Heinävesi

The ritual of the sauna also includes the “vihtominen”, which consists of patting the body with a bouquet of fresh birch leaves. This increases blood circulation, gives a greater sensation of heat and generates a rich and fresh aroma in the entire sauna.

This is how the “vihta” or bouquet of birch leaves looks

The sauna is associated with a moment of relaxation, cleansing, purification of the soul and the body. Therefore, after taking several sauna cycles, comes the time to bathe which is a very important step of the ritual. For this, many saunas usually have a shower sector, but in the old ones and especially in those that are in countryside cabins, it is usually done the old way using buckets for mixing the right temperature water. Cold water, usually from a nearby lake, is mixed manually with hot water, heated with the same stove that heats the sauna and contains the hot stones where water is poured from time to time, as often as more heat is desired.

The culture of the sauna in Finland is something more than typical, it is something that defines them, it was something that I definitely wanted to experience. The first time we went with Omar to a public sauna in Rauhaniemi (which means peninsula of peace) and we were arriving, with the clothing corresponding to that “summer” day of about 13 or 14 degrees, I could not believe what I saw: people of all ages in swimming suits hanging out on benches, as if nothing with that cold! What was even more incredible, there were people bathing in the lake! You can imagine that the water was not very warm.

When we entered the sauna and I felt for the first time that heat that I had never felt before, I was surprised that the feeling I had was a bit like the cold. I still can not explain why, but I even got goosebumps. That time I did not have the courage to swim in the lake but it would not take long for me to have that experience.

The second time I was in a type of sauna that even many finns are not lucky enough to try, a smoke sauna! This is the oldest and most traditional form of finnish sauna and today, unfortunately, there are very few left. The difference between the smoke sauna and those heated continuously with firewood, oil or electricity, is that the first must be heated completely before entering. It takes between five and seven hours to do this, meanwhile the sauna is closed and filled with smoke. Once the several hundred kilograms of stones are hot enough, the doors and little windows are opened and the smoke is let out, conserving the heat in the stones. This is why the smoke sauna is so special, because to make it happen a greater effort is needed than in all the other cases and the reward for that is a delicious smoky wood smell and a very different heat than in the others, smoother, simmered, softly embracing

We had the great fortune to try this type of sauna in Suodenniemi (which means something like “peninsula of swamps”), in a wooden sauna that was more than one hundred years old. This was part of a day of community work in a museum-farm in the forest, which included maintenance work of the farm, delicious meals, yoga, meditation and of course, sauna! This time was very important for me and it helped me understand the meaning of the sauna and its relationship with nudity. In public saunas, like the first we visited, they usually have different systems: if men and women use the same space, swimming suits are used (this was the case of my first time) and if there are separate spaces for both sexes you can go nude, which is what most people do. This sauna, as part of a private event, had its own rules and there were shifts for men and women, first the men went in naked and after an hour the women had their turn. I must confess that at first I was a bit terrified. I remember that when the men’s shift ended and women’s shift was about to start, we went to the sauna and I saw my boyfriend in the distance naked and it felt very strange. It was hard for me to understand that something that was part of our deepest intimacy was now public and shared with everyone. And that is the point! I understood that nudity was simply another expression of that society that won me over for its humility and fairness: naked, free of styles, colors, brands, and everything that defines us as members of certain social groups. If we take away all that, we are all the same.

This is the museum-farm, where we did a community work day and tested the smoke sauna

This day I also tried the famous dip in the lake after the sauna. At that time, the only way I found to do it was to turn off the brain, you had to jump, without thinking too much and nothing more. I walked naked through the wooden pier together with the other women and chau, I jumped. The sensation was like tiny needles sticking the whole body. Cold, cold and colder. I think I did not last more than a minute in the water. But getting out… ohh that was good, after a lot of heat and cold, it felt like the most perfect balance.

This lake was the protagonist of my first dip after the sauna

And until then always Omar had taken me to his favorite saunas, but in our passage through Helsinki, we reversed the roles and I took him to him. So we met Löyly, which takes its name from the steam that is generated when water is thrown to the hot stones. I do not remember how I knew his existence but I knew that in Helsinki there was an incredible sauna that I wanted to know. This, unlike the previous one, was modern, public and an excellent option to take a smoke sauna. While it is modern, the dark and smoky atmosphere of the traditional smoke sauna is incredibly well achieved and worth a try. It also has a bar, restaurant, and incredible terraces on the Baltic Sea, where you can also swim after a while of warm-up in the sauna. To this I did not cheer up. I remembered the name “Baltic Sea” of the geography classes of the school and from that moment I had been associated with the cold, a quite close association.

The terraces of Löyly, in Helsinki
From where you can see these sunsets in summer
And take a dip in the Baltic Sea

Another of my favorite saunas in Finland is Rajaportti, in Pispala, Tampere. This is the oldest public sauna in Finland that is still in operation. It is heated in a traditional way with huge logs of wood, one meter long and thirty centimeters in diameter. It has separate sectors for men and women, so each one enters his sector, naked. This was for us the sauna of the neighborhood, the meeting place, meeting with friends, where we took something between sessions, while we watched the still clear sky of a summer night that was still almost ten o’clock at night, very bright…

Rajaportti, the neighborhood sauna


PostScript 1: If you want to help me to continue with this project, don’t forget to share!

If you have any questions, queries or suggestions, you can leave it in the comments below. And if you think someone can serve or interest this information, I thank you very much for sharing it!


PostScript 2: do you want to read more?

If you want to read more about Finland, don´t miss this two posts, in which I tell you everything about Finnish culture and Finnish gastronomy.

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