Finland and Sauna
A sauna is a small room or house designed as a place to experience dry or wet heat sessions, or an establishment with one or more of these and auxiliary facilities. These facilities derive from the Finnish sauna. The word sauna is also used metaphorically to describe an unusually hot or humid environment.
A sauna session can be a social affair in which the participants disrobe and sit or recline in temperatures of over 80 ?C (176 ?F). This induces relaxation and promotes sweating. [Wikipedia]
History of Sauna
The word sauna is an ancient Finnish word referring to the traditional Finnish bath as well as to the bathhouse itself.
The oldest known saunas were pits dug in a slope in the ground and primarily used as dwellings in winter. The sauna featured a fireplace where stones were heated to a high temperature. Water was thrown over the hot stones to produce steam and to give a sensation of increased heat. This would raise the temperature so high that people could take off their clothes.
Eventually the sauna evolved to use a metal woodstove, or kiuas, with a chimney. Air temperatures averaged around 160-180 degrees Fahrenheit (70-80 ?C) but sometimes exceeded 200 ?F (90 ?C) in a traditional Finnish sauna. Steam vapor, also called l?yly, was created by splashing water on the heated rocks.
The steam and high heat caused bathers to perspire, thus flushing away impurities and toxins from the body. The Finns also used a vihta (Western dialect, aka vasta in Eastern dialect), which is a bundle of birch twigs, to gently slap the skin and create further stimulation of the pores and cells.
The Finns also used the sauna as a place to cleanse the mind, rejuvenate and refresh the spirit, and prepare the dead for burial. The sauna was (and still is) an important part of daily life, and families bathed together in the home sauna. Indeed, the sauna was originally meant to be a place of mystical nature where gender/sex differences did not exist. Because the sauna was often the cleanest structure and had water readily available, Finnish women also gave birth in the sauna.
When the Finns migrated to other areas of the globe they brought their sauna designs and traditions with them, introducing other cultures to the enjoyment and health benefits of sauna. This led to further evolution of the sauna, including the electric sauna stove, which was introduced in the 1950s and far infrared saunas, which have become popular in the last several decades. [Wikipedia]
The Modern Sauna
Many North American and Western European college/university physical education complexes and many public sports centers and gyms include sauna facilities. They may also be present at public and private swimming pools. This may be a separate area where swimming wear may be taken off or a smaller facility in the swimming pool area where one should keep the swimming wear on.
Under many circumstances, temperatures approaching and exceeding 100 ?C (212 ?F) would be completely intolerable. Saunas overcome this problem by controlling the humidity. The hottest Finnish saunas have relatively low humidity levels in which steam is generated by pouring water on the hot stones. This allows air temperatures that could boil water to be tolerated and even enjoyed for longer periods of time. Other types of sauna, such as the hammam, where the humidity approaches 100%, will be set to a much lower temperature of around 40 ?C (104 ?F) to compensate. The "wet heat" would cause scalding if the temperature were set much higher.
Finer control over the temperature experienced can be achieved by choosing a higher level bench for those wishing a hotter experience or a lower level bench for a more moderate temperature. A good sauna has a relatively small temperature gradient between the various seating levels.
Good manners require that the door to a sauna not be kept open so long that it cools the sauna for those that are already in it. Leaving the door even slightly ajar or keeping it open for more than a few seconds will significantly cool down the relatively small amount of hot air inside the sauna.
Infrared saunas are growing in popularity, using far infrared rays emitted by infrared heaters to create warmth.
Saunas can be dangerous. Heat prostration or the even more serious hyperthermia (heat stroke) can result. A cool shower or plunge afterwards always results in a great increase in blood pressure, so careful moderation is advised for those with a history of stroke or hypertension (high blood pressure). A good practice is to take a few moments after exiting a sauna before entering a cold plunge, and to enter a cold plunge by stepping into it gradually, rather than immediately immersing fully.
In Finland, the sauna was thought of as a healing refreshment. The old saying goes: "Jos ei viina, terva tai sauna auta, tauti on kuolemaksi." ("If booze, tar or the sauna won't help, the illness is fatal.") The Finnish sauna is not thought as an easy way to get physical exercise, and it is not intended for weight loss; in fact, it predates these modern ideas.
In Finnish sauna culture, a beer afterwards is thought to be refreshing and relaxing. Pouring a few centiliters of beer into the water that is poured on the hot stones releases the odor of the grain used to brew the beer. This distincive smell, however, sharply divides Finnish people. Also other scents can be used (for example tar or eucalyptus), but using any scents other than birch leaves is frowned upon by the traditionalists. A common method for adding birch leaf scent is to wet the leaves of a vihta in water, and then place the vihta on the hot stones for a second or two. This also conveniently heats the vihta for use to whip the users skin to increase blood circulation. According to Finnish lore, the human body is most beautiful thirty minutes after a sauna.
Social and mixed gender nudity with adults and children of the same family is common in the conventional sauna. Sometimes the sauna is considered not only a sex-free, but also almost a gender-free zone. It may also be noted that engaging in sexual activity in an environment where the temperature approaches 100 ?C would be impractical at the least. In the dry sauna and on chairs one sometimes sits on a towel for hygiene and comfort; in the steam bath the towel is left outside. Some hotel sauna facilities and especially cruise ships and/or ferries have an area where refreshments (often alcoholic) are served in conjunction with the sauna/pool area; draping a towel around the waist is generally required in that part of such facilities.
As an additional facility a sauna may have one or more jacuzzis. [Wikipedia]
Records and other historical evidence indicate that the Finns built the first wooden saunas in the 5th or 8th century. Early saunas were dug into a hill or embankment. As tools and techniques advanced, they were later built above ground using wooden logs. Rocks were heated in a stone fireplace with a wood fire. The smoke from the fire filled the room as the air warmed.
Once the temperature reached desired levels, the smoke was allowed to clear and the bathers entered. The wood smoke aroma still lingered and was part of the cleansing ritual. This type of traditional smoke sauna was called a savusauna, which means "smoke sauna" in Finnish. Many people find the smell of smoke and wood to be relaxing.
In Finland swimsuits, towels, or any other garments are rarely worn in the sauna. Families often go to the sauna together, which is not considered eccentric since family saunas are an old tradition. In these private saunas swimsuits or towels are never worn. In public saunas it is more common that men and women go to the sauna separately, although people of both sexes may sometimes bathe together, for example in student clubs. Still, saunas are not associated with sex and sexuality. Quite the contrary, historically saunas have been the most sacred places after the church, and most houses which could afford to build a sauna had one. In older times women also used to give birth in the sauna because it was a warm and sterile environment. Children were occasionally born in saunas still in the beginning of the 20th century.
The lighting in a sauna is shady, and Finns prefer to sit in the sauna in silence, relaxing. The temperature is usually between 80?C (176?F) and 110?C (230?F). Sometimes people make a 'vihta'; they tie together small fresh birch branches (with leaves on) and swat themselves and their fellow sauna bathers with it. One can even buy vihtas from a shop and store them into the freezer for later (winter) use. Using a vihta improves blood circulation, and its birch odour is considered pleasing. [Wikipedia]
Today there are a wide variety of sauna options. Heat sources include wood, electricity, gas and other more unconventional methods such as solar power. There are wet saunas, dry saunas, smoke saunas, steam saunas, and those that work with infrared waves. The Finnish word for a sauna heat source is kiuas.
There are also two main types of kiuas: continuously heating and "always on"-type. Continuously heating kiuases have a small heat capacity and can be heated up on an "on-demand" basis, whereas an "always on" kiuas has a large heat capacity and can take up to 24 hours to heat up.
Smoke sauna (Finnish savusauna) is the original sauna. It is a room with a pile of rocks, with no chimney. A fire is lit directly under the rocks, then fire is put out, and the heat stored in the room and in the rocks is the heat source. Following this process, ash and ember are removed from the hearth, the benches and floor are cleaned, and the room air is allowed to freshen for a period of time. Temperature is low, about 60 ?C, and humidity is high. Heating can take about five hours, but with modern combustion technology, a heat-up time of two hours can be achieved. The tradition nearly died out, but was revived by enthusiasts in the 1980s, and is considered by many to provide the highest quality sauna experience.
A continuous fire, instead of stored heat, is a recent invention. There is a firebox and a smokestack, and stones are placed in a compartment directly above the firebox. It is much hotter than a smoke sauna, even 100 ?C, is clean and doesn't smell of smoke. It takes shorter time than the smoke sauna, about 1-2 hours. A fire-heated sauna requires manual labor in the form of maintaining the fire; the fire is also a hazard.
The electric continuous heater offers virtually identical service to the continuous-fire type kiuas, and the prices do not differ either. The main difference is that only a click of a switch is needed for heating it up, and the fire hazard is mitigated.
An always-on type kiuas has a very large heat reservoir, about 150-200 kg of stones. It is more expensive and is used in public saunas. The heat source is electric, but other sources are also known.
Infrared saunas use a special heater that generates infrared radiation rays similar to that produced by the sun. Unlike the sun?s ultraviolet radiation, infrared is said to be beneficial to overall health. Infrared radiation has been shown to kill the bacteria responsible for acne. In an infrared sauna, the electric heaters warm the air and also penetrate the skin to encourage perspiration, producing many of the same health benefits of traditional steam saunas. [Wikipedia]
Similar sweat bathing facilities
The Finnish-style sauna (generally 70-80 ?C (158-176 ?F), but can vary from 60 to 120 ?C (140-248 ?F)) and the wet steam bath are the most widely known forms of sweat bathing. Many cultures have close equivalents, such as the North American First Nations (in Canada) or Native American (in the United States) sweat lodge, the Turkish hammam, Roman thermae, Nahuatl (Aztec) temescalli, Maya temazcal, Russian banya, Estonian saun, the Jewish Shvitz, African Sifutu, Swedish bastu and Japanese Mushi-Buro. Public bathhouses that often contained a steam room were common in the 1700s, 1800s and early 1900s and were inexpensive places to go to wash when private facilities were not generally available. [Wikipedia]
Modern sauna culture around the world
As the home of the sauna, Finnish sauna culture is well established. Although cultures in all corners of the world have imported and adapted the sauna, many of the traditional customs have not survived the journey. Today, public perception of saunas, sauna "etiquette" and sauna customs vary hugely from country to country. In many countries sauna going is a recent fashion and attitudes towards saunas are changing, while in others traditions have survived over generations.
In Finland, Estonia and Russia sauna-going plays a central social role. These countries boast the hottest saunas and the tradition of beating fellow sauna-goers with leafy, wet birch bunches ('vasta' or 'vihta' in Finnish, 'viht' in Estonian, 'venik' in Russian). In Russia, public saunas are strictly single sex, while in Finland and Estonia, both types occur.
The Benelux and Scandinavian countries, where public saunas have been around for a long time too, generally have a moderate, "live and let live" attitude towards sauna-going with few traditions to speak of. Levels of nudity vary, single sex saunas (although rare in Luxemburg) are as common as mixed sex saunas and people tend to socialise.
In Germany and Austria on the other hand, nudity is strictly enforced in public saunas, as is the covering of benches with towels. Separate single-sex saunas for both genders are rare, most places offer women-only and mixed-gender saunas, or organise women-only days for the sauna once a week. Loud conversation is not usual as the sauna is seen as a place of healing rather than socialising. Contrary to Scandinavian countries, pouring water on hot stones to increase humidity (Aufguss) is not normally done by the sauna visitors themselves, but rather by a person in charge (the Saunameister), either an employee of the sauna complex or a volunteer. Aufguss sessions can take up to 10 minutes, and take place according to a schedule. During an Aufguss session the Saunameister uses a large towel to circulate the hot air through the sauna, intensifying sweating and the perception of heat. Once the Aufguss session has started it is not considered good manners to enter the sauna, as opening the door would cause loss of heat (Sauna guests are expected to enter the sauna just in time before the Aufguss. Leaving the session is allowed, but grudgingly tolerated). Aufguss sessions are usually announced by a schedule on the sauna door. An Aufguss session in progress might be indicated by a light or sign hung above the sauna entrance. Cold showers or baths shortly after a sauna, as well as exposure to fresh air in a special balcony, garden or open-air room (Frischluftraum) are considered a must.
In German-speaking Switzerland, customs are generally the same as in Germany and Austria, although you tend to see more families (parents with their children) and young people. Also in respect to socialising in the sauna the Swiss tend more to be like the Swedes or Finns. Also in German speaking countries, there are many facilities for washing after using the sauna, with 'dunking pools' (pools of very cold water in which a person dips themselves after using the sauna), showers. In some saunas and steam rooms, scented salts are given out which can be rubbed into the skin for extra aroma and cleaning effects. In French-speaking Switzerland, customs are less rigid. Often, patrons have their choice of bathing nude or clothed. Other facilities offer nude single-sex saunas, nude mixed-gender saunas, and clothed mixed-gender saunas on the same premises.
In France the United Kingdom, and much of southern Europe, single-gender saunas are the most common type. Nudity is tolerated in the segregated saunas but strictly forbidden in the mixed saunas, a cause of confusion when residents of these nations cross the border to Germany and Austria or vice versa. Sauna sessions tend to be shorter and cold showers are shunned by most. In the United Kingdom, where public saunas are becoming increasingly fashionable, the practice of alternating between the sauna and the jacuzzi in short seatings (considered a faux pas in Northern Europe) has emerged.
Saunas in Slovenia and Croatia have setups similar to those in Germany and Austria, and are perhaps a bit more relaxed about enforcing rules.
Hungarians see the sauna a part of a wider spa culture. Here too attitudes are less liberal, mixed-gender people are together and they wear swimsuits. Single-sex saunas are rare, as well as those which tolerate nudity.
In Central America, particularly in the highlands of southern Mexico and Guatemala, a version of the sauna indigenous to the Americas, called temazcal, is quite popular. The temazacal is usually made of clay or stone, and has a low ceiling. The temazcal structure is usually shared by an extended family unit. Unlike European sauna culture, temazcal is an individual rathern than social activity. One washes in the temazcal, with soap, or in a more traditional setting, with herbs and medicinal bushes. One uses the temazacal only in the evening, so that upon exiting one can feel the chill of the cold evening air (temperature can fall below freezing at high altitudes). One usually bathes in the temazacal 2-3 times a week.
In Africa, on the whole, saunas are kept at a much lower temperature than in Europe.
In Korea, saunas are essentially public bathhouses. Various names are used to describe them, such as the smaller mogyoktang, outdoor oncheon, and the elaborate jjimjilbang. The word 'sauna' is used a lot for its 'English appeal', however it does not strictly refer to the original Scandinavian steam rooms that have become popular throughout the world. The konglish word sauna (???) usually refers to bathhouses with Jacuzzis, hot tubs, showers, steam rooms, and related facilities.
In Japan, many saunas exist at sports centers and public bathhouses (sentos). The saunas are almost always gender separated, often required by law, and nudity is a required part of proper sauna etiquette. While right after World War II, public bathhouses were commonplace in Japan, the number of customers have dwindled as more people were able to afford houses and apartments equipped with their own private baths as the nation became wealthier. As a result many sentos have added more features such as saunas in order to survive.
In the United States, sauna culture is not widespread outside of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and parts of Minnesota, which are home to large populations of Finnish Americans. Elsewhere, while sauna facilities are often provided at health clubs and at hotels, they frequently remain unheated because of disuse. To avoid liability, many saunas operate at only moderate temperatures and do not allow pouring water on the rocks. Sauna users enter and exit the sauna as they please, alternately nude, fully dressed in workout clothes, or dripping wet in swimsuits. In some health clubs, the sauna gets more use from patrons drying wet clothing than for taking a sauna. Proper saunas in the United States are either private or are businesses serving a particular ethnic group with a more developed sauna culture. [Wikipedia]
Sauna traditions and old beliefs
In Finland and Estonia, the sauna is an ancient custom. It used to be a holy place, a place where women gave birth, and where the bodies of the dead were washed. There were also many beliefs and charms that were connected to sauna. It was, among other things, a place for worshipping the dead ? it was thought of as such a wonderful place that even the dead would surely like to return to it. Curing diseases and casting love spells could also happen in the sauna. As in many other cultures, fire was seen as a gift from heaven in Finland, and the hearth and the sauna oven were its altars.
One word in Finnish, strictly connected to sauna, is l?yly. It is difficult to translate precisely, but denotes the heat of the sauna room, especially the heat derived from throwing water on the hot stones of the sauna oven. Originally this word meant spirit or life. In many languages which are related to Finnish, there is a word corresponding to l?yly. The closest example appears in the Estonian language, leil. Another example is lil in Ostyak, which means soul, pointing to the sauna's old, spiritual essence.
There still exists an old saying, "saunassa ollaan kuin kirkossa," ? you should be in the sauna as in a church.
Saunatonttu, literally translated sauna elf, is a little gnome that was(is) believed to live in the sauna. He was(is) always treated with respect, otherwise he might cause much trouble for people. It was(is) customary to warm up the sauna just for the gnome every now and then, or to leave some food outside for him. It is said that he warned the people if a fire was threatening the sauna, or punished people who behaved improperly in it ? for example slept, or played games, argued, were generally noisy or behaved otherwise "immorally" there. [Wikipedia]
Saunas and sex
In many countries, "saunas" are a front for brothels, and sex clubs and gay bathhouses may have saunas in which patrons have sex.
In the Finnish and Estonian culture and European tradition, associating sexuality with sauna is a social faux pas. Public saunas are sometimes segregated between men and women. [Wikipedia]
Table of contents
- History of Sauna
- The Modern Sauna
- Finnish Sauna
- Similar Bathing Facilities
- Modern Sauna Culture
- Traditions and Beliefs
- Saunas and Sex