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The Finnish Sauna Culture: An essay

In Finland, the land of a thousand lakes, the silver-surfaced waters are lined not only with birches and pines but also with small wooden saunas strewn along the shores. There are two million saunas in the country populated by only five million people. There are saunas at home and saunas at the summer cottages that the Finns call mökki. If there’s not one in one’s flat, the building has one in the basement where weekly sauna slots can be booked in.

Going to the sauna is a ritual of care. Care for oneself and for others. As a child my dad would pour scoops of sauna-warm rainwater over me to finish the sauna. Friends rinse off each other’s backs and old couples wash each other’s hair. Some use the traditional bunch of birch branches to whip over each other, getting the blood circulation up and the air filled with the scent of the leaves. The sauna is a place to spend time with people you love but also with people you don’t know, sharing the intimacy and the heat of the small wooden space across generations, genders and backgrounds.

Public saunas come in many variations. Some saunas are open for everyone at once, but it is also common with separate saunas, or separate days, for men and women. I find something utterly comforting about being amongst generations of women meeting in the warmth. The public saunas I know best are the Helsinki ones. There are the inner-city variants like Kotiharju in the heart of Helsinki where men, with towels around their waists, sit on the curb outside with cold cans of beer in their hands. There are tranquil saunas close to nature, of which Kulttuurisauna is the most serene of them all, with its ecological design and gentle architecture. Harboured on the tip of Merihaka the large windows of the sauna look out on the Baltic Sea and the islands outside of Helsinki. Another communal sauna, Sompasauna, was originally built without permission by a group of sauna enthusiasts at the tip of the industrial harbour, offering a sauna for everyone free of charge.

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These public spaces are places to connect. The warmth that softens the bodies also seems to loosen tongues, and soon life stories are shared with a sauna full of strangers. The conversation moves from love and personal hardships to heated political discussions, always returning to the question oftemperature: is it time for another löyly? Löyly being what Finns call the steam that rises when water is thrown on the hot stones above the stove, originating from an old Finnish word for life force. Stripped of clothes and pretentions we’re all the same and a sauna is an egalitarian space where hierarchies are left outside. Naked or wrapped in a towel the physical form curiously loses importance and we’re left with a common human spirit.

Integral to life in Finland, the sauna is part of every season. During summer, before the sauna window steams up, the morning sun or a silvery moon is seen reflecting in the still lake outside. In wintertime, trees glisten with frost and the soft folds of snow look inviting to the red-cheeked and sweaty. When the door opens, a welcome gust of cool air is let in, but often someone at the back urges everyone to hurry to not let any of the precious heat escape. The cycle of in-and-out is an essential part of the sauna. Out for a dip in something cold when the heat gets too intense: a lake, a hole cut in the ice, a roll in the snow, or, if nothing else is on offer, a cold shower. Then quickly back in to warm up again.

There are physical benefits to these extreme temperature shifts. The rush of endorphins flushing the body is both energising and relaxing at once. But perhaps most important is the moment to oneself that the sauna offers. Here we are out of reach from the modern world. The intensity of the sensations brings us home to our bodies and urges us to be present. The wood underneath us is stained with resin. The sauna becomes cloudy as the steam of the stove reaches the benches, making us acutely aware of the heat prickling the skin. Embraced by warmth, the body releases the tensions that unnoticed had accumulated. Worries drop away along with the sweat running down the skin, soon to be swallowed by the grey of the sea or the amber of a forest pond.

Like most Finns, the architect Alvar Aalto took the practice of sauna culture earnestly and designed many saunas. He had his own small sauna at his summer residency, The Experimental House, on the island Muuratsalo in the midst of Finland. In line with his organic designs and choice of natural materials, Aalto’s sauna was built simple with a grass roof, the log structure sitting between spindly birch trees on the edge of the lake Päijänne. His sauna is a smoke sauna, savusauna in Finnish. A smoke sauna is built without a chimney and the smoke stays inside, blackening the walls over time. This traditional method of heating up a sauna can’t be rushed and the preparation itself becomes a meditative practice of slowly filling the space with heat and smoke.

On the bank of Eurajoki river sits another Aalto designed sauna, Jokisauna. The riverside sauna completed in 1946 was designed by Aino and Alvar Aalto. Built as a laundry building for workers and their families at the nearby Kauttua ironworks it was a place to wash off the grit from the day’s work. The building of logs and bricks originally had a turf roof, and the sauna beyond the tiled washrooms is a plain wooden structure.

A sauna is by default a simple thing, a stove and some wooden benches are all it takes. The sauna is a mythical place and practice in Finnish culture and at the same time the most everyday of events. Simply a small space to gather and get thoroughly warm together – more than anything, it is a state of mind.

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