Finnish Sauna – superfood for the soul

Tiia Alkkiomäki
A sauna is not just a room or a building where you go to warm yourself or to wash. It is a holistic experience for all senses, guided by deeply rooted customs and ritualistic practices.

In the sauna, social hierarchies are stripped away and people sit together as equals, in silence. In public saunas, the code of conduct is familiar, and even this casual atmosphere is not to be violated.

In public saunas, everyone knows the code of conduct and the calm, almost church-like atmosphere should not be violated

Researchers Hanna Leipämaa-Leskinen, Minna-Maarit Jaskari and Henna Syrjälä from the University of Vaasa, and Hannele Kauppinen-Räisänen from the University of Helsinki, have studied the practices associated with Finnish sauna culture. The findings of the study focus on nostalgia, traditions, cleanliness, health, and equality.

– We study public saunas and how they are constructed as so-called third spaces in people's everyday lives. This is a concept used to describe spaces where people spend time outside of home and work. These include venues such as cafés, libraries or art exhibitions, says Hanna Leipämaa-Leskinen.

By studying interviews with hotel visitors and articles published in the Finnish Sauna Association's member magazine, it was identified that public saunas are characterised by a sense of sacredness. This means following sauna etiquette and a certain code of conduct, and committing to them. Public saunas are also associated with mental and physical cleansing and a sense of security - that you can be yourself in the space.

Even in a public, shared sauna, one voice is respected: silence.

Sauna is an oasis of well-being

– In terms of meanings, it was interesting to note how 'sacred' the sauna still is. You shouldn't make noise or disturb people in the sauna, and this is something that is taught to young children, Leipämaa-Leskinen says. 

– After all, silence has been shown to be an important experience from a well-being perspective. If you talk in a sauna, you talk calmly and with consideration for others. The sauna experience can also be a spiritual experience that is connected to the silence; it can be a cleansing not only of the body, but also of the mind, Syrjälä continues.

– On the other hand, if you take a sauna with a group of friends, it’s ok to make a little more noise in the sauna, Jaskari points out.

In addition to the health benefits, the sauna is also expected to be visually attractive. Saunas are even beautiful, which makes them multi-sensory places of well-being. According to the researchers, all the details in the sauna, from the upholstery to the seat covers, the water bucket and the right dim lighting, are all essential elements of the sauna experience.

– It could perhaps be said that the sauna is a kind of oasis of well-being. It provides well-being efficiently, for example in the hustle and bustle of everyday life, but at the same time in a pleasant and comfortable way, Kauppinen-Räisänen adds.

Taking a sauna is a kind of ritual, performed in a repetitive way and with methods familiar to the participants.

What is everyday life for us is not for others

The study sheds light on the sauna, and sauna-going in particular, as a social process involving sauna-goers, the spatial characteristics of the sauna, and the socio-cultural meanings of the sauna.

The study shows that the ideal location for a sauna is close to nature and water. The image of a sauna by a lake is an idyllic symbol of Finnishness, with its own distinctive touch of nostalgia.

Taking a sauna is a kind of ritual, performed in a repetitive way and with methods familiar to the participants.

– These can be, for example, the Saturday sauna or the sauna routines associated with holidays, such as the Midsummer sauna. These create nostalgic and recognisable sauna landscapes, says Leipämaa-Leskinen.

The sauna as a place is associated with relaxation, peace and cleanliness, as the purpose of going to the sauna is to wash oneself physically and mentally. The latter refers to the way that sitting down on the benches usually makes worries evaporate and relieves stress. The sauna has a grounding effect, as there is nothing pretentious associated with it; rather, at its core, there is permission to “just be”.

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