Finland’s sauna culture offers both traditional and modern ways to sweat it out.
It’s your first business meeting with a client. After a hectic day, your host suggests getting together after hours. But there’s a catch: it’s a social hour in the buff.
Before filing a lawsuit, remember where you are: Finland, the sauna capital of the world.
While popular in many cultures, sauna is fundamental to the Finnish national identity. In Finland, an invitation to participate in this ritual is an honour, and, in the corporate world, a good business practice. It’s normal to lounge in a steamy room with colleagues, and nudity is customary (albeit optional).
It’s estimated that 99 per cent of Finns take a sauna weekly (and even more frequently
during cottage season). Many Finns have electric saunas in their apartments and the Finnish parliament even has its own sauna chamber. So when in Finland, grab a towel and seek out some heat.
A FINNISH TRADITION
Finns have practiced sauna for centuries, with the first settlers roasting rocks piled in a ditch. Water was thrown on the hot stones to exude loyly (steam).
Over time, the sauna became multifunctional. It was a bathing room during long winters, and for women, a sterile place to give birth. A sauna was also a sacred space for spiritual cleansing and marking rites of passage. Purification rituals before weddings and funerals were often performed on a sauna’s wooden benches.
The contemporary sauna still holds many purposes and applies to any freestanding structure or wood-lined room with a stove. Having a sauna can mean anything from a quick 10-minute steam session to a social event lasting several hours. For Finns, it’s a ritual that promotes health, relieves stress and chronic pain, expels toxins, and facilitates relaxation and good sleep.
Of course, each type of sauna offers a unique experience worth trying. Here are two ways to experience a Finnish sauna.
THE OLD WORLD: SMOKE SAUNA AND ICE DIPS
For many Finns, the smoke sauna, which dates back to the 12th century, is the most authentic type of sauna. Modern smoke saunas are mostly found in rural areas, but also can be found at some spas and resorts.
In the Arctic, Kakslauttanen Resort (kakslauttanen.fi) has the world’s largest smoke sauna, with a capacity for 100 bathers. Over 10 hours, the fireplace is loaded with birch wood, filling the room with smoke. Once the temperature reaches 100 degrees Celsius (or more!), the fire is extinguished. Smoke disappears through a small hole in the ceiling, but the scent of singed birch still wafts in the air.
At Kakslauttanen, the ritual starts in the dressing room – a massive log cabin for disrobing and enjoying a cold drink by a crackling fire. It’s customary to shower before entering the sauna, and it’s wise to remove all metal objects – jewellery, piercings, watches – to prevent burns.
The smoke sauna itself is located in a separate hut, close to the lake. It’s chilly
padding across the marshmallow-like snow, so bring socks or throw on your shoes. A burst of balmy heat welcomes bathers into the sauna. The room is dark and peaceful, illuminated with tealight candles along the wood-lined benches. The higher you sit on the benches, the more intense the heat.
An attendant picks up a ladle and tosses water onto the hot stones. There’s a hissing sound as steam fills the room. Bathers sit naked or in towels and bathing suits,
quietly inhaling the sultry air. Some gently whip themselves with a vihta – a bundle of birch boughs soaked in water. It isn’t painful – the branches massage the skin and stimulate blood circulation, while releasing a pleasant aroma.
Once you’re cooking, sprint to the frozen lake for an ice dip. This sounds crazy, but the Finns swear by its health benefits. A square hole is cut into the ice, with a ladder attached. Some bathers experience numbness from high body temperatures, but I shriek as the freezing arctic water hits my body.
The ritual can be repeated or you can just lounge by the fireplace in the dressing room. Eventually, relaxation ripples throughout your body.
THE NEW WORLD: STEAM ROOMS AND INFRARED SAUNAS
For a less rustic experience, there’s the Langvik Wellness Hotel (langvik.fi/en),
located 30 minutes from Helsinki and overlooking the Baltic Sea. On weekends, locals venture here for spa treatments and gastronomy; businesses often hold
meetings here, using the saunas for team-building exercises.
Inside Langvik’s steam room, bathers sit in an enclosed, dimly lit space on ceramic benches. There is no smoke or stove. Instead, hot steam scented with eucalyptus is pumped into the room to create humidity. For some, this offers a fresher approach to the smoke sauna.
The infrared sauna heats objects rather than the room itself. Bathers absorb the dry heat that’s popular for its touted benefits of weight loss and pain relief. Leaning back, the wooden frame on the wall is wondrously warm, soothing my aching muscles. After 30 minutes, I’m sweaty and my muscles are loose.
Instead of an ice dip, this experience offers a cool-down in the Amazon showers or one of the wading pools. Others relax on the sofa by the fireplace.
No matter which type of sauna you choose, the experience ends with the same
age-old ritual: unwinding with a drink and good company. Suddenly, a Finnish sauna doesn’t seem quite so foreign.