Sauna Scene

Steam away your aches and pain.

| January/February 2008

  • iSaunaOnLake_Large
    A lake and a Finnish sauna make a priceless combination. Kauppinen
  • iSaunaWindow
    The view from a sauna may be an important consideration before construction begins. Lindström
  • iSaunaSign Long
  • iSaunaDoor
    Recharge your batteries with a trip to the sauna. Pernter
  • iSaunaEquipment
    Birch sticks are a traditional part of the Finnish sauna experience. kettunen
  • iStones Dibble
  • iSaunaInside
    In this typical Finnish sauna, the heating unit uses firewood to warm up the stones. Siltanen

  • iSaunaOnLake_Large
  • iSaunaWindow
  • iSaunaSign
  • iSaunaDoor
  • iSaunaEquipment
  • iStones
  • iSaunaInside

When you make a sauna part of your daily routine, your muscles will relax in the moist heat; aches and pains will evaporate with the steam; and you’ll wind up limp, drowsy and mentally renewed.

The sauna, a traditional Finnish steam bath, has been part of my life since I was a child, and its history goes back much further than that. Cultural records indicate that Finns built the first wooden saunas somewhere between the 5th and 8th centuries. Most experts agree that some form of sweat bath always played a central role in Finnish culture, because it was the simplest and most efficient way to keep clean.

As recently as the 1940s, bathing by any other means was unknown in rural Finland, where 80 percent of the farms had their own saunas. Today an estimated 2 million saunas are installed in Finland, a country with a population of 5 million. As one might expect, Finnish immigrants to the United States gravitated to Northern Minnesota because of the homelike climate, and now saunas are a familiar part of that landscape as well.

An old Finnish proverb says, “If the bath house and brandy cannot cure a man, death is surely near at hand.” Another calls the sauna the “poor man’s apothecary.” First constructed by Finns as a savusauna or “smoke sauna” that had no chimney or windows, these steam baths have been modernized into small rooms heated with electric stoves, and they are often featured at luxury spas.

Fire, smoke and steam

The earliest saunas are reminiscent of the sweat lodges used by Native Americans. In these so-called smoke saunas, a fire was built in the center of the room to heat rocks until they were hot enough to vaporize water into steam. Once that happened, bathers removed the fire and opened the doors and roof vent to allow the smoke to escape. Next, they undressed and stacked their clothes in a corner, being careful not to touch the soot-covered walls. As water was splashed on the rocks, sauna-takers whipped themselves with fresh birch branches to increase circulation. After the sauna, participants often rolled in a snow bank or jumped into a lake to close their pores.

Later, saunas were modified to include two compartments – a steam room and a dressing room. Wood stoves, vented to the outside, replaced the open fire, and small stones replaced the rocks. As the stove heated the stones to more than 160 degrees Fahrenheit, bathers threw water on the stones to create a burst of heat called löyly, a Finnish word that translates to “part hot water vapor, part the spiritual essence of the sauna.” Combined with adequate air venting, the steam heats the room to temperatures that vary with the distance from the floor – the higher, the hotter. Modern saunas typically have two or three bench levels with the hardiest bathers heading for the top bench.

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