The sauna is at the heart of Finnish culture. For centuries, babies were born and people who had passed away were prepared for their final journey into the after-life in saunas. The sauna was (and is) a place for purification and relaxation, especially on Saturdays when families got together for a weekly cleansing session.
The earliest records of saunas date all the way back to the Bronze age, when saunas were just a hole in the ground with a pile of hot stones in the middle and some animal skins as a roof. Nowadays, saunas in Finland come in three different forms.
Savusauna (smoke sauna)
This sauna is basically a log hut with a huge pile of stones in the middle. It is heated by lighting a fire under the stones. There is no chimney so smoke escapes from the hut through little holes in the walls. As there are several hundred kilos of stones to heat, it takes 6-8 hours to properly heat the sauna. When the stones are hot, the fire is put out and, when all the smoke has gone, the sauna is ready to use.
Despite being one of the most authentic types of sauna, as it takes such a long time to heat and can be dangerous if you don’t know how to heat it properly, Savusaunas are not that common today.
Puusauna (wooden heated sauna)
This type of sauna is commonly found in summer cottages and houses across Finland. Like the Savusauna, it is heated by burning wood, but here the stones are in a stove and a chimney takes care of the fumes. This means the sauna can be heated while people are using it so significantly fewer stones are needed.
Sähkösauna (electric sauna)
This is one of the most modern types of sauna. Instead of wood, electric resistors are used to heat the stones.
How to enjoy the sauna
Saunas are a sacred place for Finns; no matter if it’s mixed or same-sex, they should be enjoyed naked with no sexual intentions. When ‘saunering’, bare the following Finnish advice in mind:
- ‘Go sauna as you would go to a church’ - an old Finnish saying suggests you should have excellent manners and respect the space and others when in a sauna. In the old times, people believed that if someone screamed, shouted, swore or behaved immorally in a sauna, the sauna elf (saunatonttu) would become angry and burn the whole sauna to the ground.
- Enjoy Löyly - traditionally, people throw water on the stove (kiuas) to release a cloud of steam called löyly. This increases the humidity and temperature in the sauna, allowing you to relax even more. Before leaving the sauna, always throw some water on the stones for the sauna elf to enjoy.
- Vasta/vihta - for the full sauna experience, you should use a vasta (or vihta if you are in Western Finland). A vasta is a ‘bath-broom’ made of bound birch tree branches. When in the sauna, you should gently hit yourself all over with the vasta. The birch branches release essential oils and saponins (soap-like substances) that cleanse the skin, decrease inflammation and increase blood flow.
- Don’t be surprised by the heat - saunas are hot! In the beginning, breathing in a sauna can feel quite difficult, but if you relax and breath slowly, you will be fine. If you start feeling dizzy or uncomfortable, leave the sauna and cool down.
- Leaving the sauna - when you are properly relaxed and ready to leave the sauna, take a last quick löyly, leave the sauna and have a cool shower. Make sure you drink plenty of non-alcoholic fluid and eat something a bit salty to balance your salt levels.
And there you have it; now you know how to ‘sauna’ like an expert.