The Finnish sauna culture: relaxation, spirituality & health

Text: Claire Lessiau
Photographs: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen

The Finnish sauna culture is definitely one of the reasons why the Finns regularly rank first in the yearly polls about the happiest people on the planet. Cleansing and relaxing, saunas are very anchored in the Finnish daily life, and have been exported and modified all over the world. Join us on a trip through Finland in order to dig deeper into authentic Finnish saunas, a 9,000-year-old tradition that has been recognized as a UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage, and experience some of the best saunas of Finland out of the 3 million of them (for 5.5 million inhabitants!).

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Pohjolan Pirtti & Kievari Sauna [Kuusamo]

In a nutshell: Years of research have led Tanja Pohjola to provide her sauna guests with a well of knowledge and wonderful traditional Finnish treatments in her lovely historic family country estate near Kuusamo, 210 kilometres (130 miles) east of Rovaniemi.

For centuries, the sauna has remained a way to transition from a normal day to a holy day to cleanse bodies and souls. Nowadays, it is the perfect remedy to sweat stress and problems away. Tanja Pohjola at Pohjolan Pirtti & Kievari has become a master in explaining the Finnish sauna tradition and helping her guests make the most of it.

In a few minutes, she completely transforms our vision of what we thought was a Finnish sauna: “The word löyly refers to the hot steam rising in the sauna, the steam of life. It is also a very spiritual concept for us, Finns,” Tanja explains. The whole goal in the Finnish sauna is to start sweating, and this is why they are actually quite humid to rid bodies of toxins: a 65 percent humidity with a temperature between 60 and 80 degrees Celsius is ideal. It also makes it easier to breathe compared to dry heat, and the skin gets moisturized during the process.

Tanja continues: “There is no time piece in a real Finnish sauna. You must listen to your body and everyone is different with a different physiology and blood pressure… And the time piece defeats the purpose to truly relax!”.

Finnish saunas have been victim of their success and exported and adapted all over the world: in most international hotels, an hourglass is fitted inside the sauna cabins, and in many, it is forbidden to throw water on the stove. Ludicrous!

To hon in the benefits of the sauna and favour blood circulation at the surface of the skin, the Finns have used tree whisks. Tanja roams the forest every year, early in the summer, to prepare her whisks herself. Different trees provide different health benefits. Oak tree has a calming effect. Willow tree eases aches and reduces fevers. Maple tree helps heal damaged skin and was also used as an aphrodisiac, while linden tree whisks help relieve headaches and promote wound healing. We are soaking a birch tree branch in water to splash the hot stones in the wood-fired timber sauna. Tanja softly massages us with the fresh whisks. “Birch tree has a cleansing effect, helps release soared muscles, and its leaves contain vitamins A and C: when you are in the sauna, your pores are open and the vitamins get in directly,” Tanja explains later as we are cooling down tasting some refreshments on the terrasse enjoying a lovely view on the lake and her family farm established in 1686. They are quite exceptional as everything was burnt down by the Germans during World War II and these barns are some of the very few that have survived.

Tanja’s passion is communicative, and this is also why she is one of the most active members of Sauna from Finland, an organization promoting Finnish saunas and certifying the best sauna experiences, and Sauna Tour around Kuusamo (see travel tips below for more details).

Iisaki Village Sauna [Kuusamo]

In a nutshell: A traditional Finnish sauna by the lovely Ruka Lake to enjoy while staying in the traditional Iisaki village or in one of the Aurora cabins in its glass village to observe the Northern Lights, slightly south of the Polar Circle.

Iisakki Village is a copy of an old country-yard which used to belong to Finland until its territory got lost to Russia. In total, the whole family composing the village and their animals lived in about 30 different buildings. Today, about 20 old and charming buildings have been rebuilt onsite, and turned into lovely accommodation with a traditional Finnish sauna by a lake.

And this sauna maybe be its most important building! Actually, the first priority of Finns upon arrival at a new location was to build a sauna. This multifunctional cabin was used by all: the stove for cooking, benches to sleep, the place of healing where healthcare used to take place, where life would be given and where the final cleansing would be provided… Maybe even more importantly, the sauna had a strong spiritual value in the nature religion that dominated Finland before Christianisation: it was built first in order to be occupied by the most powerful spirit.

As a consequence, interestingly, in the old days, women were recommended to not go to the sauna: for Finns, women had the strongest powers in the universe as they gave birth and it was thought that unrest could rise from mixing two spirits that strong.

Today, thankfully, this is not a concern anymore, and the sauna is a very open place: almost every Finn has a sauna at home, and it is traditional to share this cleansing and relaxing ritual with friends and family, and even with strangers in public saunas. Beyond the health benefits they provide, saunas have kept their spiritual values, and the golden rule has remained since the medieval times: no arguing in the sauna!

The Aivoriihi sauna at Iisaki Village is heated up by a massive wood-fired stove containing 750 kilograms of stones on which we throw ladles of water to increase the humidity level. Comfortably laying down on the wide benches in the darkness of the large wooden cabin, we start sweating fast in the gentle heat. The cooling down is only a few meters away where a pontoon invites us to swim in the Ruka Lake in which the fall foliage reflects while only the swans break the perfect stillness of its surface. These repeated hot and cold cycles help boost metabolism on top of being very relaxing and enjoyable.

The Aivoriihi sauna can be enjoyed privately, or with a knowledgeable sauna master as part of Sauna Tour, a great initiative led by 9 sauna companies in the surroundings of Kuusamo (see travel tips below for more details).

Kumpunen Smoke Sauna

In a nutshell: The smoke sauna is the most original of all Finnish saunas and quite an experience in itself… Be ready to get black!

We arrive on the farm grounds of Yüna’s family in Kumpunen on the shore of Lake Kirrinjärvi, established in the seventeenth century. The historical homestead where Yüna was born used to host no less than 8 saunas, amidst the barns dotting his land.

Yüna woke up early this morning, as he had to get the fire started to warm up the special sauna and its pile of 1,500 kilograms (3,000 pounds) of stones. “Alder wood is used to warm up smoke saunas,” Yüna explains with pride in a broken English. “The stones are very important as they prevent sparks,” he details. He picked them one by one and has to change them regularly to prevent a fire risk. Then, he carried the water from the lake completing the important ritual of getting the sauna ready.

His wife woke up at the same moment in order to home bake some delicious sarvi or mushroom pastries for us to enjoy in-between sauna sessions that she is now presenting in our lovely private cottage, attached to the smoke sauna.

We enter the wooden cabin, where we are shown the ins and outs of the smoke sauna, and left to ourselves to change and enjoy. The very first saunas were basically a hole in the ground and a fire in the middle, all of it covered with animal skins and branches. Over the centuries, they evolved into simple smoke saunas with no chimneys: as wood is burned smoke fills the room. Once the desired temperature is reached, the fire is put off and the cabin ventilated. The stones only allow the sauna to stay at temperature during the sauna sessions.

We soon enter the dark smoke sauna, paying attention to where to put our bathrobes to not stain them. The smell is peculiar and pungent. We make sure to not touch the pitch-black walls, covered in carbon after years of usage. We go up the uneven ladder, trying to find our way in the darkness, to sit on our towels on the loft area above the furnace. We increase the humidity level by throwing ladles of water onto the stove, and we start sweating immediately. When it is too much to take, we carefully go down the ladder and make our way to the lake, in the simplest apparel. The cooling down is immediate!

Sauna Medical SPA Aino and Sport SPA Aimo

In a nutshell: After years of experience and experimentation, Medical Doctor Leena Larva has developed a program in which the therapeutic virtues of peat are enhanced by the moist heat of the traditional Finnish sauna in order to activate the lymphatic system. Whether on a weight loss mission or enhancing your sports performances, keep reading!

At Medical SPA Aino and Sport SPA Aimo, Doctor Larva customizes her program to fit the specific needs of her guests, from less mobile or overweight patients to sporty ones. The common denominator in the treatments is her focus on activating the lymphatic system in order to help reduce stress and aches, as well as improve weight management through multisensorial restoration. Leena has focused on the lymphatic system for over 40 years and travels the world to teach about it, as it is ignored by most general practitioners. This seems to be about to change: recent research has proven that the lymphatic system also circulates through our brain, heart, eyes… increasing the interest of medical professionals.

Set up in her family home about two hours north of Helsinki, the setting may not be as charming as most commercial Finnish saunas, but the results are truly amazing.

After changing, we follow diligently the different steps, starting with an infrared sauna to warm up our muscles before exercising gently yet efficiently on a PowerPlate, focusing on the muscle groups of interest under Leena’s guidance.

Next, we relax in a traditional Finnish sauna where linens have been hung and wetted to absorb the sharp edges of the löyly or steam waves her sauna master pushes our way every time she throws a ladle of water on the hot stones. The temperature and humidity balance is extremely relaxing, triggering an immediate cleansing sweat.

We are then directed to a cold bath. “The cooling down is even more important,” Leena stresses out. We repeat the process a few times before therapeutic peat is applied on our whole bodies before a last thermal cycle, combining the benefits of the moist heat to the ones of the precious sediment extracted from the deepest layers of 5,000-year-old Finnish marshes. “Therapeutic properties of peat have been known and used for hundreds of years in Europe, and are enhanced by the humid heat of the sauna and the thermal cycles,” Dr Larva explains. “This peat treatment boosts the lymphatic system that helps with muscle recovery and joint mobility,” she continues.

“Resting is the most essential part of the treatment,” Dr Leena Larva stresses, as we follow her to lay down in her lounge area, completely relaxed, a cup of herbal tea by our sides and soothing music in the background.

Leena sits by our sides, holding a hand laser. In order to fully stimulate the lymphatic circulation, she targets trigger points similar to the ones used in acupuncture thanks to laser therapy.

Later, over dinner, we discuss Leena’s research as we are savouring the delicious vegetable mousse she prepared as a starter. “Some vegetables also enhance the lymphatic system such as celery, kale, broccoli, carrot and cucumber that are all part of this mousse,” she points out. The discussion is captivating, but the effect of the sauna prompts us to call it an early night…

After a second day of similar treatment, we say our goodbyes to Leena, a bit sad to not be able to stay longer as we had thoroughly enjoyed each other’s company and realised we had experienced something special.

***

What Dr Larva did not know when she met us, was the fact that I had kept visiting sports doctors following a 2006 surgery on my left knee after a motorbiking accident that left me with a minimum amount of cartilage. With time, the pain had started to settle. After spending a few months in Norway and Finland, hiking on boulders and demanding terrains in a rather cold climate, I had lost mobility and could not run anymore.

As I am writing this article, a few months later, I am still puzzled by that experience. If when I stepped out of Dr Larva’s house, I was quite surprised by the fact that my knee was not painful anymore after months of constant and increasing ache, I did not expect this improvement to last. For several months now, I have been walking painlessly and even could pick up running again! If this experience is purely personal, I must admit it got me very interested in the lymphatic system, and I know where to spend a few days in case I get more joint pain in the future…

Sauna tips

It is very common to have access to a sauna – and often a private cabin – in Finnish accommodation and beyond. If common benefits encompass relaxing your muscles, improving the quality of your sleep, and enhancing cardiovascular circulation, here are a few tips to make the most of it, and avoid potential downsides such as headaches:

  • In the Finnish tradition, go for the sweat and make sure to increase the humidity of the cabin to what feels comfortable to you.
  • Make sure to drink a lot and even more so with the peat treatments to avoid headaches.
  • To make the most of your sauna time:
    • Start with a sports session as the sauna enhances the benefits of the workout by keeping the muscles warm in energy burning mode, helping with weight loss.
    • Enjoy the sauna.
    • Rest for 20 minutes after the sauna: it is essential!
  • The warmth of the sauna prompts for the blood to flow at the surface of the skin to cool the body down: never go to the sauna after a good meal or too much alcohol as your organs need the blood flow to digest.
  • The blood pressure goes down naturally in the warmth of the sauna, so it is not recommended for people with low blood pressure.
  • Traditionally, people are naked in the sauna in Finland. It gives a sense of equality and a healthy self-confidence for youngsters while the world battles with body-image issues. This can be different in international hotels in Finland, so please, enquire onsite to follow the proper etiquette.

Travel tips:

  • Let a sauna master explain this pillar of the Finnish culture to you and the dos and don’ts: Sauna from Finland reward the most authentic sauna experiences with an Authentic Finnish Sauna Experience Quality Certificate.
  • The Sauna Tour was created by 9 local saunas in the Kuusamo area, including different Finnish Sauna Experiences, always accompanied by a trained Finnish sauna guide. Contact Marjo Määttä for more details.
  • To better understand the Finnish sauna culture, here is an excellent video:
  • Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area (short tutorial)!

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