Postcards from the Arctic: Saunas

Postcards from the Arctic: Saunas Loading

Back home, when we talk about a Sauna it is usually a quick after-work-out–before-shower kind of a ritual. No, this write-up is not about the virtues of sauna or the Dos and Don’ts of it. This is Finland — Sauna is not a workout ritual, it is a way of life!


The picture shows a Sauna temperature indicator (l to r) – Cold/Warning up/ Now to the sauna/ Comfortable/ too hot/ skin is burning/ sauna is burning 

The first time I experienced the sauna here, was at my in-laws, in the country-side. That’s when I got my Sauna 101. My mother-in-law asked if I would like to use the sauna and would I go along with my sister-in-law, my husband or herself. Considering she doesn’t speak English and I…er…do not speak Finnish and we couldn’t get away using Finglish, my husband  translated and yet it was confusing to me. This is why.  While, Finland is a free and equalitarian society, sauna follows some basic etiquette. Husband and wife, father and son, male group or a female group (as separate groups) may use the sauna but, brothers and sisters and fathers and daughters may not, unless of course when kids.  Yes, I am getting to the why. In a Finnish sauna one strips to one’s birthday suit!


So that happened and then this happened. After a sailing trip, we docked by a public sauna where we had booked  private time. As a mixed group (most meeting for the first time), everyone decided to hold on to their modesty and went into the sauna in swim suits. All but one, that is, who decided to go Finnish! Shocking as it was for someone from a social culture like ours, maintaining a stoic expression was imperative.

sauna3As if that wasn’t shocking enough, after a few minutes in the sauna one is expected to take a break out in the cold (in winter), by jumping in a hole in the ice or (in spring/summer) in a nearby lake (as in pic) of icy (may be around 2 to 3 degrees) cold water. Yes, I did it! Though it feels like shock treatment, it’s invigorating. Adding to the therapy, a bunch of birch leaves, called vihta, is used to lightly whip oneself over the shoulders — it improves circulation and enhances the effect of heat on your skin. Try it!

For a Finn the sauna is sacrosanct. From olden times children were taught to behave in the sauna as if in a church. Sexuality, noisiness and otherwise indecent behaviour do not have place in the sauna. It has remained uncorrupted for centuries.

sauna5Most apartments in Finland come with a built-in sauna and if one cannot afford those, no worries — public saunas to the rescue. Then there are travel saunas that can be rented for private use and of course Sauna restaurants…yes, you read correctly! (Check out the recently opened Löyly, Hernesaari). We visited Löyly and to my surprise the men were appropriately clad, to which an acquaintance exclaimed “Damn, we are losing our Finnishness and sauna etiquette!” Being Finland, the Sauna dedication is taken up a notch to having a Sauna Oasis – Saunasaari, an island which houses only saunas. There is no municipal engineering or electricity on the island. The washing water is taken from drill wells and warmed up in large pots, on a fire to create the steam for the saunas.  Until a couple of years ago, there used to be Sauna Competitions too, basically a last man standing kind of competition, but was stopped after participants would not give up and had to be hospitalized for burns.

sauna6If you’re still not convinced about how integral Sauna is to Finnish culture then this should put all doubts to rest — a chapter dedicated to sauna in my language study course.  Saunas are considered perfect venues for business meetings, celebrating birthdays and regular family getaways.

To quote the Finnish Sauna Society: “There is nothing that Finns have been so unanimous about as their sauna. This unanimity has remained unbroken for centuries and is sure to continue as long as there are children born in their native land, as long as the invitation still comes from the porch threshold in the evening twilight: “The sauna is ready.” – Maila Talvio 1871-1951.




Tulip is an aspiring photographer (#walkanddiscoverfinland), yoga practitioner and future entrepreneur, with an insatiable appetite for learning and a perpetual WIP. In the process of listing sailing and the finnish language as her superpowers. Currently, a shiny brick in the wall, seeking divine intervention! Tulip has recently married and moved to Helsinki, Finland – Europe.

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