the truth about finland :: sauna love

the truth about finland :: sauna love

Teir, Harald, Yrjö Collan, and Pirkko Valtakari. Sauna Studies: Papers Read at the VI International Sauna Congress in Helsinki on August 15-17, 1974. Helsinki, 1976.

“A place of peace and harmony.” Ah, the sauna. I’ve so much to say about sauna (and pirtis, and banya). I’ve tried to start many times, but because of the state of sauna in America, it comes out as a bit scolding and that’s not what I want to impart.

Hot bathing is integral to my sense of well being. I should say hot/cold bathing, because some aren’t aware that north-eastern European heat bathing involves—requires—cold after each bake. People found me a bit excessive and eccentric on this topic (quackish, even), but now that it’s coming into vogue again, all the sudden I’m a go-to authority. And to some, an authoritarian.

I try to be gentle. You don’t know how I try to keep my mouth shut and to preserve whatever “peace and harmony” remains, but sometimes it’s just…wtf are you doing in the sauna?

Many Europeans speak in hushed tones and shock about what goes on in American saunas (see below). I’ve spoken to total strangers about the spandex, the shoes, the phones, the 30-second sessions, the…working out? This is deeply upsetting, sacrilegious even, to people steeped in traditional sweat bathing. Someone needs to teach them about pirties nykštukas (saunatonttu, in Finnish).

Americans. Why do we compromise of sauna quality? A question Finns and many Europeans ask after a typical American sauna experience, a problem large enough to produce a 75-minute video from the Finlandia Foundation National.

Chatting with an Italian woman the other day, she grew wide-eyed as she asked me why Americans go into a sauna in spandex leggings and sneakers. “They are taking the filth of NYC in with them. And their workout sweat! And it’s so terrible for the skin!”

Comedian Ismo marvels over a California sauna with a metal door handle and carpet. And no löyly.

The sauna is meant to be a place of peace and harmony. Of relaxation and quiet. It is not a place for phones, weights, workouts, or clothes. Clean towels or clean cotton bathrobes, if that’s your thing, are really the only items you should bring into the sauna with you. It is not the place to catch up on a sitcom, comb or condition your hair, or cut your nails. Gross. It is a social place, and conversations in low, pleasant tones should be welcome. Coming in with your wet bathing suit or tight workout gear is terrible for your skin and bad for the wood of the sauna. Perhaps you find this nit-picky, and when in Rome….

But when an elite institution has to instruct, “NO URINATION,” something has gone terribly wrong.

Sauna has something of a meditative quality. Some say you should treat it like a temple or church, and they aren’t wrong. I want to communicate this because if you are distracting yourself in the sauna, you aren’t getting the full experience, which is peaceful, calming, and, at times, euphoric.

Hot bathing traditions vary, and there is no one absolute right way to do it. The most common, I’d say, is three sessions of 10-30 minutes of heat, followed by 5-10 minutes of cold and about 15 minutes of rest. Sadly, most American saunas don’t provide a place for the rest unless you want to sit on a bench in a locker room, which is not so restful. Proper banyas have lounge chairs for this purpose. This three-session bath is time consuming, so few do it more than once a week. A daily 20-30 minute session followed by cold and a rest is great. If you can add another 10-20 minute hot session after the cold, you will likely feel the euphoria I so love. We do not end with a cold shower to build character or endurance. We do it to wash off the sweat.

For me, the return to the heat after a shockingly cold shower or plunge is absolute bliss. It helps to lie down. Sometimes the cold can be euphoric as well, but I seldom have access to cold enough temps unless I’m at a banya, and sometimes not even then. Even with the trendiness of cold plunges, it’s hard to get gym management to care that their showers aren’t cold. One of the saunas I frequent is full of sneaker-clad, phone-watching spandex wearers, but I occasionally endure it because they have really cold showers.

If you are new to sauna, do not go all out the first time. While I marvel at people who come into the sauna for only a minute or two (what are they doing?), understand that you are supposed to be uncomfortable. If you have any health issues, get an ok from your doc first. People doing three sessions of 30-minute intense heat are used to it. I can stay in cold longer than most not because I’m particularly tough. I’m just used to it. I grew into it gradually.

When I teach people how to hot/cold bathe, I point out that you are most uncomfortable right before your body starts to sweat. If you feel unwell, rather than just uncomfortable, get out and cool off. Once you are sweating and uncomfortable, depending on the heat of the sauna, try to stay three more minutes. You might break past the discomfort and really start to relax. After three minutes, try a lower bench. If you’ve had enough, leave. Don’t overdo. You will acclimate, learn to sweat better, and grow into longer sessions. I don’t sweat much without sauna, and if I’m deprived of sauna due to travel or a pandemic, my body forgets how to sweat well. I have to relearn when I return.

I haven’t explained pirties nykštukas (saunatonttu, in Finnish) or löyly (steam from water on the rocks. Finnish sauna is not dry), which get into the lore and culture of the heat bath, but also its soul and spirit. The former are useful in teaching sauna etiquette. Nor have I discussed the culture of nekedness in the sauna, which seems really difficult for Americans to grasp (Ismo does a great job on this, above. So does an understanding of the Puritans). I’ll try, next time.

(The truth about Finland is found in the paragraph in the photo at top.)


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