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Dosent Lasse Viinikka enjoys a sauna several times a week, both at home and in the Sauna Society by the sea close to the centre of Helsinki.

    The sauna - a sacred place

    Nina Korhonen


There is an old Finnish saying which tells you to sit in the sauna as devoutly as in church. Finns' fanaticism for the sauna is difficult for an outsider to understand - at least for those who have not had the pleasure of relaxing in a sauna.

Tf all Finns suddenly decided to go and sauna at the same time, things would not be as crowded as one might imagine. It is estimated that there are up to 2 million saunas in Finland.

Of a population of 5 million, 99 per cent go regularly to the sauna - a little more than once a week on average, but some go almost daily. At the beginning of this century all Finns still went to sauna around the same time. Saturday was sauna day, and having a sauna marked the beginning of the day of rest.

"It is no longer easy to name the most popular day for sauna. Friday and other weekdays have gained popularity in this respect," says Dr Lasse Viinikka, who chairs the International Sauna Society, as well as the Finnish Sauna Society, which cherishes the sauna tradition in Finland.

"There are, however, a couple of days which stand out as sauna days: for most Finns, the highlight of both Christmas Eve and Midsummer Eve is the sauna," Viinikka says.


Enjoyment at 90o Celsius

What actually is this much-loved sauna? For the benefit of foreigners, Lasse Viinikka describes sauna as a typically Finnish form of bathing, in which cold and hot alternate.

The sauna is a space heated by hot stones. The platform and benches where people sit are so high up that even the bathers' toes are above the source of heat, the stove. The bathers increase the humidity by throwing water on the stones, this is called löyly: The temperature decreases somewhat, but the added humidity feels hot on the skin. The vasta or vihta, a bunch of leafy birch twigs, definitely adds to the pleasure. Whisking with a vasta which has been soaked in water relaxes muscles in the same way as a light massage.

"A suitable temperature for a beginner is 90o C, and the time to stay in the sauna varies between 10 and 15 minutes," Dr Viinikka advises. After the lšyly, people go out of the sauna to cool off - one favourite form of cooling is a dip in the sea or in one of the 200,000 lakes in Finland. A shower or any cool space serves the same purpose.

Typically, people return to the sauna to take lšyly about three times, after which they wash, dry themselves and have a light meal. It is recommended that people also drink liquid during sauna: the average loss in perspiration is 0.5 to 1 litre.

Finns usually take a sauna in the nude, which tends to slightly disturb first-timers. A swimsuit does no harm, but has no real place in the Finnish sauna. In Finland men and women go to sauna at different times, with the exception of members of a family. "The sauna is a sacred place, and there are no sexual undertones about nudity," Dr Viinikka points out.


A living East-European custom

Finland is the westernmost outpost of the eastern sauna tradition, which agrarian peoples embraced several thousands of years ago.

In the Scandinavian countries west of Finland, the sauna bath was introduced by the Vikings. As a concept, the sauna is universal. "The sweat bath is known all over the world; the warmth eases muscle tension and generally relaxes you after hard work," says Teppo Korhonen, Docent in Ethnology.

The oldest saunas in Finland were caves dug into a slope; this is the type of sweat lodge American natives are known to have used on the prairies. The smoke sauna built of timber is known from the late Iron Age onwards. The same building also served as a dwelling and a drying barn.

Unlike Central European countries, Finland never lost its sauna tradition. In the Middle Ages, saunas were shut down all over Europe, and by the late 17th century, virtually all saunas had disappeared from Central Europe. The sauna was looked upon as a den of iniquity which bred bad habits like drinking and debauchery. In Finland, it had no such negative connotations.

"The sauna was blamed for the spread of certain diseases, such as syphilis. In fact, this was due to the blood-letting which took place there and poor disinfecting at that time," Korhonen says.

Another reason for the disappearance of the sauna in European cities was a shortage of wood, which was needed to heat the sauna. "This is a problem we never had here in Finland, nor are likely to have in the near future."

The sauna building used to serve many purposes in Finland. Apart from bathing, it was used for nursing the sick, curing meat, washing clothes and fermenting malt. In the autumn local women gathered in a sauna to spin linen from flax - in company, the tedious work seemed much lighter.


New life

In Finland, the sauna was a place where new life began. "Formerly women gave birth at home, generally in the sauna or some other outbuilding," says Hilkka Helsti, who is writing her doctoral dissertation on rural women's accounts of delivery.

From the late 19th century onwards, women began to give birth in the house, but as late the 1940s many children were born in the sauna.

There were practical reasons for using the sauna for delivering babies: it was easy to heat water there and, as the dwellings were small and crowded, it offered the peace and privacy women wanted. In addition, the sauna was a sacred place of ritual.

Helsti points out that the idea of hygiene was quite different from the one we have today. "Although women often bathed before giving birth, the water poured on them was rather intended to relieve contractions than to clean. Women gave birth on the floor, which had been covered with straw or rags.

There was also a less noble reason for choosing the sauna for giving birth: pregnancy and delivery were considered shameful. Until very recently, all the preparations were to be carried out in secret: speaking about them in public, especially in front of men, was not "done", nor could a pregnant woman be seen in public.

After the delivery, the mother was isolated in the darkened sauna or a back room. She was not allowed to cook, tend the cattle or work in the field. "This isolation could last as long as six weeks, until she was cleansed in a church ceremony called "churching". Only after that could she lead a normal life and have dealings with other people," Helsti says.


Wonderful stress relief

For the Finn, the sauna is the beginning and end of all things good: it refreshes the mind as well as the body. In view of this, it is no wonder that the physiological effects of sauna have been studied in 12 doctoral dissertations and at least 500 scientific articles.

"The health effects of the sauna are ephemeral, and it cures no diseases. But it may relieve some symptoms, and certainly causes no diseases," Dr Lasse Viinikka says.

Finns usually go to sauna for the first time at the age of four to six months. Viinikka himself was taken to a smoke sauna in the shade of an apple tree when he was only five days old.

Although sauna is suitable for children, too, there are some restrictions to heed. In children the area of skin is larger in relation to the volume of the internal organs than in adults, which means that a change in temperature affects them more strongly. They also have less fat, and perspiration does not develop to the full until teenage.

"Children can go to sauna if the parents know how to interpret their reactions. Ten minutes in a temperature of 70o may be too much for a toddler."

Pregnant women can also go to sauna: the hot air does not cause deformities, as was once suspected. Studies conducted by Emeritus Professor Lauri Saxén, the former Chancellor of the University of Helsinki, have shown that there is no harm for an unborn child in the sauna. "98 per cent of pregnant Finnish women go to sauna," Viinikka says.

Is there any risk about saunaing? For those who develop cardiovascular symptoms while walking, the sauna may be an excessive strain. People who have a temperature should not go to sauna; just like sports, the sauna may cause myocarditis. A bad eczema may be another reason to forego it.

"The sauna is no place for people who are drunk, because alcohol numbs the senses. Alcohol does not belong in the sauna. It is all right to take one beer during the sauna, but otherwise alcohol should be left until after the sauna, should anyone feel like it."

Dr Viinikka himself goes to sauna because of its soothing effect: as a stress relief, it is excellent. Thanks to its relaxing effect, the sauna is sometimes used as part of business negotiations or political talks. In sauna people tend to lose their notions of rank and excessive restraint vanishes.