Relaxing ‘Finnish style’
auna is the only Finnish word that has entered into other languages. To understand how devoted the Finns are to their most widely spread tradition, you only have to remember some of its oldest uses: decades ago women would often give birth inside a sauna. Indeed, in Finland, this is the gate through which people enter and depart from this world; when they died, the bodies were given a final wash inside a sauna.
Saunas are considered to be a place where both the body and mind are cleansed. The Finns begin their sauna ritual by slapping their skin with bundles of birch twigs to eliminate impurities. Afterwards, they sit and enjoy the feeling of peace that fills the sweltering room.
Carrying your sauna around
The oldest type of portable sauna is the military tent, which is still used today. In fact, some companies rent them out for their staff. In Teuva, on the west coast, they organise an event for floating and portable saunas.
Finnish saunas are places for friendship, and conversation and debate are encouraged (including between strangers), which is unusual when you consider that Finns are not especially outgoing and they tend to shy away from physical contact. However, this aspect of their personality stays outside these special retreats. There are private saunas (in private homes), public saunas in the middle of towns, or luxurious temples of wellbeing. It isn’t difficult to find one of these spots regulated at 80ºC (although they can reach a temperature of 160ºC).
Because there are over 2 million saunas for 5.5 million inhabitants, variety is practically an obligation. Smoke, ice, hot bucket, portable and even cultural saunas, with poetry recitals included, can be found across the country. There are many types of sauna and in Finland you can find one in the most unsuspected of places: in the Finnish parliament, a Burger King, the ski lift at Ylläs, Laponia and on a ferris wheel (Sky Wheel Sauna). Even Finland’s embassies around the world have saunas for their staff. And, last but not least, are the portable saunas that enable you to relax while on the move. In the town of Teuva (on the western coast) they organise a mobile sauna festival, which even includes prototypes of seaworthy saunas.
Relaxing with 70 people?
The largest smoke sauna in the world is in –can you guess?– Finland. It’s called the Rauhalahti complex. Apart from the hotel and spa, there is an old loggers’ cabin that has been converted into a smoke sauna, with room enough for 70 people.
The most popular sauna in Helsinki is Kotiharju Sauna. It opened in 1928 and at the time, many people used to go there when they didn’t have one of their own. This is normal in the countryside but in the city there is usually one in every building or residential community. One of the last to be established in the capital was Sauna Löyly, standing right on the edge of the Baltic Sea, with a surface area of nearly 2,000 metres. It has three heated wooden saunas. One is kept warm all day, another once a day and the third is a traditional smoke sauna. When you’ve finished, the sea is literally just a jump away. Another Finnish tradition is to have an ice bath after a steam bath. It does wonders for the blood circulation.
But the ‘ritual’ doesn’t finish with a cold bath or, failing that, a shower. ‘Saunanjälkeinen’ is an expression that could be translated as ‘post-sauna’ and defines a state of relaxation that can be used as an excuse to get out of making any physical effort, though in Finland this is to be embraced not frowned upon. A clean and refreshed feeling, both physically and mentally, that the Finns have managed to promote so well.