Sauna and steam baths can be found in several cultures around the world.
The people of Finland are well-known for their sauna use.
A trip to Finland would be incomplete without experiencing a warm sauna followed by a refreshing dip or cool shower.
Anywhere in the world where you find people of Finnish descent, you will find saunas in use.
This article will examine the proper use of a sauna in Finland, the ways the Finnish saunas compare with other sauna types and the important health benefits of a sauna.
The Sauna in Finland
Although there are many different kinds of sauna rooms in Finland, the traditional sauna is a wooden building with a stove for heating the structure.
The stove heats the room anywhere from 140 to 210 degrees.
Rocks cover the top of the stove.
Once they become hot, people using the sauna pour water over the rocks producing steam.
Anyone can pour the water, but normally it falls to whoever is closest to the stove.
The sauna goes back many centuries in Finland.
It was used primarily as a place for bathing, especially in the cold winter months.
It was also a place for family gatherings. One important use in early Finnish culture was childbirth.
The sauna provided a very clean environment for the birthing process.
In modern Finland, it is customary to take a sauna at least once a week.
For many people, Saturday is the day of choice.
Finns are less concerned about nudity than other cultures, and most people take their sauna without clothes.
It is acceptable to take a sauna with a towel for modesty, but bathing suits are not allowed.
The chlorine from swimming pool water can cause breathing problems when it evaporates.
There will be small cloths by the sauna entrance so that you are not sitting directly on the wood.
Public saunas are often divided by gender, though there are many coed saunas.
A typical sauna begins with a cleansing shower.
The sauna is all about cleanliness, so participants should be clean when they enter.
When you go inside, you take a seat on a bench and sweat.
Some Finns take a bundle of silver birch branches, called a vihta, and lightly beat themselves with it.
This practice relaxes the muscles and can relieve mild pain and itching.
When you begin to feel too warm, you leave the room and, depending on your location, jump in a lake or take a cool shower.
Then you can return to the sauna and repeat the cycle.
How Finnish Saunas Compare
Finnish saunas are the basis for most modern sauna rooms.
Many places in Finland have moved away from the traditional wood-burning stove to an electric stove, especially if the sauna is in a public building or private home.
Some aspects make the Finnish sauna unique among steam rooms and other saunas.
The temperature in Finnish saunas tends to be higher than in Russian steam rooms or Turkish baths.
At the same time, the amount of steam is lower than these other sauna-type settings.
The point of saunas in Finland is creating changes in body temperature over time.
This highlights another unique feature of sauna practices in Finland, the sauna cycle.
In Native America sweat lodges, participants sit in the lodge for an extended period.
In Turkish baths and Russian steam rooms, the steam area is a single part of a larger bathing process.
In Finland, on a Saturday evening, one might spend a couple of hours going back and forth between the sauna and the cold dip, shower or a roll in the snow.
The body will cycle several times through heat and cold.
Participants take part in the sauna cycle until they feel they are done.
Health Benefits of a Finnish Sauna
Steam rooms and saunas have long been used for their health benefits.
Saunas in Finland are seen as a way to promote a healthy lifestyle and proper hygiene.
There are several positive effects of sauna use.
Lower Stress Levels
Sitting in a sauna is simply relaxing. It is difficult to be tense in the warm room.
As people relax, they tend to breathe deeper which leads to a sense of calm.
An important part of the sauna experience in Finland is the repeated change in temperature.
The cold dip causes a fast contraction of muscles.
The body goes through several cycles of tension and release as the participant goes from the cold water to the hot room.
Cardiovascular Health Benefits
There is evidence that a hot sauna promotes circulatory health.
When you are sitting in the sauna, your body will try to cool itself by dilating blood vessels and increasing your heart rate.
This leads to lower blood pressure levels, an important marker of heart health.
When people experience chronic pain, they tend to tense the muscles in the area that hurts, often increasing their pain levels.
As the muscles relax in the sauna, many people find that their pain levels decrease.
The practice of lightly beating sore muscles with birch branches may stimulate the body to produce endorphins, natural pain relievers.
Although saunas in Finland do not have humidity levels as high as other saunas, they do have higher relative humidity than normal air.
This can help people with respiratory issues. The heat dilates bronchial passages allowing more air to enter the lungs.
The humidity loosens phlegm in the lungs making it easier for people to have productive coughs.
The relaxed atmosphere also encourages people to relax their chest muscles, which helps them breathe more deeply.
Sweat is one way that the body removes waste products.
Sitting in the sauna causes heavy sweat as the body tries to cool itself.
The sauna cycle in Finland also includes rinsing that sweat away in a cold shower or dip in a lake.
A Saturday evening sauna helps the body removes toxins and waste.