Walk into a typical Finnish house on a Saturday and you will most probably find the residents in their sauna.
One of the first reports on the concept of sauna was by Nestor in 1112 where he mentioned hot wooden saunas in which naked bathers beat themselves with branches and then poured cold water over themselves.
Bathing was not a high priority among Europeans (in some countries just once a year) but Finns by comparison were clean freaks, cleaning themselves at least once a week.
The first thing they did when they were building their houses was to build a sauna, the idea behind it was multiple. They could live, eat, carry their hygienic rituals but most importantly give birth in a very sterile environment. Given the cold climate and ready availability of wood in the region, saunas became an integral part of life in Finland. One was even found at the depth of 1400 meters (4600 ft) in the Pyhäsalmi Mine. It’s culture as part of the Finnish Military is strictly egalitarian and no titles or hierarchies are used when they enter the sauna.
The ritual of using the sauna begins with having a wash (a shower can do), followed by time spent sitting in the sauna hot room where the temperature is typically 80-110C. Water is thrown on the hot stones to generate wet steam known as Löyly (spirit, breath, soul), so the moisture level and apparent temperature is increased.
Fragrant and leafy silver birch branches (Vihta) are sometimes used to gently beat oneself. This is believed to have a relaxing effect on the muscles. When the heat becomes uncomfortable, Finns jump into a lake, a swimming pool or just have a cold shower. This is then followed by a meal of sausage along with beer or a soft drink. It reminds me of the ritual of the Persian hammams where Sephid ab (the inspiration for BOA exfoliant) is the star of the show.
This cycle of hot-cold can be repeated again and again up to three times so the whole ritual can last anywhere from 30 mins and up to 2 hours. In summer this bathing process lasts into the night as there is virtually no darkness at that time of year.
It is a major no-no to wear clothing in the sauna, but you can sit on a small towel, a piece of cardboard or sheet of paper (pefletti). For a typical Finn the sauna is, with few exceptions, a strictly non-sexual place.
A report published in 2018 suggests that the regular use of saunas can stabilise the nervous system, improve heart health and reduce inflammation. A short 30 minute sauna post-exercise can significantly lower blood pressure. With the latest development in infra-red heat therapy, the technology can target specific areas of the body, heating both the skin and muscles, which leads to the release of tension.