Finland is the sauna capital of the world, both because it was invented there and because it thrives as an integrated part of the Finnish lifestyle.
Finns think of the Finnish sauna in the same way that other cultures think of meditation, massage, bathing in hot springs or any other tradition of body and mind relaxation.
The sauna is practically the Finnish national pastime, and the per capita number of steam saunas in the nation is astounding to many visitors from other countries. By some estimates, there are over two million saunas in Finland, with a total population of around five million. Finnish saunas are practically everywhere and are considered by most Finns as a necessity rather than a luxury.
In a country that is so rich with sauna tradition and lifestyle, it is inevitable that there exists an accepted etiquette to sauna bathing, along with many customs that are uniquely Finnish. Let's take a closer look at what it means to sauna in authentic Finnish style.
The Sauna Process
There is no one right way to bathe in the sauna. The sauna process is as varied and wide ranging as people themselves, so beyond some basic guidelines it is up to you to determine what process works best for you.
Shower - The first step is to take off your clothes and take a cleansing shower before entering the sauna. To new bathers this sometimes seems a bit silly - after all, aren't they going to get all sweaty in the sauna anyway? The purpose of the initial shower, though, is to cleanse your body of dirt so that the sauna itself stays cleaner.
Take a seat - Upon entering the sauna, experienced bathers usually take a seat on an upper bench where the heat is most intense. It is perfectly acceptable, though, to select a lower bench if you prefer a lower temperature.
Soak up the heat - Once you are settled in, relax and let the heat saturate your body. Take even, relaxed breaths as the pores of your skin open and the sweat begins to flow. If you want to add some moisture to the air throw some water on the stones, but remember that the resulting steam will make the air in the sauna feel even hotter. Some people like to move between upper and lower benches several times, taking advantage of the difference in temperature between the two levels.
The amount of time you actually spend in the sauna will depend on your own preferences and sauna experience. Those who are new to bathing may spend five to ten minutes at a time, while others who are more accustomed to sauna use may spend twenty to twenty-five minutes at a time. If at any point you feel weak, dizzy or nauseous you should exit the sauna immediately.
Take a break, rinse, and repeat - When you are ready for a break, step out of the sauna and cool down. Many people like to take another shower, drink some water, or otherwise refresh themselves in the relative cool of the dressing room. When you are ready for more heat simply step back into the sauna. You can repeat these steps as many times as you like; experienced bathers often make three, four, or more trips into the heat before stepping out for the final time.
Shower and final cool down - When you are finally done with your Finnish sauna, take another shower to wash away the sweat and let yourself cool down completely. You should be cool and dry before getting dressed, and should follow your sauna with fluids to re-hydrate yourself and perhaps a meal if you are hungry.
What You Need to Take
In a traditional Finnish sauna, the most important thing you need to take along is time. The sauna is all about relaxing, and doing that properly cannot be rushed. Most people like to take a small towel into the sauna itself so they can sit on it; this helps improve the hygiene of the sauna and also protects from benches that can be extremely hot. After you are finished, you will probably like a soft bathrobe to wear while cooling down and some lotion to moisturize your skin and prevent it from drying out.
Whether you sauna in your local health club or travel to Finland for a truly authentic experience, there are some general rules of Finnish sauna etiquette that should be followed:
* Shower first
* Use a towel on the bench
* Don't compete to see who can stay in the longest or withstand the highest temperatures
* Relax, socialize, and enjoy the company of others
* Do not interpret the nude sauna as a sexual or erotic thing, because it's not
Finnish Sauna Customs
Finland has many unique sauna customs that have evolved over the centuries as the sauna's role became more and more important to the Finnish way of life. In the days before hot running water, the sauna was commonly used for bathing and cleansing the body. It was also often used as a place for women to give birth (it was not heated during the birth process) because it was clean and provided easy access to hot water.
Finnish families often sauna together, sans clothing, all the way up until children are fully-grown. If the sauna is located near a lake bathers may jump into the water to rinse and cool off rather than taking a traditional shower. This is the case in both summer and winter, when a hole is cut in the ice to reach the cold water. If there is no lake or stream handy then bathers also like to roll in the snow as a way to cool down between sessions in the Finnish sauna.
Another Finnish tradition is to take birch branches into the sauna, moisten them, and then gently whisk yourself to help open up your pores even further. It may seem strange to think about hitting yourself with birch branches, but it really does enhance and improve the whole sauna experience.
Business travelers going to Finland should be prepared for business contacts, even those they hardly know, to extend an invitation to sauna. The idea of sitting naked in a sauna with near-strangers may be a bit intimidating, but be assured that it is a normal part of the Finnish culture. In fact, if you were to refuse the invitation it might be seen by some as a bit of an insult.
One of the biggest surprises that await many new sauna bathers, though, is the washing woman whose job it is to soap, scrub and rinse the bodies of bathers. Not all Finnish saunas still use a washer woman, but it is not an uncommon practice even today.
Julie-Ann Amos is a freelance writer for Home-Saunas-N-Kits.com, a consumer guide providing information on pre-built modular saunas and kits. She enjoys the health benefits of home saunas and has assisted friends in building an in-home steam sauna from a kit.