Sauna – superfood for the soul

Tiia Alkkiomäki
A sauna is not just a room or a building where you go to wash. It is a holistic experience for all the senses and a place that has its very own code of conduct. In the sauna, social hierarchies are stripped, and everyone sits together in silence.

University of Vaasa researchers Hanna Leipämaa-Leskinen, Minna-Maarit Jaskari and Henna Syrjälä together with University of Helsinki researcher Hannele Kauppinen-Räisänen have studied practices connected to Finnish sauna culture. The observations in their research explore the nostalgia, cleanliness, traditions, equality and health aspects of saunas. 

Until now, saunas have been studied mainly from the perspectives of health and medicine, so the perspective of their research is new. 

– This research sheds light on the sauna and taking a sauna especially as a social process in which the sauna users participate, as well as the spatial characteristics and socio-cultural meanings of the sauna, Hanna Leipämaa-Leskinen describes. 

The sauna has a grounding effect, because nothing sophisticated is attached to it; it essentially gives permission to “just be”.

What is commonplace for us is not for others 

The researchers were keen to study the structure of the sauna landscape (saunascape) as widely as possible from different perspectives and to identify how sauna practices are formed. They took places, people, meanings and material processes as starting points and explored how they connected to the saunascape. 

– The idea for researching the sauna started when I was thinking about the sauna experience through the eyes of a foreigner; what is commonplace for us is not for others. The fact that every Finn has a sauna at home or at least at their cottage amazes many foreigners and seems like a luxury, Hannele Kauppinen-Räisänen says. 

Based on the research, the most ideal sauna locations are close to nature and by the water. The image of a sauna by the lake is part of the Finnish idyll, which has its own touch of nostalgia. 

The sauna as a place is connected with relaxation and the pursuit of peace and cleanliness; the purpose of the sauna is to cleanse oneself both physically and mentally. The latter refers to how, when sitting in a sauna, one’s worries disappear and stress is relieved. The sauna has a grounding effect, because nothing sophisticated is attached to it; it essentially gives permission to “just be”. 

The sauna experience also involves respecting the sound of silence.

An oasis of wellbeing 

The sauna experience also involves respecting the sound of silence. 

– In terms of meanings, what was interesting was how ‘sacred’ the sauna still is. One should not make noise or any kind of disturbance in the sauna, and this is already taught to young children, Leipämaa-Leskinen reflects. 

– Indeed, silence has been found to be an important experience from the point of view of wellbeing. If we talk, we talk calmly, taking others into consideration. In terms of silence, the sauna experience can also be a spiritual experience; it can be cleansing not only for the body but also for the mind, Henna Syrjälä continues.  

Admittedly, if you take a sauna with a group of friends, it is quite acceptable to hear a little noise in the sauna,” Minna-Maarit Jaskari points out. 

In addition to offering health benefits, the sauna is also expected to be a visually attractive place. Saunas can even be beautiful, which is why they are multisensory places of wellbeing. According to the researchers, all the details in the sauna – the linen, the bench covers, the water bucket and the suitably dim lighting – are essential components of the sauna experience. 

– It can perhaps be said that the sauna is a kind of oasis of wellbeing. It produces wellbeing effectively, for example amid the rush of everyday life, but at the same time pleasantly and comfortably, Kauppinen-Räisänen summarises. 

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