Sauna Culture and why I now “get it”

Almost no one where I live has a sauna, and if they have one, they don’t use it often. Kind of a status thing where the idea of having a sauna is worth more than the process of Sauna itself. I have always hated saunas. They are hot and uncomfortable and awkward and, well, hot. Damn hot. After the past two days, I’ve done a 180º.

Yesterday we traveled to Dragsfjörd by way of car and then boat to stay with Jörn’s sister and her husband, Tove & Olli, at their summer “cottage.” It sits on an island populated by roughly 50 people, about five or six who live there year-round. That’s an astonishing feat in a land where the earth is covered is snow and blanketed by darkness about five months of the year. I hear that, in the winter, the Baltic waters that touch the shores are covered with a thick layer of ice and it’s possible to drive to your destination across the ice, though few people risk the journey if it’s far. In this case, 5K is too far, which means that they use the cottage about six months of the year.

While the scenery was amazing and the hosts festive and embracing, what was most interesting to me was the sauna. In these situations, they say, the sauna house is actually for washing. See, there is no shower on the property. Water is pumped into the faucets and the toilet (which fortunately no longer is an outhouse) is composting–both necessary where the property must be mostly self-contained except for electricity.

I read about saunas on the last leg of our journey from Paris to Helsinki on FinnAir and really wanted to try it in a place where it’s a natural part of life and culture, but I didn’t imagine how I would experience it. Here, it was a journey from complete aversion to understanding. Monica and her daughter, Linda, took me to the sauna house yesterday afternoon (in swimsuits) and explained the process.

Rinsing off when you enter. Sitting on the top bench. Ladling water onto the rocks using the wooden spoon & bucket. Standard sauna fare. But here is what I never knew:  old-school saunas have wood stoves.


Cold water is combined with hot water dispensed from a spigot on the stove for showering. A drain beneath the floor allows you to shower yourself throughout the process beginning at the beginning with a good rinse to allow the heat to soak into the skin quickly. Sitting on the top shelf is where you experience the most heat, and dousing the ladling water onto the rocks to create steam causes a swoosh of near-burning heat to engulf the upper air.


The heat is challenged by a trip to cold water to stimulate the skin, and in this case it was a jump in the sea.


Come back to the sauna. Whisk yourself with birch twigs, soaked in water, known as “vihta” to relieve tension. Increase the heat again by dousing more water. And after two or three iterations of this process, begin to cleanse. This is what surprised me most. In these situations, at a summer cottage on a small island in a sea of small islands, literally (an archipelago), you actually bathe in the sauna with shampoo and soap pouring the combination of cold and hot water over yourself to rinse first to remove the soap, then again just because it feels good.


I was amazed to exit into the outside air feeling refreshed and invigorated and calmed by the view of the Baltic, the birches and the birds. Bliss.



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