The Sauna – 6 hot and surprising facts

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By Helena Zachariassen, Home & Lifestyle Editor

Being from Finland, the home country of the real Sauna, and having practically grown up going to the Sauna every week, there are a few things you probably didn’t know about Saunas. Warning: your Sauna experience might never be the same again after getting to know more about the Sauna ritual.

1. Historical Sauna facts

The Sauna was invented by the Finns over 2000 years ago. The Saunas were originally designed and used as a form of a bath. The sauna was a place to cleanse the body and was considered a sterile environment. In fact, in Finland, women often gave birth in the sauna, when it was too cold elsewhere!

Secondly, a Finnish sauna is the furthest away you can get from a trendy spa thing, it’s a rich cultural experience and phenomenon. Finland has a population of 5.5 million people and more than 3 million saunas! You can find a Sauna at any public swimming pool, private house and city apartment, summer cottage by the lake or sea, and finally in most hotels. The saunas are literally everywhere.

Some saunas are heated with wood and some with electricity, and here the experience differs a lot. If you’re ever lucky enough to be invited to a real Sauna with a Finn, embrace the experience and go with the flow.

The authentic Sauna ritual

Every Sauna visit needs some prep time, and bear in mind, that this process may never be rushed, otherwise, the Sauna is not ready to welcome you at its best. If you heat it up too quickly it will be too hot, not humid enough, and not enjoyable. Read below for the mindful steps in preparing for an unforgettable experience.

2. Preparing for the (wood heated) authentic Sauna ritual

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Traditional Finnish basket to carry wood for the Sauna. Pic H.Zachariassen

Preparing the Sauna is almost as important as the bathing experience itself. It’s as if we’re waking up the Sauna spirit and preparing ourselves for the upcoming relaxation. Make sure to have at least 2-3 hours of undisturbed time. You will start with preparing and carrying the carefully selected and rightly sized chopped firewood to the Sauna. The next step is to correctly get the fire started, which is an art in itself. You then continue with carrying water and filling up the water containers if you don’t have running water. Finally, you continue heating up the Sauna slowly by adding firewood regularly for a few hours. Especially wood-heated saunas need a lot of time to become hot enough. Last but not least, prepare your cold drinks, get your cozy towels and chosen bath products ready, slow down your mind, and dive into the amazing experience of calming the soul, mind, and body.

3. The Sauna experience

If you’re doing it as the true Finns, you’re not wearing any swimsuits or towels inside the Sauna. In a public Sauna, you might see that people are quietly sitting on their towels (for hygiene reasons), but they are not necessarily wrapped in them. The Sauna has nothing to do with bodily pleasures or body shame and comparison, it’s all about slowing down, being silent and still, and enjoying the moment. In a private Sauna you may choose to speak or not speak, just ask your Sauna friends what they prefer. It’s the ultimate self-care. And when you’re feeling too warm, diving into the fresh lake, or sea, is the ultimate soulmate complement to the hot Sauna.

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The author’s breathtaking Sauna view in the Finnish archipelago in the Baltic Sea. Pic H.Zachariassen

Sacred Sauna

If you’re lucky enough to visit an authentic Sauna in nature, sitting outside the Sauna watching the sun go down and chilling with a cold drink in your hand, you’re experiencing what we call a state of pure bliss. The Sauna is almost a sacred place for the Finns, it’s a space where even spiritual aspects of life may be observed, felt, and experienced. Finally, the Sauna can also be a place for a business meeting, and there is even historical evidence showing a Finnish President discussing important political matters with colleagues in the Sauna. What better place is there to drop all things hierarchy and titles and open up for honesty, collaboration, and equality?

4. The Sauna accessories

Upon entering the Sauna you might be handed a bunch of birch stems, which is what we call a ‘vihta’, a Sauna whisk. A vihta is being used to circulate and mix the hot and cold air by using it as a fan with swirling motions in the air to get the most even temperature in the Sauna. The vihta is also used to increase the sauna bather’s blood circulation. Dipping the vihta into the water and then gently lashing it on your skin is said to improve the overall blood circulation and promote health and wellbeing.

In addition to the vihta you might want to bring any of your favourite bath, scrub, and peeling products, as the humidity of the Sauna is the perfect place to get sparkling clean.

5. The Löyly

The heart of the Sauna is the heater or the stove. ´Löyly´ is the Finnish word for the evaporating hot steam that rises from the heater stones after the water has been carefully thrown on top of them. The art of throwing water, löyly, is what turns the sauna into this hot and humid haven of serenity, meant to slowly relax even the most tense muscles and worried minds. Nowadays many Sauna heaters are electrical, however, most Finns, including myself, would argue that there is no better nor a more genuine löyly than in a wood-heated Sauna.

6. Sauna and kids

This is a topic that continues to amaze me as a Finn living in central Europe. Kids are generally NOT allowed nor welcome in the Sauna. This completely contradicts the Finnish tradition of using the Sauna as a form of a bath. I was probably no older than a few weeks before entering the Sauna for the first time. You can use a baby bath on the floor of the sauna to keep the baby nice and warm. It’s a gentle introduction to the Sauna culture and most kids love sitting in their bath and playing with bath toys.

4 amazing Finnish Saunas in the Zurich/Luzern area

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Seesauna Stäfa
Since October 2020 can you find this newly built gem right at the gold coast of the Lake Zurich in Stäfa:

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Sauna at the Pfäffikersee
This tiny but authentic Sauna is located on the grounds of the local outdoor swimming pool in Pfäffikon, Zurich, and can be rented for private use:

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The Sauna at Seebad Enge
The Sauna at the Seebad Enge is centrally located in Zurich and offers an amazing oasis right on the lake:

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The Sauna Boat
Experience a true Sauna experience on the only floating Sauna in Switzerland, regardless of the season:

Hope this article has got you covered for all your Sauna needs. If you’re looking for more such articles on expat living, do check out our expat living section where we break down the nitty gritties of expat living.

To read more posts from June, click here

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