While the word "sauna" (in the Finnish pronounciation, the "au" sound is
like "ou" in "loud") means different things in different countries,
for a Finn it means an elementary part of everyday life. Ever since
childhood, Finnish people learn to bathe in sauna, usually at least
once a week. Yes, they do it naked, and yes, they go in there together
with other people, while naked. This and other aspects of the Finnish
sauna are discussed in the following questions and answers.
Q1 Why is sauna something special in Finland?
A1: Mostly because of ancient traditions. Wherever there
have lived Finns, there have also been a sauna nearby their
residences. In the early days of Finnish history, it was a small
wooden hut near a lake, and people used it not only for cleaning
themselves, but for childbirths, some medical operations and other
duties that required a clean, bacteria-free environment. Today,
practically all houses in Finland have a sauna. In urban areas, you
usually have one per building, but even in a relatively small
apartment it is not a rare piece of luxury these days. This being the
case, Finns discover at an early age what a refreshing way it is to
clean oneself both physically and mentally. The tradition is not a
dying one either.
A2: The basic parts are the stove ("kiuas"), filled with fist-sized
stones, and the benches or platforms ("lauteet"), made of wood
(anecdotes of metal benches in the saunas of some Finnish-built
Russian warships are told :). There are usually two benches, one of
which is higher (the seat) and the other one lower (place to rest your
feet on, or another seat if you feel it's too hot). These are what all
saunas have. The modern saunas have the usual shower and dressing
rooms too, but the traditional ones near a lake or sea (usually in the
vicinity of a summer cabin, or built in one) do not require anything
but a stove for heating and a bench to sit down on -- you can do the
cleaning in the lake. The stove is traditionally fuelled by wood, but
electrically heated saunas are common due to their safe, easy and
clean use. The average sauna has room for 3-6 people at a time.
A3: There are no rules, only guidelines. Finns like their traditions,
but do not enforce them on themselves or foreigners. Usually you bathe
together with your family. If you are with friends or others that
aren't family members, men and women take turns to bathe separately. Most
public saunas are separate for men and women, but not all. You take your
clothes off (this is not a rule, mind you; if someone wants to use a towel
or bathing suite, it's not a breach of any important etiquette), go and
sit down on the benches and relax. The air is not particularly humid at
first (there is no visible steam), and when you feel like it, you throw
some water on the stones to increase humidity. This causes the water to
vaporize very quickly, and it makes the bathers feel a momentary breath
of hot air in their backs. It may be uncomfortable, if the stove is too
hot or if you use too much water, and in those cases it helps to step down
on the lower bench, or to go out entirely. This is also perfectly acceptable,
and first-time sauna bathers shouldn't feel obligated to stay in if they
don't feel like it. The basic goal is to enjoy and relax, and sweat. After
you've done enough of that, you go to the showers, and/or swim in the lake,
depending on the facilities. After swimming or showering, you can go back
to the sauna, and repeat this cycle as many times as you want.
A4: This varies according to the bathers' wishes. Usually the temperature
is between 60°C and 110°C, the widely-agreed-upon ideal temperature being
somewhere around 85°degrees. Sometimes (after a few drinks) Finnish men
engage in an unhealthy competition over who can stay in a hot sauna the
longest time. This is not the way sauna is meant to be enjoyed, not to
mention that it can be dangerous. Also, you shouldn't be drunk in sauna.
A cold beer after sauna, however, tastes usually great, even a mediocre
Q5 What is a smoke sauna? How does it differ from the usual one?
A5: A smoke sauna (savusauna) is perhaps the most traditional kind of
sauna. There is no smoke pipe: all the smoke from the stove goes inside
the sauna while heating. Of course, it has to be removed before bathing,
and this is done by opening a small hatch on the wall. The fire on the
stove must not be burning while bathing, but this doesn't matter, since
the massive stove radiates plenty of heat for many hours. A smoke sauna
is often considered the ultimate sauna experience, complete with the
wonderful smoke odour. Smoke saunas are somewhat rare compared to the
normal ones these days, but sauna enthusiasts praise them so that there
still exist plenty of them.
Q6 Do Finns really jump out naked into the snow in the middle of sauna
bathing and roll around in winter time? Or go swimming in a frozen lake?
A6: Some do, most don't. This is a habit that requires a healthy heart
and a bit of courage, but it is practised, and there are some enthusiasts
who think sauna in the winter is nothing without a quick swim in the snow
or freezing water. Of course, others think this is sheer madness.
A7: Even though people are naked in sauna, Finns do not see anything
sex-related in their sauna tradition. Of course you can have sex in
there if you feel like it, but that is neither a part of any tradition
nor very comfortable. Women used to give birth in saunas a long time
ago, but the conceiving was done mostly elsewhere. Massage parlours and
other (sometimes sexual) services that often come with a public sauna in
the red-light districts of big cities are unknown phenomena in Finland.
Going to sauna naked with all your family is not at all perverted, as the
reader might think. Instead, the sauna tradition makes it natural and
comfortable for children to learn about human body, and for parents to
tell them about it.
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