At VETTÄ, our signature saunas are the heart of our thermotherapy program, but their importance stretches far beyond just feeling good and being good for you. Saunas are an integral part of Finnish culture, used in almost every social setting from business meetings to catching up with friends.
Understanding the history of their use adds to the appreciation of the overall experience, so today, we’re going to look at what the first saunas were, how they contribute to your health, and how they’re used in Finland in present day.
The First Saunas
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when saunas first came to be. The oldest recorded mention of a sauna dates all the way back to the early 11th century, and the oldest one still in use today was built in 1906. Archaeology helps paint a more complete picture of what early saunas looked like, and how they were used.
Usually little more than a cave closed off with a layer of animal skins, the first saunas were used for survival. A fire flickering under a pile of stones helped keep the inhabitants warm, and the steam, heat, and smoke that poured out helped sterilize the environment. The sauna was the safest – and warmest – place to live. It was the place to give birth, to treat wounds, and to celebrate. When it wasn’t housing people, it was used to cure meat and dry produce.
The sauna wasn’t just a nice luxury to enjoy; it was literally where daily life happened.
Health Benefits of the Finnish Sauna
For a long time, the sauna was thought to have a magical effect on those who entered. Today, we know that the “magical” feeling comes from genuine medical benefits.
- Relieves insomnia – A sauna session does wonders to help relieve tension and stress, and for many people, this translates into a wonderful night’s sleep.
- Provides gentle cardiovascular exercise – The repeated heating and cooling of the body promotes contraction and dilation of the blood vessels, which in turn become stronger and better maintained. The heat also encourages a higher heart rate, which acts as a gentle form of exercise.
- Improves blood circulation – As you might expect, the previously-mentioned dilation of the blood vessels helps improve circulation throughout the body.
- Improves the immune system – Regular sauna use (at least twice a week) has been shown to reduce the risk of contracting pneumonia by around 30%.
- Maintains health and clarity of skin – Increased blood flow and opened pores are only a few of the factors that result in healthy, clear, younger-looking skin.
- Soothes muscles – Whether you’re an athlete or just on your feet all day, the heat of the sauna encourages your muscles to relax.
Cultural Significance of the Finnish Sauna
In Finland, there are more saunas than there are cars. Most businesses (including the Finnish Parliament House) have their own private sauna installed for employees to relax in or to welcome important guests. Most of us from Western culture would be deeply uncomfortable going to sweat with their boss in the nude, but in the sauna, when clothing is removed, so too are the hierarchies. Everyone is placed in equal standing, and the sauna session is meant to promote relaxation and strengthen community ties.
In day-to-day society, public saunas are used as a place to relax, unwind, and get to know your neighbours. If you’re invited to the sauna of a friend or hosting family in Finland, it’s considered an honour and a gesture of welcome and acceptance.
Quick Guide to Using a Sauna
Before you set foot in a sauna, have a quick shower first to keep the sauna clean. You’ll be sweating out a lot of impurities anyway, so make sure you’re not bringing in any extra dirt.
If you’re visiting a sauna in Finland, you may be offered a small bundle of birch leaves before you enter. This is called a vasta or vihta, and it’s used to help promote good blood circulation. To use it, gently whip your shoulders and skin with the bundle. It has the added benefit of adding a subtle, pleasant smell to your sauna experience.
If you begin to feel too hot while you are using the sauna, take a break, go outside, and have a nice drink of water.
Try not to let your bare skin touch the wood of the sauna seating. Instead, sit on a towel. Not only is this a considerate and hygienic choice for those who use the sauna after you, but the towel will also protect you from the heat of the bench.
When you feel that you’ve had enough of your first round in the sauna, it’s time to cool off. Relax in a shower or cool thermal pool and allow your body temperature to lower. You may wish to follow this step with a period of relaxation. When you begin to feel a slight chill, you’re ready to re-enter the sauna.
After your last visit to the sauna, simply rinse off the body, cool down with one final visit, and relax. Don’t forget to hydrate with plenty of water, as it’s easy to lose up to a half liter during a typical session.
If you’d like to experience a sauna for yourself, we invite you to come visit VETTÄ in late 2020. Until then, you can stay informed of our progress (and special behind-the-scenes sneak peeks) by signing up for our newsletter.