The sauna experience

This was definitely the day for it!

January 24, 2014

January 24, 2014

We finally utilized the sauna in our building tonight, and the experience was nearly as good as I recall the sauna in Lapland being. There are a few differences, mainly in that I have to be fully dressed to get to the actual sauna, and then fully dressed coming back. If you are fortunate enough to have one in your apartment/home, then you can simply go straight from sauna to shower to bed, which is nice.

The sauna is a very Finnish thing, and everything you read will tell you that it is fully ingrained in Finnish culture. There are some public saunas, but I haven’t been to one, and many apartments come with either a sauna in the apartment (nice!) or with one in the building that gets shared via a reservation system. Ours is the latter. We actually have to leave our part of the building, walk outside, and go into the next section to get to it, which kinda sucks.  However, the ‘after glow’ of the experience was still there when I got home, so I was relieved for that.

There are apparently all manner of traditions and ways to do sauna, but just a few things, I think, are really the ‘must-do’ things. One, have a towel to sit on in the sauna. No one wants to sit where your skanky bare butt was, so put a towel down. Besides, it’s probably a lot more comfy than sitting on the bare, hot wood. Secondly, take a shower before and after the sauna. It’s kinda like having to shower before you enter a public swimming pool, and then you definitely want to afterwards.

Other than that, you can sort of mix it up.

  • You can and should go naked, but you can wear a towel or bathing suit if you are going with others that you’re not comfortable being naked around. But you might actually end up feeling more self-conscious if you’re not nekkid!
  • Men and women don’t sauna together unless they’re married. And I think even in the public saunas, you are strictly separated by male or female, regardless of marital status.
  • Saunas are not places for sex, anyway. Seriously, in that heat??
  • You can bash yourself with birch branches or not. I hear it’s great for the skin and circulation, but I’m not there yet.
  • Hydrate. Hydrate. Hydrate. And apparently, it’s kosher to hydrate with beer while in the sauna. And you can cook sausages over the hot rocks. I wouldn’t suggest doing that last part in your shared sauna, though.
  • Know your limits. You’re not competing for any sort of world record. Try to get a good ‘burn’, so to speak from it, but don’t push. Definitely leave if you are feeling light-headed or dizzy.

My own experience with the sauna was an eye-opening one. I have MS, and anyone with MS will tell you that heat tends to exacerbate the symptoms. And during the summers in Louisiana, I would get light-headed, dizzy, nauseated, and my fingers, arms, and legs would tingle if I was out in the midday heat for too long. So I dug in my heels with the sauna. The one time I tried it, I stayed in for like fifteen minutes, and thought I was going to die. I was so sad, because I really wanted to experience it!

Fast forward another year. My neuro had told me that in low doses, the heat might actually do me good. So to just take it slow and easy. While we were in Lapland over this past winter holiday, I tried again. Lower temperature (about 80-85°C), and only stayed in for about 5 minutes. It was like an epiphany! I couldn’t believe how good I felt that night after the sauna and shower. No dizziness, just a feeling of being so very clean, and actually feeling energetic. Not in the sense of wanting to go out run laps, but more of being alert, in a good mood, that sort of thing. Very ‘positive energy’. I slept quite soundly and woke up feeling refreshed. We did the sauna nearly each night, and not once did I have a bad reaction! Also, my back was less sore, my complexion was clearer and I just, overall, felt better.

Coming home, I was downright depressed to realize that I was going to have to give up the sauna, as we don’t have one in our apartment. However, we do have a ‘shared’ one in the building, and my darling Wellu emailed the landlord to see if there were any slots available. Out of the few times that were available, we settled on Saturdays at 2100. It’s a bit of a bother as we have to actually walk outside to get to the part of the building that houses the sauna, but having done it tonight for the first time, it’s not so bad. And come spring, I see a bathrobe and flip flops in my future. 🙂

If you’re new here, and haven’t tried the sauna because you weren’t sure what to expect in the lower recesses of your apartment basement, let me put your mind at ease. Now, not saying that they are all the same, but given how ingrained this is in the culture here, I would hazard to guess that most of them are pretty similar. I grabbed a few snapshots to let you in on sort of what to expect.

First off, a large dressing area, which can be locked, and so you are afforded complete privacy. Well, from anyone outside of those you are going to sauna with.

Dressing area

Dressing area

Next, is the shower:

20150124_213032[1]

Shower

This is attached to the dressing area, through a door. You can see the door to the sauna to the right of the picture. Ours has two showers. You can rinse here first, then move straight into the heated sauna. Because the sauna is attached to it, this room stays pretty warm and comfortable, too. You can see the wooden bucket laying upside down on the bench. You just put some water in it and bring it into the sauna with you to splash on to the hot rocks.

Sauna

Sauna

Here you can see the sauna. You lay your towel down on the wood bench and then just sit and let the heat soak in to you. I managed to not get it in the picture, but within the wooden railing area is a metal box with some rocks in it. You can ladle water on to the rocks to give you steam.

In our case, you get an hour reserved for you (and your guests, if any) to use the sauna. Etiquette suggests that after you shower, you squeegee the floor, empty the sauna bucket, turn off the lights, and leave everything cleaner than when you came in.

For me, I have decided that I am definitely a convert to the sauna culture. I love it, and actually missed not being able to have a sauna in the evening. Once a week will be better than not at all, and while I don’t think I’ll get into the birch branches and beer-drinking (don’t like pain, don’t like alcohol), I do love the way it makes me feel. I’ll always probably be at the ‘toddler’ stage in terms of heat and stamina, but I don’t care, I love it!

Here’s some links to read more on the sauna culture in Finland:

Join Finns in the Sauna

Facts about Sauna

Finnish Sauna Culture

 

 

 

 

19 thoughts on “The sauna experience

  1. Don’t think I will ever be ready for the true Finnish sauna. I heat mine to about 50C, not 80C to 90C! Will try to get it hotter, but cannot promise I will roll in the snow (no snow!) or even take a cool shower afterwards…maybe a warm shower!

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  2. Great to hear you like the sauna…but I feel I must correct one misconception:

    Using a “vihta”/”vasta” isn’t painful if done right.

    You need to use the correct species of birch. There are two species that are abundant in Finland “hieskoivu” and “rauduskoivu” (“white birch” and “silver birch” in English). The latter is suitable for making a vihta/vasta, he former not so much. The branches are bendier and more durable, so they won’t break and scratch your back. It’s also important to shape it so it’s more of a soft brush than a bunch of assorted branches. (You can also buy preserved ones all year around, but they should be soaked for quite a while to become soft enough.)

    You should make it around midsummer because that’s when the leaves are the biggest and still firmly attached. And before using, it should be soaked in cool water to soften and moisturize it a little. The goal is to use the leaves to clean and treat your skin, not to beat yourself with branches. It can feel quite comfortable to softly slap your back with a cooling vihta/vasta while sitting in the hot sauna. Not to mention it’s good for your skin too.

    Just like sauna itself, the process of “beating yourself with branches” can sound intimidating, but it’s actually quite of a benign practice.

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    • Well, that does sound much better! I just happened to see a couple of videos of guys ‘whipping’ themselves with the branches and it looked like it could be painful! 🙂 I’ll see if I can find dried ones and soak them. I barely know what a birch tree looks like (well, I think I do) and I certainly wouldn’t know the first thing about gathering branches, so I’ll leave that to the professionals.

      All that being said, I am so thrilled to be able to tolerate the sauna, even if for such a short period, and to get such benefit from it. Granted, it’s hardly enough time to get into the ‘zen’ aspect of it, but I can see where it can be especially cleaning for the soul. Even my short times are enough to leave me feeling more calm, yet mentally alert.

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      • Sure, there are people who like to beat their backs as hard as they can…but there are also people who prefer an extremely hot sauna…and eating extremely hot chili…

        Some people like extreme experiences…and some, like myself, prefer a more relaxed experience.

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  3. Like Kalle said, the birch branches aren’t about self flagellation. You can start by gently tapping the vihta against your skin and then proceed to find suitable level of vigor. In that regard it is a lot like massage.

    Naturally, the frozen aren’t as good as fresh ones, but they allow you to time travel and experience summer in the middle of winter. In my mind this alone makes them worthwhile. Just make sure you’ll budget more time to cleaning the sauna afterwards if you try them.

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  4. our sauna is on the first floor of our building. saturday after 6pm on our courtyard i call it ‘sauna stroll saturday’ everyone is walking around outside in their robes, hair in towel and a birch basket with beers, branches, etc. people would just think you were a native!

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  5. Sitting on the hot wood isn’t as bad as you might think. Wood is an insulator so the skin on your backside only needs to absorb the quick sting of surface heat. Or you could spread some water to cool it down for the moment you sit down.
    As for the bathing suits, towels, etc., they’re generally considered less hygienic than the surface of the hot wood which doesn’t provide a hospitable environment for bacteria unlike body-temperature wet cloths. That’s why they’re often banned in public saunas. Of course, those places probably have more users between cleanings than shared saunas or apartment saunas so there’s that.
    I should point out that many apartment complexes have more than one shared sauna (allowing for simultaneous men’s/women’s Christmas saunas and other shared slots like lenkkisauna) and shared saunas may have a single sauna with two doors, each leading to a shower and a dressing room. Typically you then have something like 45+45 minute slots: the first half being full access and the second half shower and dressing room only. I suppose the point is to give you plenty of time to linger without the chance of someone walking in on you at some state of undress.

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    • I think I’d still rather sit on a towel, more for comfort. I’ve seen some little pillows and such, as well, for sale in the stores. I think they are filled with something and are generally made from a heavier canvas material.

      What is lenkkisauna? I tried to find a translation, but wasn’t successful.

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      • I don’t know the etymology of the word, but the word is often used of women’s and men’s shared, weekly sauna slots, I guess typically on Saturday days/afternoons. I assume here lenkki refers to jogging rather than sausage, but I admit it’s a bit weird. It’s basically for socializing.
        (These things that aren’t out there on the internet are the perfect thing to bug your husband and neighbours with, by the way.)

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      • It’s actually kind of funny, I could be imagining but I think different nationalities do look different. I don’t simply mean genetics, but I think culture affects facial movements (and thus facial muscles, etc.). Also, food may have some effect. I also think language does: different languages use different phonemes and the distributions are different even if the phonemes are the same, which means using different muscles, etc.

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      • I’ve had people just start speaking to me in English, without me even opening my mouth. I’ve always wondered how they know I don’t speak Finnish! Maybe it’s the red hair and freckles…

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  6. One thing that always drives me nuts when people talk about public saunas is that you should be naked. I understand that yes, *most* saunas are naked. However, I’ve been to three different saunas near me, and ALL of them require clothes. Two of the three were also co-ed. Maybe it’s because we’re in a smaller/more conservative area, I don’t know. Point is, I always feel sorry for the poor guy/gal that reads about sauna, gets the courage up to strip down, then goes in and finds that no one else is naked…

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