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1. Sweat bathing exists in many modern and historic cultures across the globe. Sauna is the Finnish imagining of this activity, and whilst steeped in ritual, tradition and superstition, is an extremely healthy and effective way to bathe that is enjoyed in many other countries.
2. The origins of sauna bathing are thought to date back to prehistory. The most traditional Finnish sauna style is the smoke sauna. These typically have an earthen floor, a small smoke hatch and narrow slit windows (if at all). They are usually dark inside and the smoke imbues the cabin with a unique, somewhat pleasant aroma. Finns often joke that there are two types of smoke saunas, those which have burnt down, and those which haven’t burnt down, yet!
3. Following the period of rural to urban migration in Finland during the 1800’s, the number public sauna began to increase as domestic sauna in urban areas posed too much of a fire risk. These then began to decline in the 50’s with the introduction of electric sauna in apartment buildings and then further as private sauna became more affordable in the home.
4. Historically Finns would sauna daily. Throughout the 20th century this reduced to around twice per week on a Wednesday and Saturday. At a time when Victorian novelist and playwright Edward Bulwer-Lytton described Britons as “The great unwashed”, Finn’s were practicing clearly practicing excellent personal hygiene. With roughly 5.5 million Finns to 3.5 million saunas, it seems us Brits still have a lot of catching up to do!
5. In Finland, sauna has traditionally been used as a sterile place for treating the sick, for giving birth and even preparing the dead for burial. Sauna has also been historically used for preparing smoked foodstuffs such as meat and fish, preparing malts and drying clothes. The sauna cabin was traditionally kept separate from the home for reasons of fire safety, but acted also as the living quarters when a new home was being built. The sauna could also be used to house guests, farm-hands, or provide life-saving refuge should there be a house fire during the foreboding Finnish winter.
6. Sauna is associated with healing, traditional medicine and wellness. Whilst massage, cupping and body balancing are still practiced in the heat of the sauna, historically medical procedures such bloodletting were also done in the sterile heat. Regular sauna bathing is highly effective in the treatment of many ailments and diseases, from colds to cardiovascular problems. Finns often say “if it can’t be treated by sauna, spirits (usually vodka), or tar (birch or pine tar), then it’s probably fatal”.
7. The acceptable sauna bathing procedure varies depending on country, community, family and personal preference. Whilst us Brits might assume Finnish sauna is a naked free-for-all, in public saunas in Finland women and men often attend separately, with no minimum age. Bathing costumes are not ideal when sweat bathing, but it is typically expected that Finn’s cover-up when going to a sauna with strangers.
8. There are typically 5 types of sauna heater with a fairly distinct hierarchy in terms of quality of löyly and quality sauna experience. The pragmatic Finns except the need for electric and gas heaters in smokeless zones and cities, but typically their wood burning counterparts are the preferred option:
1. Smoke sauna
2. Heat-storing wood burning
3. Constantly fueled wood burning
9. Sauna has gained renewed interest recently with the publication of a number of scientific papers in well cited journals such as the American Journal of medicine. These papers attest to the health benefits of sauna, including (but not limited to): decreased risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s, decreased risk of cardio-vascular and circulatory diseases, improvement of patients experiencing respiratory issues such as bronchitis, decreased risk of arthritis and joint issues as well as the reduction in joint pain, and the decrease in severity of skin conditions such as eczema.
10. Finnish traditional culture is full of mythical beings that inhabit all number of places. The sauna is no exception, home to the sauna elf (Saunatonttu) and the steam spirit (löylyhenkki). The sauna elf protects the sauna and looks after the sauna sessions. Swearing in the sauna would upset the sauna elf who would drive users out who didn’t abide by the rules of the sauna.
11. The largest wood burning sauna is situated in the Finnish Naval Academy, Suomenlinna. It was built in 1904 to provide group sauna bathing for up to 180 Naval cadets in one sitting. The sauna covers 65 m² and is nearly 5 meters high.
12. Sauna has always had a ritualistic, supernatural and somewhat esoteric reputation. Associated with cleansing rituals for both Christianity in Finland and older more traditional faiths such as ‘The people of the bear’. Church-going Finns still typically sauna bathe the night before religious holidays.