The Finnish Sauna Experience
A Step-by-Step Guide
Here is a routine for doing a sauna "bath" the Finnish-Canadian way, safely for relaxation and spa-like in its approach. I have also included background information on the history of sauna.
A sauna bath done correctly is a great natural way to bathe and relax! Think of how we in North America, draw a steaming bath of bubbles to sink in or have a luxurious spa shower. Sauna is the same principle…getting clean and enjoying the process. Sauna is an integral part of Finnish culture and immigrants brought the ritual with them to North America. We may have altered the way we do the process here slightly, but we still enjoy the ritual to relax. bathing
Sweat contains trace amounts of toxins, but indications are that sweating is not a way to remove any large amounts of toxins since it also dehydrates the body. Therefore drinking ample amounts of non-alcoholic fluids before, during and after sauna is a required part of the proper protocol of Finnish sauna...just like one is required to drink extra fluids in hot weather!
Some Sauna History
It is told by elders, through word of mouth, that families always built their sauna first. Probably, because it was a small structure and had heating, but it also provided a location to bathe properly since originally the sauna was always built on the shores of lakes which are everywhere in Finland. The proximity of plenty of water assured cleanliness!
Birthing was done in the sauna in the old days before birthing in houses or hospitals. It was easier to clean, private and could be kept warm easily.
In days gone by, the bathing was communal…It wasn’t a sexual adventure and my Dad related cheekily, any young aroused males would get a dipper of cold water dashed on their privates by frowning matrons. Cleanliness was the order of the day. Scandinavians have never been ashamed of the naked form. However, North American counterparts do not have the same viewpoint and males and females bathe separately, except for couples in their own sauna!
Visitors at a Finnish Canadian home on a Saturday evening might expect an invitation to enjoy a sauna... sometimes called a steam bath in North America
It is a perfectly natural invitation. Towels will be supplied and privacy respected. However, acquaintances usually go in groups, men first to take the hottest sauna and ladies after to enjoy a relaxing chat while they bathe. Beware: nudity is the norm to cleanse the skin properly!
Persons with medical conditions need to check with their family doctor first ;sauna routines are not for everyone!
Proper hydration is imperative since sweating flushes out liquids. It is wise to avoid any of the more extreme practices like diving into cold water from a hot sauna or rolling in the snow (something I have never done) although going for a swim from the sauna dock can be lovely in the summer!
My personal preference is a sauna with cedar walls, heated with a wood burning hearth, piled with smooth river washed stones on top to create the steam effect. At least, three tiers of cedar benches for sitting or lying down located at several feet distance from the hearth is good planning. The aroma of the cedar wood smells clean and makes the steam seem less harsh. Old timers, swear by the wood hearth and I tend to agree. The warmth is soft and radiant. Ambient temperature is very critical for a good sauna. The stones have to be hot enough to release steam when a small amount of water is sprayed over them. The hotter the stones, the more intense the steam will be .
Comfort is different for each bather. Usually, the person that prefers a hot sauna goes first and each successive person after prefer a lower temperature! That works since no further wood is needed as the temperature drops naturally as the water that forms the steam, cools the stones
Most persons do not like very high temperatures in the sauna, however, the room must be hot enough to create steam from the stones.
It is important to have water to drink with you in the dressing area. Sitting in the sauna getting used to the heat helps to adjust before beginning to create steam. Frequent trips to cool off in the dressing area and drinking water help the comfort level. Once comfortable, the steam/sweat process is started gently with small amounts of water tossed on the stone hearth, allowing the steam to circulate and disperse into the room between cupfuls.
Note water is thrown in small amounts only. A large amount can result in burns! This gentle process allows the bather to increase the steam gently to comfort level and the point where sweat production begins. The process of sweating can be relieved by retiring to the dressing room to cool off and drink water, returning until one feels like stopping the process. All of the process is dependant on comfort level! After the steam is completed then washing up is done, by shower or two pails of water, one for soaping the other for rinsing, liberally splashing the water since it all rinses down a drain!
Finally, relaxing in the dressing room to cool off and dry naturally before towelling off. At this point one feels completely drained and relaxed, if a little hot. The whole process can easily take a leisurely hour to complete. This is the point where liquid reserves have to be replenished and rest is required, but that isn’t an issue since that is exactly what one feels like doing!
Other sauna notes:
One can lay down on the wooden benches to really relax. The benches are stepped (usually three steps)… start at the top and if it is too hot step down to one lower level.
Children are always told to sit on the bottom step and are not allowed to take much steam.
Birch bough switches (bundles of twigs) created out of fresh small twigs can be used to massage the skin by gently beating in a gentle rhythmic motion. The twigs as soaked in warm water to soften first! The scent just adds to the experience!
Once the sweating has been done to a degree of comfort…(never be uncomfortable in a sauna); it is time to wash off your skin. The older saunas without plumbing use two pails of water, one to wash with soap and the other to rinse off.
Once dressed …usually in “jammies” it is time to head back to the house and relax some more before heading off to sleep in freshly laundered sheets!
In North America and in Finland many saunas have moved indoors, especially in the cities. In Canada, they are separate buildings at the cottage, in the cities, saunas tend to be located in the basement, but in Finland the sauna takes up a large portion of a home. I have been in some lovely ones that boast a steam room, shower room and inviting lounge-like dressing room…sheer luxury by our North American standard!