Some Like It Hot: The Finnish Sauna Experience: How to Have the Perfect Winter Sauna

March 17, 2013 | By More

Empty finnish saunaSome like it hot, or at least the Finns do. In your mind’s eye picture this – you take your clothes off and step into a bedarkened room. Although the light is dim, you can make out the outline of other naked people sitting on wooden benches. You take a seat among them. A person throws some water using a large wooden ladle, called loyly, onto a hot stove of rocks and the warmth in this little, wood-lined room becomes like Dante’s Inferno. Sweat runs down your back, and beads of sweat glisten on your skin. This is the Finnish sauna bathing experience, one wrought with history and lore, spirituality, and the cycle of life and death.

Then, someone takes a bunch of birch twigs, called a vihta, from a tub of water and starts beating you on the back and neck. Your skin tingles. This beating is to encourage circulation. The sweet smell of wet, birch leaves lingers n the air, and some leaves remain pasted to your skin. Now, people begin to exit the hot, steamy room. You get up and follow the others out the wooden door, and, outside, your bare feet sink into several inches of snow.

Steam curls around you as you skip through the frosty snow to the lakeside. (Do not go into the water directly from the sauna heat. Let your body become accustomed to the cold air outside before taking the plunge.) Then, you jump into a hole that has been augured into the ice and cool yourself. Avantouinti, literally “ice hole swimming,” means swimming in a frozen lake or sea. Avanto swimmers say it makes them feel fresh throughout the day; some even claim it helps build resistance to the common flu. But, at this very moment, you notice that your skin has turned red.

Quickly, you scramble back to the sauna. The wooden door closes; someone throws loyly on the stove, and the bathing cycle begins again. Memories of your frigid skinny dip quickly vanish, like the loyly into hot mist..

On a practical note, avantouinti predates modern plumbing, so it was a means to bathe after the steamy sauna experience. Modern saunas in Finnish homes (almost every Finnish home has one) are plumbed, making obsolete the need for avantouinti. But like any other enthusiast activity, avantouinti maintains its cultural and historical allure and charm.

In Finland, families often bathe together and the family sauna is also a historic tradition. At public saunas, men and women usually bathe in separate saunas and swimsuits are worn. However, the Finnish sauna is not sexualized in any way. In fact, the sauna was considered sacred next to only the church. Older generations thought that spirit beings inhabited the cramped quarters within the sauna walls. Love spells were cast in saunas, and in times past, the sauna also served as a birthing room for the women, due to being warm and sterile.

Further, the Finnish bathing experience is not strictly a winter or outdoor activity. Saunas in the summer are followed by a refreshing dip in a cool lake. Often, a cold, frosty beer, giving time for fellowship, follows summer bathing.

Originally, Finnish saunas were in a small building separate from the main house. As time went on, the sauna evolved from a one room building to a two room  – called the washing and warming rooms – small building, Nowadays, saunas are a regular addition to an indoor bathroom or are a separate two room construction, usually in the basement.

The Finnish sauna is an ancient custom, and was once considered a holy place, a place of birth and death, leading to the thought that the sauna held spiritual properties – a gift from heaven. The sauna was a place where women gave birth, and where the bodies of the dead were washed. Curing diseases and casting love spells could also happen in the sauna. In Finland, as in many other cultures, fire was seen as a gift from heaven, and the hearth and the sauna oven were its altars

So, finally, what are the ingredients of the perfect Finnish sauna visit? Ideally, the sauna should be as close to the water as possible – sea, lake or river, it doesn’t matter which. The sauna should be heated with a wood fire. Electric saunas are strictly for city apartment blocks, fitness centres and municipal swimming pools. You will also need a viihta, a bucket and ladle for loyly, towels and toiletries. And remember, you may think that sweat is sweat, but to a Finn, sweat is indeed sweet, and even, perhaps, holy. 


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