Saunas are becoming fashionable the world over but the best place to get sweaty is still Finlandwhere they are an intrinsic part of the cultural life.In recent years, they have had a resurgence of sorts, becoming a way for young people to socialize. There are fancy ones where you can sip on a glass of wine with friends once you’re done and older ones that utilize heating technologies of yore, harkening back to simpler times. There’s even a sauna on a ferris wheel, if you’re feeling more dangerous.
Heidi Johansson, PR manager at tour company Helsinki Partners, starts her morning with a ritual that combines swimming and sauna. “I go swimming in the mornings – first in the sea and then in a pool where it is always 27 degrees Celsius. Then I go into the sauna. It’s lovely because you can really live according to the seasons, and your body naturally transitions to hot and cold,” she says.
This combination of hot and cold is a big part of sauna culture. At Helsinki’s Loyly sauna, patrons take a break in the middle of their sauna time to take a dip in the freezing cold sea water and then make their way to the warmth of the sauna yet again. Others opt for a version of the ice bucket challenge (but this time it’s not for a charitable cause), as they dunk a bucket of icy water on their heads. It seems daunting to those not used to it, especially with the Indian mother that resides in all of our heads warning of the dangers of thanda-garam.
Besides its health benefits, It’s also an interesting activity from the perspective of body positivity. While public saunas that have mixed gender rooms require you to wear a bathing suit, some have segregated saunas where each gender is in the nude. Similarly, when people have personal saunas they go to with friends, they may pick and choose their desired level of undress. Looking around the room full of warm bodies in Loyly, you focus on the rolls of sweat all over your own body rather than the rolls of fat that many have been programmed to notice. There is an inherent comfort in being just another body in a room full of diverse ones – and it makes sense that when one brings up how they’re so comfortable with nudity, Finns tend to shrug, as if they’re used to it.
Saunas are not just public, but exist in people’s homes too. While some apartments in cities come fixed with a common sauna for residents, there are even some tiny one-bedroom apartments that have a sauna inside them, says Valtteri Helve, head of product offering at Finnair, who reminisces about childhood memories sauna-ing and swimming in the summer cottages of friends and family in the north part of the country. “It’s strangely refreshing and you feel great afterwards. In the summer, it’s nice to be by a lake and in the winter, you can just stand in the cold after the sauna for a couple of minutes,” he says.
The history of the sauna in Finland has been defined by its role as a space where business deals are struck up and political realities determined. But that has changed. Teemu Tuomarla, founder of a glamping resort called Haltia Lake Lodge with a sauna, says the idea is more stereotype than anything else. “It’s like the idea that people do business in golf carts. In many cases it’s a myth,” he says as we walk past his hotel’s sauna where a group of men are deep in conversation.
Part of the reason the use of the sauna as a business destination has reduced is that it would historically be a male space. Like the country clubs where men would make decisions elsewhere in the world, the sauna used to play a similar role. An employee of Hotel Hanaholmen, a conference hotel and cultural centre for Sweden and Finland, describes an incident that took place when the hotel was being launched. The king of Sweden and president Kekkonen of Finland were at the hotel when it began. They went to the sauna and were discussing who would go into the pool first, almost as a form of diplomacy. By the time they reached a conclusion, they looked around to see that the architect of the hotel had already jumped in.