A sauna is a small room or house designed as a place to experience dry or wet heat sessions, or an establishment with one or more of these and auxiliary facilities. These facilities derive fromthe Finnish sauna. Sauna may also be used as a verb describing the act of using a sauna or metaphorically to describe an unusually hot or humid environment, e.g., "It feels like a sauna in here."
Taking a sauna is usually a social affair in which the participants disrobe and sit or recline in temperatures of over 80 °C (176 °F). This induces relaxation and promotes sweating. It is believed by some that heavy sweating helps to remove 'toxins' from the body. It is also believed that exposure of the skin to heat stimulates the production of white blood cells and strengthens the immune system.
The modern Sauna
Word sauna is a finnish word since sauna has finnish roots. Most North American college/university physical education complexes and many public sports centers include sauna facilities. They may also be present in a public swimming pool. This may be a separate area where swimming wear is taken off or a smaller facility in the swimming pool area where one should keep the swimming wear on.
Under many circumstances, temperatures approaching and exceeding 100 °C (212 °F) would be completely intolerable. Saunas overcome this problem by controlling the humidity. The hottest Finnish and Swedish saunas have very low humidity levels, which allows air temperatures that could boil water to be tolerated and even enjoyed for short periods of time. Other types of sauna, such as the hammam, where the humidity approaches 100%, will be set to a much lower temperature of around 40 °C to compensate. The "wet heat" would cause scalding if the temperature were set much higher. Finer control over the temperature experienced can be achieved by choosing a higher level bench for those wishing a hotter experience or a lower level bench for a more moderate temperature. Good manners requires that the door to a sauna not be kept open so long that it cools the sauna for those that are already in it. A draft, even if at 100 °C, may still be unwelcome.
Infrared saunas are growing in popularity, using far infrared rays emitted by infrared heaters to create warmth.
The sauna can be so soothing that heat prostration or the even more serious hyperthermia (heat stroke) can result. The cool shower or plunge afterwards always results in a great increase in blood pressure, so careful moderation is advised for those with a history of stroke or hypertension (high blood pressure). In Finland, saunas are thought of as a healing refreshment and have been used to "cure" people from many diseases through the ages. There is even a saying: "Jos ei viina, terva tai sauna auta, tauti on kuolemaksi." (If a disease can't be cured by booze, tar, or the sauna, it is fatal.)
Alcoholic drinks are usually not used in the sauna, as the effects of heat and alcohol are cumulative. Although, in the Finnish sauna culture, a beer afterwards is thought to be refreshing and relaxing. Pouring a few centiliters of beer into the water that is poured on the hot stones releases the odor of the grain used to brew the beer, and can bring a wonderful smell of freshly baked bread into the air.
Social and mixed gender nudity with adults and children is quite common in the conventional sauna, with a strict prohibition of any form of sexual activity. In fact the sauna is considered not only a sex-free, but also almost a gender-free zone. It may also be noted that engaging in sexual activity in an environment where the temperature approaches 100 °C would be impractical at the least. In the dry sauna and on chairs one sometimes sits on a towel for hygiene and comfort; in the steam bath the towel is left outside. Sometimes draping the towel around the waist is required in the restaurant area.
As an additional facility a sauna may have one or more jacuzzis.
Similar sweat bathing facilities
The Finnish-style sauna (generally 70-90 degrees Celsius (158-194 °F), but can vary from 60 to 150 degrees (140-248 °F)) and the wet steam bath are the most widely known forms of sweat bathing. Many cultures have close equivalents, such as the North American First Nations sweat lodge, the Turkish hammam, Roman thermae, Aztec or Maya temazcal and Russian banya. Public bathhouses that often contained a steam room were common in the 1700s, 1800s and early 1900s and were inexpensive places to go to wash when private facilities were not generally available.
The Finnish Savu
Historical evidence and records indicate that the Finns built the first wooden saunas over 2000 years ago. The early Finnish sauna was dug into a hill or embankment. As tools and techniques advanced, they were later built above ground using wooden logs. Rocks were heated in a stone fireplace with a wood fire. The smoke from the fire filled the room as the air warmed.
Once the temperature reached desired levels, the smoke was allowed to clear and the bathers entered. The wood smoke aroma still lingered and was part of the cleansing ritual. This type of traditional smoke sauna was called a savu, which means smoke in Finnish.
The evolution of the sauna
Eventually the sauna evolved to use a metal woodstove, or kiuas (ke-wus), with a chimney. Air temperatures averaged around 180 degrees Fahrenheit (80 °C) but often exceeded 200 °F (90 °C) in a traditional Finnish sauna. Steam vapor, also called löyly (lou-lu), was created by splashing water on the heated rocks.
The steam and high heat caused bathers to perspire, thus flushing away impurities and toxins from the body. The Finns also used vihtas (veeh-tahss) or bundles of birch twigs to gently slap the skin and create further stimulation of the pores and cells.
The Finns also used the sauna as a place to cleanse the mind, rejuvenate and refresh the spirit, and prepare the dead for burial. The sauna was an important part of daily life, and families bathed together in the home sauna, but the genders didn't mix in public saunas. Because the sauna was often the cleanest structure and had water readily available, Finnish women also gave birth in the sauna.
When the Finns migrated to other areas of the globe, they brought their sauna designs and traditions with them, introducing other cultures to the enjoyment and health benefits of saunas. This led to further evolution of the sauna, including the electric sauna stove, which was invented and implemented in the 1950s and far infrared saunas, which have become popular in the last several decades.
Infrared Saunas, Wet, Dry, Smoke and Steam Saunas
Infrared saunas use a special heater that generates infrared radiation rays similar to that produced by the sun. Unlike the sun's UV radiation, infrared is said to be beneficial to overall health. In an infrared sauna, the electric heaters warm the air and also penetrate the skin to encourage perspiration, producing many of the same health benefits of traditional steam saunas.
Today there are a wide variety of sauna options. Heat sources include wood, electricity, gas and other more unconventional methods such as solar power. There are wet saunas, dry saunas, smoke saunas, steam saunas, and those that work with infrared waves as described above.
You can have a sauna in your home or apartment, in your backyard, on your rooftop, or even in a vehicle or on a pontoon boat. The possibilities are endless and creating innovative and sometimes quirky designs has become part of the appeal of sauna bathing. But for most people, it is still the health benefits that are the main attraction.
Saunas and sex
In some countries there are adult-only saunas that have different rules and customs, the term "sauna" being used for a bath-house or "health club", sometimes with facilities like a standard sauna, but where people go to find sexual partners and have sex on the premises (however not in the sauna itself). Some such saunas rent out small rooms for this purpose: others are disguised brothels. This euphemistic usage generally applies to establishments that advertise themselves as being a sauna rather than those that have a sauna on the premises. This generally happens more frequently in inner-city areas of the UK and US than in Europe where a sauna is generally seen as a family or social event.
Several urban legends exist on what the Scandinavians, and particularly the Finns, do in the saunas that are a part of many or most homes and summer houses. It is considered acceptable for a pair to have sex in a sauna, if they are there alone and no one else can be disturbed by it. While saunas in modern apartments as a rule are too small, saunas of old farm houses are separate buildings. Such a cabin offered privacy when living in confined quarters – and comfortable temperature after finished bathing. In Finland and Northern Scandinavia, many teenagers and young adults have sauna parties. Mixed-sex bathing occurs (in finnish sekasauna), but there is no sexual intent. Covering towels may be optional or may alternatively be considered prudish. Regardless of whether the participants are completely nude or not, unwelcome sexual advances in the sauna are considered to be a major social blunder. Like at other social gatherings, pairs inclined for sex usually retreat away from the group.
See also: gay bathhouse
Modern sauna culture around the world
As the home of the sauna, Finnish sauna culture is well established. Although cultures in all corners of the world have imported and adapted the sauna, many of the traditional customs have not survived the journey. Today, public perception of saunas, sauna "etiquette" and sauna customs vary hugely from country to country. In many countries sauna going is a recent fashion and attitudes towards saunas are changing, while in others traditions have survived over generations.
In Finland and Russia sauna going plays a central social role. These countries boast the hottest saunas and the tradition of beating fellow sauna-goers with birch branches. In Russia public saunas are strictly single sex while in Finland both types occur.
Benelux and Scandinavian countries, where public saunas have been around for a long time too, generally have a moderate, "live and let live" attitude towards sauna going with few traditions to speak of. Levels of nudity vary, single sex saunas are as common as mixed sex saunas and people tend to socialise.
In Germany and Austria on the other hand, nudity is strictly enforced in public saunas, as is the covering of benches with towels. Single-gender saunas are rare, though most places organise women-only days once a week. Loud conversation is not usually tolerated as the sauna is seen as a place of healing rather than socialising. Contrary to Scandinavian countries, pouring water on hot stones to increase humidity (Aufguss) is not normally done by the sauna visitors themselves, but rather by a person in charge (the Saunameister), either an employee of the sauna complex or a volunteer. Aufguss sessions can take up to 10 minutes, and take place according to a schedule. During an Aufguss session the Saunameister uses a large towel to percolate the hot air through the sauna, intesifying sweating and the perception of heat. During an Aufguss session it is not permitted to enter the sauna, as opening the door would cause loss of heat (though leaving is grudgingly tolerated). An Aufguss session in progress is indicated by a light or sign hung above the sauna entrance. Cold showers or baths shortly after a sauna, as well as exposure to fresh air in a special balcony, garden or open-air room (Frischluftraum) are considered a must.
In (at least the German-speaking part of) Switzerland it is generally the same as in Germany and Austria, although you tend to see more families (parents with their children) and young people. Also in respect to socialising in the sauna the Swiss tend more to be like the Swedes or Finns.
In much of southern Europe, France and the UK single gender saunas are more common than mixed gender saunas. Nudity is strictly forbidden, a cause of confusion and argument when nationals of these nations cross the border to Germany and Austria or vice versa. Sauna sessions tend to be shorter and cold showers are shunned by most. In the UK, where public saunas are becoming increasingly fashionable, the practice of alternating between the sauna and the jacuzzi in short seatings (considered a faux pas in Northern Europe) has emerged.
Saunas in Slovenia and Croatia have setups similar to those in Germany and Austria, and are perhaps a bit more relaxed about enforcing rules.
Hungarians see the sauna a part of a wider spa culture. Here too attitudes are less liberal, mixed-gender people are together and they wear swimsuits. Single-sex saunas are rare, as well as those which tolerate nudity.
In South America saunas are an exclusively upper class affair. As in Africa, on the whole saunas are kept at a much lower temperature than in Europe, and nudity is forbidden.
In Japan, many saunas exist at sports centers and public bathhouses (sentos). The saunas are almost always gender separated, often required by law, and nudity is a required part of proper sauna etiquette. While right after World War II, public bathhouses were commonplace in Japan, the number of customers have dwindled as more people were able to afford houses and apartments equipped with their own private baths as the nation became wealthier. As a result many sentos have added more features such as saunas in order to survive.
Unfortunately for sauna enthusiasts in the United States, sauna culture is not widespread. While sauna facilities are often provided at health clubs and at hotels, they frequently remain unheated because of disuse. To avoid liability, many saunas operate at only moderate temperatures and do not allow pouring water on the rocks. Sauna users enter and exit the sauna as they please, alternately nude, fully dressed in workout clothes, or dripping wet in swimsuits. In some health clubs, the sauna gets more use from patrons drying wet clothing than for taking a sauna. Proper saunas in the United States are either private or are businesses serving a particular ethnic group with a more developed sauna culture.
Sauna traditions and old beliefs
In Finland, sauna is an ancient thing. It used to be a holy place, a place where women gave birth and were the bodies of the dead were washed. There were also many beliefs and charms that were connected to sauna. It was, among other things, a place for worshipping the dead – it was thought of as such a wonderful place that even the dead would surely like to return to it. Curing diseases and casting love spells could also happen in the sauna, and, as in many other cultures, fire was seen as a gift from heaven also in Finland, and the hearth and the sauna oven were its altars.
One word in Finnish, strictly connected to sauna, is löyly. It is a bit difficult to translate, but basically it means the heat of the sauna room, especially the heat you get when you throw water on the hot stones of the sauna oven. Originally this word meant spirit or life. In many languages related to Finnish there is a word corresponding to löyly, for example lil in Ostyak, which means soul. All this also hints to the sauna's old, spiritual essence.
Even today there is an old saying alive, "saunassa ollaan kuin kirkossa," – you should be in the sauna as in a church.
Saunatonttu is a little gnome that was believed to be living in the sauna. He was always treated with respect, otherwise he might cause much trouble for people. It was customary to warm up the sauna just for the gnome every now and then, or to leave some food outside for him. It is said that he warned the people if a fire was threatening the sauna, or punished people who behaved improperly in it – for example slept, or played games or behaved otherwise "immorally" there.