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Sauna: What’s the Big Deal?

Sauna is the ancient Finnish bathing method that uses heat, sweat and steam for cleansing. Sauna is also the name of the building used for this purpose. The Finnish sauna is at least 2,000 years old, and remains an important part of life today.

How prevalent are saunas?

In Finland, a country of 5.5 million people, there are 3.3 million saunas.

Most often, it was the sauna, not the house, that was the first structure to be built. The first saunas had no chimney and were called savu (“smoke”) saunas. Because it was a family’s most sterile building, sauna was a place for childbirth, treating the ill and dressing the dead. 

In additional to purposes of hygiene, saunas were a prominent part of holidays and life events, as well as a means of socializing. Saunas were so central to their lives, Finnish soldiers in the field would ingeniously construct them under the most challenging circumstances.  Immigrants brought their sauna traditions with them, and many Finnish-Americans have grown up with sauna as a part of life.

Did you know?

Sauna diplomacy has long been practiced in Finland; President Urho Kekkonen was known for the diplomatic meetings he held in his sauna. Today, Embassy and other official buildings have saunas and are used for networking and showcasing this aspect of Finnish culture.

How do saunas work?

Sauna consists of a special room that is heated by a wood-fired or electric stove topped by rocks. When the kiuas (stove) heats up and the sauna is warm, bathers throw water on the hot rocks to create löyly (steam). It is this combination of heat and moisture that creates the optimum sauna experience.

In essence:

  1. Heat the sauna to optimum level
  2. Bask in the heat
  3. Toss water on the rocks to create steam and more heat
  4. Rhythmically but gently beat the body with branches gathered into a vihta (whisk)
  5. Step out of the hot room for a dose of cold water from a shower or bucket, a roll in the snow, or a jump in a lake–through a hole in the ice if necessary
  6. Repeat!

Depending on personal preferences, the ideal heat can range from 160 to 195 degrees Fahrenheit. Those who need a cooler temperature sit on the lower bench, and those who like it hot perch on the upper bench, as heat and steam rise.

Sauna is believed to have physical, mental, spiritual and social value, and studies have shown that regular use of sauna offers a variety of health benefits.

UNESCO Designation

Historically, sauna has been an essential part of life in Finland—so much so that “Sauna culture in Finland” is now on the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage. 

What does that mean, and what does the sauna represent to Finnish people?

Intangible cultural heritage refers to traditions and processes that we inherit and then pass on, which include all the knowledge, skills and experiences that aren’t embodied in a physical form.