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
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
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
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 lyly, 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 lyly 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.
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
"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
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,"
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
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.