Finnish saunas have been used for centuries for the maintenance of health and the prevention of diseases. The Finns believe that the soothing warmth of löyly, usually followed by a brisk plunge in an icy lake, is not a luxury but a necessity of life.
Any time you find a hot rocks sauna in modern Western culture, it is following the Finland sauna tradition. Well, maybe without the drop through the hole in the ice…
Saunas have been an institution in Finland for 7,000 years (read Introduction to the Sauna) and nearly every household has one - in fact, the Finns boast about having 2 million saunas in a country with a population of only 6 million. You’ll find them in all the hotels and in most private homes.
And around the world, the saunas you see today that use hot rocks to heat the room should rightfully be called descendants of ancient Finnish saunas. (Did you know that sauna is the only Finnish word in the English dictionary?)
Virtually every Finn owns a sauna or has access to one. Many saunas in Finland are located near one of the tens of thousands of Finnish lakes. To heat the room, water is poured on hot rocks creating dry invisible steam.
The Finns believe using rocks in the traditional way, heated by wood burning stoves and not electric heaters. They also prefer to enjoy Finnish sauna bathing the old fashioned way: in the nude or naked.
When you splash water on the hot rocks, it creates a dry vapor which the Finns call löyly, which translates to “spirit of life.” The Finns are big believers in the concept that disease can be driven from the body through sweating and that saunas are ideal for producing a natural fever in the body.
The old Finnish saying is that, “the sauna is the poor man’s pharmacy.” The löyly steam is actually invisible, but it is nevertheless present, and this dry steam makes the sauna hotter so you can sweat more.
To fully take advantage of a good löyly in Finnish saunas: start the session by showering, then step in the sauna and pour a ladle of water onto the basket of heated rocks. Sit back and enjoy the radiant heat for 10 minutes or as long as you feel comfortable. Then step out and cool down with a shower. Stay out for about 10 minutes and repeat the process. Saunas in Finland are best enjoyed by following it up with a dip in an icy lake or a roll in a snow bank, then returning to the sauna.
If you visit Finland during the winter you will likely prefer a shower versus the ice bath, but it should be a cool shower, not a warm one. You can expect to enjoy a traditional sauna year-round and not just during the colder months. In the summertime, the Finland sauna is often followed by what is called a vihta. This describes a handful of leafy birch twigs used as a sauna whisk that are dipped in water and gently smacked on the body. This technique enhances the cleansing of your skin by invigorating it and opening up the pores.
Finnish saunas offer many medicinal benefits which are discussed elsewhere on this website, but just keep in mind that the Finns set aside an hour or more a day, or several times a week, to relax and unwind in the precious löyly steam. The Finland sauna is an experience not to be hurried. Just ask the Finns; they’ve been doing it for 7,000 years and the national obsession with saunas shows no signs of disappearing.