Let's hear it for Sauna
January 26, 2021 6:07 AM   Subscribe

UNESCO has added Sauna to the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity They made a 10 minute film to justify their decision. Technical terms: vihta: the whisks made of birch twigs: ideally made of both Betula pendula and Betula pubescens one for engineering structure; one for frothiness. The latter probably due to dammarane esters rather than saponins. Löyly: the steam / soul of the experience. [move over hygge?]. Let's hear it for Finland! Kylӓ Vuotti Uutta Kuuta (The Village was Waiting for the New Moon) posted by BobTheScientist (31 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
Let's hear it for Finland!

Monty Python has exactly the song for you!

I've done some (decidedly not Finnish-style) sauna time. I prefer the wet sauna to the dry, and really do enjoy the whole "sweat it out" thing. I also did a couple of sweat lodge ceremonies decades back, and that's a very different experience.

I would love to have a sauna more readily available in my life. It's cool that it's being recognized as a cultural heritage like this.
posted by hippybear at 6:38 AM on January 26, 2021 [1 favorite]


Ah, I have good memories of Finnish saunas. One was right on the Baltic, and we enjoyed running from the sauna to the sea and back.

Another time was in November. There was a pair of outdoor swimming pools in Helsinki. One was heated, steaming and filled with people. There other was unheated and had no people, except for a lonely guard dressed sensibly in a parka. Naturally I dove into the second pool. I swear I felt my heart seize up in my chest and my skin started to form a brutal carapace... then I staggered into the sauna. Ahhh. Löyly indeed.
posted by doctornemo at 6:55 AM on January 26, 2021 [1 favorite]

The fact that Sauna, in Finland, is basically a human right -- to the extent that in WWII, Finnish army units had mobile Saunas, or MacGuivered them wherever they went (cw: naked Finnish soldiers :) -- is, well, just impressive, and should make all of us consider the value of getting sweaty and naked with a bunch of strangers. All I'm saying.
posted by kleinsteradikaleminderheit at 7:04 AM on January 26, 2021 [8 favorites]

thanks for the tip, @kleinsteradikaleminderheit, I clicked for the nudity!
posted by dazedandconfused at 7:19 AM on January 26, 2021 [4 favorites]

If it’s not from Finland, it’s just sweaty relaxation?
posted by zamboni at 7:30 AM on January 26, 2021 [3 favorites]

Pretty much the only non-sexual sauna in London is the one in the basement of the Finnish church.

Nobody does it like the Finns but one of the things I absolutely love about the Netherlands and Germany is these huge co-ed saunas with people of all ages walking around naked, sauna-ing, swimming, sunbathing.
posted by vacapinta at 7:49 AM on January 26, 2021 [5 favorites]

I moved away from Finland almost 2 decades ago and while I've never been really homesick (mostly nostalgic), I miss saunas more than anything else. Perfect for any season.

It's great on its own but combined with drinking (before, during, after) and some swimming in a local body of water (preferable in summer, doable in winter) there's nothing quite like it.

There is a huge social aspect to it as well but since we're Finnish and we've been into social distancing before 2020, it may not be as apparent to the outside observer.
posted by slimepuppy at 7:51 AM on January 26, 2021 [8 favorites]

posted by NoMich at 7:59 AM on January 26, 2021 [9 favorites]

My neighbor built a cedar sauna in my village, right across from my house. We recently set up a cast iron bathtub next to it for cold plunges when handy snowbanks are not deep enough for proper post-sauna flopping. It is so, so lovely. It is has been a big part of the social activity out here, as one might expect.

Our birch twigs dont froth though, I'll have to see if I can find the proper species.
posted by ananci at 9:01 AM on January 26, 2021 [1 favorite]

I don't know if this is a German thing, but the Aufguss Ritual adds a new twist to the experience. Each time I went it was mostly me and then older men, all naked. At prescribed times, a young university student, always incredibly fit and with an impossibly tightly tied towel around his waist, would come in and solemnly explain the aufguss ritual he was about to perform. After pouring the essential oils, he would do this physically demanding dance twisting around whipping a towel towards us, which was the most intensely hot, steamy air I have ever experienced. It was truly difficult to withstand. The whole thing, of a young college student dancing in front of mostly elderly men, gave me a kind of ancient Greece vibe...

Thus ends my semi-erotic sauna story.
posted by Corduroy at 9:04 AM on January 26, 2021 [1 favorite]

This video much more accurately captures my bewilderment with the aufguss ritual. In fact, I think that's my face at :53.
posted by Corduroy at 9:07 AM on January 26, 2021 [2 favorites]

One of the great things about the upper Midwest is that the Scandinavian heritage means that a large numbers of hotels have saunas. I love it.
posted by kevinbelt at 9:55 AM on January 26, 2021 [1 favorite]

Vacapinta, you would love H2O. We used to go there when we lived in Germany - the Brits we lived amongst were amazed we would go somewhere with co-ed nudity - and with children no less! - but it was amazing. I miss it so much!
Once you have done sauna properly (without clothing) it is hard to sit in a sauna in a swimsuit. It just feels a bit yucky.
posted by Megami at 10:04 AM on January 26, 2021 [4 favorites]

> Once you have done sauna properly (without clothing) it is hard to sit in a sauna in a swimsuit.

Yeah, I was wondering if the swimsuits were because there were cameras there, or if things have changed since I was a kid in Finland and would take saunas with my class after going swimming at the public pool, all of us nekkid, including the teachers. I have a strong memory of the boards we'd dunk in some kind of cleaning (I hope) tub and bring into the sauna with us.
posted by The corpse in the library at 10:17 AM on January 26, 2021

> I don't know if this is a German thing, but the Aufguss Ritual adds a new twist to the experience.

I have never seen that and it looks awful. I want to sit in a sauna and zone out, not be the audience for some performer.
posted by The corpse in the library at 10:19 AM on January 26, 2021 [4 favorites]

Yeah, sitting down, shutting the fuck up, and sweating *is* the ritual, thank you very much.
posted by NoMich at 10:48 AM on January 26, 2021 [2 favorites]

Thing is, with the Aufguss unless you are the 'master' you are sitting there, sweating, silently. It is actually pretty calming while still intense, if that makes sense. Same as how some people like to beat their backs with birch, or scrub with salt, or suck on ice - it all adds to the experience for some, just distraction for others I guess.
posted by Megami at 10:57 AM on January 26, 2021

But there's a "look at me!" guy waving a towel around and pouring water dramatically! I've never been in a sauna with windows, either, or one that was that large. Nope nope nope, not for me.
posted by The corpse in the library at 11:09 AM on January 26, 2021 [2 favorites]

Megami: Here in the Netherlands we also have large saunas. I think Elysium is the biggest I have been to. Our local favorites here near Amsterdam are probably Fort Beemster (some blurry nudity) and Thermen Soesterberg. The latter promo video gives an idea what these places look like, just that people are wearing robes but in reality everyone is naked and also a greater diversity of people than in the ads - all body sizes, same-sex couples, lots and lots of older people. It is wonderfully relaxing all year round: Sitting in hot saunas in the winter, cold water plunges and outdoor pools in the summer.
posted by vacapinta at 11:15 AM on January 26, 2021 [1 favorite]

Miesten vuoro / Steam of Life (cw: nudity) is a fantastic Finnish documentary about sauna, particularly about how it can be a place where men are more open and emotional with each other. It's sometimes funny, sometimes heartbreaking.
posted by oulipian at 12:38 PM on January 26, 2021

This reminds me of a saying that goes something like "if the army calls a break, the Brits will make tea, the Finns will make a sauna--" and I forget the rest
posted by The otter lady at 12:43 PM on January 26, 2021

sitting down, shutting the fuck up, and sweating *is* the ritual

For us, the ritual also includes enormous amounts of cannabis and vapourwave sauna jams.

We finally got around to fixing the door lock after someone left their handcuffs in there
posted by CynicalKnight at 1:12 PM on January 26, 2021

Yeah, it's better to just lock the door to keep someone in rather than handcuff them. Gives them a bit more personal liberty.
posted by hippybear at 1:14 PM on January 26, 2021 [1 favorite]

Hooray for Sauna! At 4:20 (amirite) there's Sompasauna, a Helsinki autonomous public institution!

I always laugh at Swedes' reluctance to follow the rest of the world and acknowledge the Finns' proper name. It's not like it's controlled origin and you're forced to call it sparkling bastu.

Seems like at some point (the 90s?) Sweden lost sauna culture or had a reactionary trend. While every apartment building from the 50s-80s would have a sauna (heck the special event catering / bar space at my company had one), few from the 2000s onward do. In Finland it's typical to have a routine weeknight booked in your apartment's sauna building - in ours I'm almost the only guy who uses it.
posted by anthill at 1:45 PM on January 26, 2021 [1 favorite]

I didn’t used to like saunas.

I mean, I liked the idea of it, but my body wouldn’t react well to it. I’d have a stomach ache for hours afterwards.

Then I met a Finn, and moved to Finland with her. She had a sauna in her place, and when we moved to our current apartment, there was a sauna in there too.

It kinda seemed a waste not too get used to saunas, so I started going when my Finn went. At first either as it was warming up, or long enough after she’d gone that it was cooling down. My body could cope with temperatures up to about 70 degrees Celsius, but once it got over that I’d have to pay for that later.

But slowly, but surely, my body acclimatized to the extreme heat, and now I no longer get stomach aches after saunas. I probably go to sauna five days a week on average now, and I really appreciate it. There’s nothing quite like sitting in extreme heat, with nothing to do but sweat.

I will say that a part of me will never get used to the idea of having a sauna at home. Growing up in Iceland, only really up-scale apartment buildings had saunas, and then only one for the whole building. Having a sauna in my flat feels, on some level, absolutely ludicrous to me. But here in Finland it’s absolutely commonplace.

Sauna really is a wonder of human culture.
posted by Kattullus at 1:52 PM on January 26, 2021 [5 favorites]

Man, I miss public baths and saunas
posted by OverlappingElvis at 2:03 PM on January 26, 2021 [3 favorites]

My Finnish colleagues told me that the increasing wearing of bathing suits in sauna is somewhat related to the habit of having business retreats and or meetings centered around sauna and the growing participation of women in these meetings.

Having participated in one of these retreats/meetings in the savusauna, I can attest we bonded enough still separated by bathing suits.
posted by Tandem Affinity at 8:24 PM on January 26, 2021

As a kid visiting my mother's family in Finland, a perfect day was sauna with family in a forest by a beautiful lake, jump in the lake to swim and cool off, then cook a large Finnish sausage on stick from a tree over an open fire. I still can't think of much that would be better than that.
posted by drnick at 5:18 AM on January 27, 2021 [6 favorites]

I will say that a part of me will never get used to the idea of having a sauna at home. Growing up in Iceland, only really up-scale apartment buildings had saunas, and then only one for the whole building. Having a sauna in my flat feels, on some level, absolutely ludicrous to me. But here in Finland it’s absolutely commonplace.

My mom grew up in a heavily Finnish part of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and she grew up with a sauna in her humble home. In fact, her present home has a sauna in the basement. Some of my first memories are of going sauna next to my great grandparents' farmhouse in Mass City, MI. It was a small structure in the yard of their farm and it was the first thing they built when establishing their farm.

One of my uncles up there has a piece of shit house that is going to crumble in any second now, but he built himself a sauna out in the woods on his property that you could almost live in.
posted by NoMich at 7:46 AM on January 27, 2021 [3 favorites]

My father built the house I grew up in, and for reasons I never thought to question opted to include a proper (albeit tiny, and electric) sauna in the design, complete with instructions featuring one of those quirky 1950's-style line drawing illustrations of a happy dude sitting with some birch branches, doing front crawl and relaxing with a beverage as it explained the sauna/bathe/rest/relax schedule. I didn't enjoy going in as a child, but came to really appreciate it in my teen years, particularly whenever I had a bad cold, as all my symptoms seemed to evaporate along with the steam.

So I was well-primed to appreciate sauna for itself when I finally arrived in Finland, but the community culture around sauna was a new thing. Early days I usually frequented an old neighbourhood public sauna which had wood ovens and tables/benches in the dressing room, and the experience of moving from the dressing room to the showers to the sauna and back, wandering outdoors to steam gently on a public street, wrapped in a towel with a can of cider, then going back inside and seeing groups of women in twos and threes meeting for after-work sauna with a takeaway meal, chatting over some sushi and prosecco while others meandered through their post-ablution rituals or shared the table, relaxing over a beer in their towels, was a totally new experience. Some of the hammams I'd frequented were the closest analogue I had but still had a different feel.

Later I spent a summer in the countryside, living in a one-room cabin with no running water, and did all my bathing in a rather ropey old handbuilt sauna -- the wall behind the oven needed to be liberally doused with water to prevent the coblike material from first smouldering then catching fire -- on the shore of a small lake. At least once a day I'd be down there, bathing or taking a quick lake dip in the midday heat or having sauna and a long swim in the evening. That sauna itself wasn't the greatest but the tiny wooden building and the lake and the trees and the silence made it wonderful.

Whilst in Helsinki I was fortunate to live close enough to a public sauna/outdoor swimming pool that often I would go there instead of having a shower at home, and anyway jumping into a seawater pool at 7am is a better wake-up than coffee. (In his younger days a friend lived similarly close to a swimming hall near the city centre, and used to make the trip between there and his flat in his bathrobe.) Occasionally for a Saturday morning treat I'd head to the 'posh' sauna and spend my entire shift going between savusauna and the sea.

I recently moved to the countryside, to an old house on a lake with, naturally, its own sauna. The lake is frozen at the moment so instead I shuffle out and steam gently on the terrace, seeing if I can stay out long enough for my hair to freeze before my feet go numb. I first visited in the summer, and after the sellers showed me round, they offered to heat the sauna so I could experience 'the best part of living here'. Whilst floating peacefully in the lake, watching the changing sky and the trees and feeling the water cooling the sauna's heat, I knew this would be the place I would finally stay for good.

Guess what I'm saying is, I love a sauna.
posted by myotahapea at 12:02 AM on January 28, 2021 [4 favorites]

I haven't done a sauna in ages, literally decades, and after reading this thread I really really miss the experience. That I can't currently take advantage of any of the few (expensive) public sauna options available in my city just adds insult to injury.
posted by Greg_Ace at 12:36 PM on January 28, 2021 [2 favorites]

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