The Finns developed the custom of dry-heat bathing known as the sauna over two thousand years ago. Even in modern times in Finland, the ritual of the weekly sauna continues to be eagerly awaited, whether it be a family sauna, or a gathering of friends, or even an hour or two of solitude devoted to relaxation and meditation. Many traditional Finns consider the time spent in the sauna to be as sacred as time spent in church.
Historically, the sauna experience was steeped in ritual and tradition. The elements of stone, fire, air, and water were honored and vied as gifts from the gods. The heat of the fire was especially appreciated in the chilly climate of the north where winters were long and cold, and damp weather was typical for most of the year. An old saying seems to imply that a typical Finn would build a sauna before even beginning the construction of a home. This would actually make sense to most Finnish people as an average sauna has many of the luxuries of home and is much faster and easier to build. Also, the ability to relax in a sauna after a hard day of house construction would definitely aid in relaxation.
The sauna is a style of bathing wherein the water used for cleansing comes from within the body rather than from without. It is in all simplicity ‘perspiration bathing”. As the bather sweats, the skin is deeply cleansed as perspiration flushes out impurities trapped in your pores. In a small sauna heated to 85 to 90 degrees Celsius, with the low humidity of less than 30 percent (a low humidity is necessary to make spending time in a sauna bearable), the human body opens its pores and naturally begins to rid itself of toxins.
A full sauna session consists of alternating bouts of heat and cold. A person partaking in a sauna usually spends 10 to 15 minutes in the heated room, which is then followed by a plunge into cold water, or even snow. Depending on the location of the sauna, rivers or lakes may be used, but often pools or even a shower/bathtub can be used. The natural refreshment of a river or lake is often considered far superior to that of man-made pools and showers.
The sauna session may last anywhere from one to three hours including the alternating hot and cold, as well as a pre sauna shower and a post — sauna washing up. Time is then usually spent in a specially designated ‘after-sauna’ room. This room is designed as a restful refuge where you can slowly allow your body temperature to return to normal, as well as a place to relax and rehydrate as saunas can have a dehydrating effect. Many sauna users find this post sauna relaxation to be as relaxing as the main event, if not more so in some cases.
The sauna itself is designed to be an escape from the outside world. It usually consists of a quiet room with dim lighting, paneled with natural wood, and completely closed off from the outside. The extreme heat of a sauna is produced by igneous rocks warmed by a small electric, gas, or woodstove. A traditional Finnish sauna, which was usually built outdoors was most often heated by wood, but as more and more modern saunas are being built indoors, gas and electric heat are becoming more prevalent. The stones are used to provide a softer, more gentle heat, than would be achieved with a direct stove heating. This allows users to withstand it for longer periods.
From time to time sauna patrons will ladle a splash of water from a large ladle or wooden bucket onto the heated rocks to produce a rush of steam. This burst of steam, traditionally called “grandfather’s breath” by Native Americans in their traditional sweat lodges, adds moisture to the room and prevents the body from becoming too dehydrated. It is important to note that this steam will feel extremely hot, so you should be careful about how you apply the water and how much water is applied. This is due to air with higher humidity feeling much hotter to human skin than air with low humidity. To stimulate circulation, bathers will often whisk themselves with vihtas (bundles of leafy birch or pine boughs). The light slapping of the leaves refreshes the mind and body, while at the same time providing the aromatic scent of birch or pine. Whisking another person while in the sauna is thought to be an expression of friendship and harmony.
Sauna Health Benefits
Saunas have many beneficial effects, including cleansing the complexion, relaxing and revitalizing muscles after strenuous exercise, enhancing circulation, stimulating mental alertness, sharpening the senses, and aiding in relieving symptoms of minor colds and illnesses.
If you are in good enough health to participate in most amateur sports, you are most likely healthy enough to enjoy a sauna. Health authorities still recommend that people with heart problems, diabetes, high blood pressure, and those individuals who are on medication consult with a physician before enjoying the benefits of a sauna. No matter how healthy you are, it is important to not misuse or overindulge in sauna use. Seeing who can withstand the heat the longest is not an appropriate or intelligent game to play in a sauna as it can have very serious effects. Historically, Finns usually only took one sauna a week.
Building a Sauna
Saunas are wonderfully adaptable enclosures that can be built in the smallest of spaces, or constructed as their freestanding building in the woods. They can be any size, and come both attached to buildings and inside buildings. All that is needed to construct a sauna is basic carpentry skills and the desire to build a sauna to your specifications.
In the past few years, sauna dealers have imported or built saunas as prefabricated kits. These fully functional saunas would arrive at their destination in pieces to be assembled like a child’s toy. All the required hardware is included in the package, which makes assembly easy for any do-it-yourselfer. Kits can be put together in only a few hours, require no studding or dropped ceilings, and can stand virtually anywhere without major alterations to the surrounding structures.