In the heart of Finnish culture you will find sauna. That hot, steaming, hissing, dim and smoky room, where Finns go to shed the dusts of life off of their shoulders. The Finnish mind relaxes and the bruised body heals in sauna. The secrets of ones mind open there. It is a place of self reflection, at the same time, as it is the place where you accept yourself just the way you are.
The history of a sauna, begins from the dark years of unwritten history and paganism. First saunas were built into holes in the ground, with fire pits in the middle. It was rather a place to take shelter, to live in, rather than a place of cleansing. For a long time sauna was usually the first, sometimes only, building a new family built to be their home.
In Finland sauna has been the place of birth, healing and death. The whole life cycle has happened in and around that sacred place. I would say, sauna is in the genes of the Finnish people. Without the hot room, we are miserable. Sauna has been a solid part of the lives of Finns. It has evolved, alongside us. The sauna is not a hole in the ground anymore, juts like a Finn is not a brute digging stones out of swamps anymore.
Sauna went through the evolution from a hole, into a hut made out of logs, smoky and black. Turned into a home and then into a part of a home. Nowadays you can find just about any kind of a sauna you can imagine. Fancy electrical ones, massively hot and brutal wood burning saunas, lounge-like ones, you name it.
My absolute favorite is the smoke sauna. It is one of the more traditional types of saunas. Smoke sauna has a huge pile of stones as a stove. You need to heat that thing for several hours before actual bathing can happen. Smoke sauna does not have a chimney, instead the smoke stays inside, creating a lot of carbon monoxide. Yes, that dangerous gas. The smoke will make this sauna also pitch-black, covering everything in soot. The smell of that sauna is something totally unique too! After that heating session, you’ll of course need to get the carbon monoxide out, so you open the door and a small hole in the wall, give it a moment to breathe, and then just bathe your heart out, for hours! Some of my dearest childhood memories are around one very good smoke sauna.
There is a little less than 6 million Finns around. We have around 2 million saunas. Go figure, Finns might like that thing. There is quite some culture around these hot rooms. We even have competitions on going to sauna. Everybody of course enjoys the spirit of the sauna, löyly, as we say, in their own way. Most of all, the whole thing is about relaxing.
If you are not a Finn, but are planning on going to Finland, do visit a sauna too. If possible, find a genuine Finn to take you there!
If they try to beat you with bunch of sticks in the process, just silently agree, it is a tradition.