A sauna ('sɑunɑ) is a room or a smaller house designed as a place to experience dry or wet heat sessions. Most modern saunas have a separate room with showers, and an additional dressing room. A sauna at a Finnish summerhouse by a lake usually has a deck or a porch to cool down and perhaps enjoy a light meal after taking a sauna.
The word sauna is also used metaphorically to describe an unusually hot or humid environment.
Historical evidence indicate that the Finns built the first wooden saunas in the fifth or eighth century C.E. Early saunas were dug into a hill or embankment. As tools and techniques advanced, they were later built as freestanding structures. Rocks were heated in a stone fireplace with a wood fire. The smoke from the fire filled the room as the air warmed.
Once the temperature reached desired levels, the smoke was allowed to clear through wall openings and the bathers entered. The wood smoke aroma still lingered and was part of the cleansing ritual. This type of traditional sauna was called a 'savusauna', which means "smoke sauna" in Finnish. Many people find the smell of smoke and wood to be relaxing.
The lighting in a sauna is low, and Finns prefer to sit in the sauna in silence, relaxing. The temperature is usually between 160-180°F/70-80°C but sometimes exceeds 200°F/90°). Steam vapor, also called löyly [ˈløyly], was created by splashing water on the heated rocks or kiuas [ˈkiu.ɑs], increasing the sensation of heat. Finns often test their fellow bathers as to who can sit in the hottest section of the sauna (the top bench) the longest, and who is the first one to leave.
A 'vihta', a bunch of small leafy birch branches tied together, is used to swat oneself and fellow sauna bathers. One can even buy vihtas from a shop and store them in the freezer for use in winter. Using a 'vihta' improves blood circulation, and its birch odor is considered pleasing.
The Finns originally used the sauna as a place to cleanse the mind, rejuvenate and refresh the spirit, and prepare the dead for burial. The sauna was an important part of daily life, and families bathed together in the home sauna. Indeed, the sauna was originally a place of mystical nature where gender differences did not exist.
When the Finns migrated to other areas of the globe, they brought their sauna designs and traditions with them, introducing other cultures to the enjoyment and health benefits of the sauna.
Sauna traditions and old beliefs
In Finland the sauna is an ancient custom. It was considered to be a holy place, where women gave birth (as it was the cleanest place), and where the bodies of the dead were washed. There were also many beliefs and charms that were connected to sauna. Curing diseases and casting love spells could also happen in the sauna. As in many other cultures, in Finland fire was seen as a gift from heaven, and the hearth and the sauna oven were its altars.
There still exists an old saying, saunassa ollaan kuin kirkossa—"be in the sauna as in a church."
A saunatonttu, literally translated sauna elf, is a small gnome that was believed to live in the sauna. He is always treated with respect, otherwise he might cause much trouble. It is customary to warm up the sauna for the gnome every now and then, or to leave some food outside for him. It is said that he warns people if a fire was threatening the sauna, or punishes people who behave improperly in the sauna–-for example if they slept, played games, argued, were noisy, or behaved otherwise "immorally" there.
Saunas and sex
In many countries, "saunas" are a front for brothels and sex clubs, much to the dismay of any saunatonttu in these places. In the Finnish and Northern European tradition, associating sexuality with saunas is a social faux pas.
The modern sauna
Most North American and Western European college/university physical education complexes and many public sports centers and gyms include sauna facilities. They may also be present at public and private swimming pools. Most houses in Finland have their own saunas, as do high rises and condominiums, where it is either a communal facility, often equipped with a pool, or a private sauna in each apartment.
Under many circumstances, temperatures approaching and exceeding 212°F/100°C would be completely intolerable. Saunas overcome this problem by controlling the humidity and by limiting the amount of water thrown on the hot rocks. The hottest Finnish saunas have very low humidity levels, which allows air temperatures that could boil water to be tolerated and even enjoyed for longer periods of time. Control over the temperature can be achieved by choosing a higher level bench for those wishing a hotter experience or a lower level bench for a more moderate temperature. Good manners require that the door to a sauna not be kept open so long that it cools the sauna for those that are already in it.
Saunas can be dangerous. Heat prostration or the even more serious hyperthermia (heat stroke) can result. A cool shower or plunge in a pool or in a lake afterwards results in a great increase in blood pressure, so moderation is advised for those with a history of stroke, heart conditions or high blood pressure. In Finland, the sauna is thought of as a healing refreshment. The saying goes: Jos ei viina, terva tai sauna auta, tauti on kuolemaksi. ("If booze, tar or the sauna won't help, the illness is fatal.")
Social and mixed gender nudity, with adults and children of the same family, is common in the conventional sauna. In Finnish culture, sauna is often an all-evening affair, and is combined with a light meal and socializing with friends and family.
Today there are a wide variety of sauna options. Heat sources include wood, electricity, gas and other more unconventional methods such as solar power. There are wet saunas, dry saunas, smoke saunas, steam saunas, and those that work with infrared waves. The Finnish word for a sauna heat source is kiuas.
You can have a sauna in your home or apartment, in your backyard, on your rooftop, or even on a pontoon boat. The possibilities are endless and creating innovative and sometimes quirky designs has become part of the appeal of sauna bathing.
Smoke sauna (Finnish savusauna) is the original sauna. It is a room with a rock or masonry stove topped with stones. A fire in the stove is maintained for several hours, until the desired temperature in the sauna is reached. This type of sauna does not have a smokestack so the smoke is dispersed through an open door and openings in the walls. The walls and benches are usually covered in soot, and people sit on towels placed on sauna benches. When the sauna is ready, the stove has a glowing bed of embers and the large amount of rocks are heated through, providing a reservoir of heat and a gentle smell of smoke. The temperature is low, about 130°F/60°C, and humidity is high. The smoke sauna tradition nearly died out, but was revived by enthusiasts in the 1980s.
A continuous fire, instead of stored heat, is a recent invention. There is a firebox and a smokestack, and stones are placed in a compartment directly above the firebox. It is much hotter than a smoke sauna, even 212°F/100°C, and lacks the smell of smoke characteristic of its predecessor. It takes a much shorter time, an hour or less, to heat up the sauna. A sauna heated by wood fire requires some manual labor to maintain the fire; the fire can also be a hazard and this type of sauna is usually not allowed in apartments or high rise buildings.
The electric continuous heater offers virtually identical performance to the continuous-fire type kiuas. The difference is that a click of a switch is all that is needed to heat it up. The fire hazard is mitigated, making this type of sauna the favorite in apartments and personal saunas in high rise buildings.
An always-on type kiuas has a very large heat reservoir, about 150-200 kg of stones. It is more expensive and is used in public saunas. The heat source is electric, but other sources also exist.
Infrared saunas use a special heater that generates infrared radiation rays similar to that produced by the sun. Unlike the sun’s ultraviolet radiation, infrared is said to be beneficial to overall health. Infrared radiation has been shown to kill the bacteria responsible for acne. In an infrared sauna, the electric heaters warm the air and also penetrate the skin to encourage perspiration, producing many of the same health benefits of traditional steam saunas.
Sauna culture around the world
As the home of the sauna, Finnish sauna culture is well established. Although cultures in all corners of the world have imported and adapted the sauna, many of the traditional customs have not survived the journey. Today, public perception of saunas, sauna "etiquette" and sauna customs vary hugely from country to country. In many countries going to a sauna is a recent fashion and attitudes towards saunas are changing, while in others, original traditions have survived over generations.
In Finland, Estonia and Russia sauna-going plays a central social role. These countries boast the hottest saunas and the tradition of beating fellow sauna-goers with leafy, wet birch bunches. In Russia, public saunas are strictly single gender while in Finland and Estonia both types exist.
Benelux and Scandinavian countries, where public saunas have been around for a long time, generally have a moderate, "live and let live" attitude towards sauna-going with few traditions to speak of. Levels of nudity vary, single gender saunas are as common as mixed gender saunas and people tend to socialize in them.
In Germany and Austria on the other hand, nudity is actually enforced in public saunas, as is the covering of benches with towels. Although separate single gender saunas exist, many places offer women-only saunas and organize special times for single gender use of the sauna. Contrary to Scandinavian countries, pouring water on hot stones to increase humidity (Aufguss) is not normally done by the sauna visitors themselves, but rather by a person in charge (the Saunameister), who is either an employee of the sauna complex or a volunteer. During an Aufguss session the Saunameister uses a large towel to circulate the hot air through the sauna, intensifying sweating and the perception of heat. Once the Aufguss session has started it is not considered good manners to enter the sauna, as opening the door would cause loss of heat. Leaving the session is always, but grudgingly, tolerated. Cold showers or baths shortly after a sauna, as well as exposure to fresh air in a special balcony, garden or open-air room (Frischluftraum) are considered a must.
In much of southern Europe, France and the U.K. single gender saunas are more common than mixed gender saunas. Nudity is tolerated in the segregated saunas but strictly forbidden in the mixed saunas, a cause of confusion when residents of these nations cross the border to Germany and Austria or vice versa. Sauna sessions tend to be shorter and cold showers are shunned by most.
Hungarians see the sauna as part of a wider spa culture. Here too attitudes are less liberal, mixed-gender people are together and they wear swimsuits. Single gender saunas are rare, as well as those which tolerate nudity.
In Latin America, particularly in the highlands of southern Mexico and Guatemala, a version of the sauna indigenous to the Americas, called temazcal, is quite popular. The temazcal is usually made of clay or stone, and has a low ceiling. The temazcal structure is usually shared by an extended family unit. Unlike European sauna culture, temazcal is an individual rather than social activity. One washes in the temazcal, with soap, or in a more traditional setting, with herbs and medicinal bushes. One uses the temazcal only in the evening, so that upon exiting one can feel the chill of the cold evening air (temperature can fall below freezing at high altitudes). One usually bathes in the temazcal two to three times a week. In Northern America, sweat lodges were used by Native Americans to purify both body and mind. A wood fire in a pit was covered over by a skin tarp or other structure and a fire was built inside. The smoke from a sweat lodge was believed to purify both mind or soul, and body.
In Korea, saunas are essentially public bathhouses. Various names are used to describe them, such as the smaller mogyoktang, outdoor oncheon, and the elaborate jjimjilbang. The word 'sauna' is used a lot for its 'English appeal', however it does not strictly refer to the original Scandinavian steam rooms that have become popular throughout the world. The 'konglish' (Korean-English) word sauna usually refers to bathhouses with Jacuzzis, hot tubs, showers, steam rooms, and related facilities.
In Japan, many saunas exist at sports centers and public bathhouses (sentos). The saunas are almost always gender separated, often required by law, and nudity is a required part of proper sauna etiquette. While right after World War II, public bathhouses were commonplace in Japan, the number of customers have dwindled as more people were able to afford houses and apartments equipped with their own private baths, as the nation became wealthier.
Unfortunately for sauna enthusiasts in the United States, sauna culture is not widespread outside of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and parts of Minnesota, which are home to a large Finnish-American population. However, saunas themselves are commonplace in sports clubs and spas, where they are normally treated simply as a means of relaxing for a few minutes after a workout.
- Jalasjaa, Bert. The Art of Sauna Building. Cedar 1 Inc., 1981. ISBN 978-0968570708
- Roeder, Gieselle. Sauna: Hottest Way to Good Health (Natural Health Guide). Alive Books, 2002. ISBN 978-1553120346
- Roy, Robert L. Sauna: A complete guide to the Construction, Use, and Benefits of the Finnish Bath. Chelsea Green Publishing Co., 2004 . ISBN 978-1931498630
- Wilson, Lawrence. Sauna Therapy. L.D. Wilson, Inc., 2004. ISBN 978-0962865763
All links retrieved November 2, 2019.
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