A sauna soothes body and soul
A brief and boring definition of a sauna is a building or room designed for perspiring in steam and washing. To the Finns, however, sauna bathing is a lot more than just sweating and scrubbing. At its best, it comes close to being a sacred ritual, which cleanses and refreshes both body and soul.
A Finnish sauna is something quite different from the various sweat rooms found all over the world, and which have erroneously been given the name "sauna". More than thirty books on building an orthodox sauna, the art of bathing and its traditions and history have been published in Finland. With only five million inhabitants, Finland has one and a half million saunas! The sauna is also a hot - no pun intended! - export item, in relation to which Finnish expertise is unbeatable.
A Finn will build a sauna anywhere that it is possible, or even seemingly impossible. When Finnish peacekeepers take up new positions abroad, the first thing they always do is build a sauna. That tradition dates back to the Suez crisis in 1956, when Finnish soldiers built a sauna in the Sinai Desert. A sauna can be in a block of apartments, on a truck, on a yacht, in a ten... But it reaches its ultimate perfection when it is a log structure on a lakeshore, a detail of the Finnish landscape.
Thus an orthodox sauna is a room with wall of logs, boards or panels. Ceramic tiles can be used to line the walls of, say, a Turkish bath, but you will never find them in a sauna. An important element in the whole structure is the kiuas, a stove with a layer of roughly fist-sized stones placed above the fire box to be heated. The height of the ceiling depends on the height of the wooden benches, on which the bathers sit or lie. Steam (the Finns even have a special word, löyly, which distinguishes sauna steam from the ordinary kind) is produced by throwing water onto the extremely hot rocks.
Get the oxygen and moisture right
A bunch of leafy birch twigs like this is called a vihta or a vasta. Sauna bathers beat their skin gently with it and enjoy its massaging, softening touch.
Correctly-designed air circulation is an absolute prerequisite for an enjoyable sauna bath. In this respect the best sauna is an old log building with moss used to caulk the seams. The wooden walls breathe just the right way. Saunas like that are a pleasure that only the few can afford nowadays. Excellent technical solutions for good air circulation - as for all other aspects of sauna bathing - have been developed.
A sauna should never be too hot. Only a fool stokes it up to a temperature that scalds his skin. The ideal temperature inside before the water is thrown on the stones is around +80°C (176F). If the sauna is hotter, it is no longer possible to throw water on the stones and the air is too dry. But one of the main elements in the pleasure of sauna bathing is the caressing warm steam that rises when the water hits the stones. A sauna must not be too cold, either. There is hardly anything that a Finn despises more than a poorly-heated sauna that runs out of steam.
There are two basic types of sauna. A "smoke sauna" is the older of the two and written references to it go back as far as the 15th century. If only because of the quite demanding and awkward heating system that they require, inward-heating smoke saunas have become something of a rarity today, although their steam has a softer feel. An ordinary - no offence meant; the spirit of every sauna would resent being called 'ordinary' - sauna has a stove with a flue, through which the smoke escapes to soar to the sky. Stoves likewise come in several types, also factory-made. A stove can be of the constantly-burning variety, with a fire in the grate at all times, or one that is stoked up for only long enough to heat the stones, of which there have to be more to prevent too-rapid cooling. Over the decades and centuries stove architecture has produced some very imaginative solutions, the ingeniousness of which is often the subject of controversy.
There is nothing like a sauna to relieve the stress that plagues today's busy people. Proper sauna bathing demands time and tranquillity to get away from everyday routines. Bathers must behave with dignity and decorum; there is an old tradition, for example, that bans whistling and swearing. The sauna still evokes a certain sense of self-evident piety in Finns. It is not so many decades since women went to the sauna to give birth, and it also was there that the corpses of the deceased were washed.
Professor Sakari Pälsi, a well-known writer and folklorist, was quite uninhibited in his belief in the saunas value as a panacea: "What any pain, complaint, fatigue or listlessness needs is the sauna. If it doesnt help, nothing will." An old piece of folk wisdom is even more absolute: "If the sauna, liquor and pine tar dont help, your disease will be the death of you."