It is estimated that there are 2 million saunas in Finland, for a population of 5.3 million. Thus, you will find them everywhere! Big companies and state institutions have their own saunas. The president has an official sauna, as does the prime minister. They are to be found in city apartments and in country cottages. You can even sauna on a Ferris wheel!
Saunas go back thousands of years in Finland with the oldest of Finnish saunas being made as pits in the ground. Unfortunately, there is no written history of how the first sauna in Finland came to be, so we do not know the origin story. While saunas do exist in other cultures, Finland has brought it to world prominence and into the English language: the word sauna is old Finnish and means “earth” or “snow pit.”
While visiting Finland, going to the sauna is a must, and getting invited to a sauna is an honor! Bathing in a sauna with people is a bonding process – when you’re bare in all senses of the word, you cannot hide anything, and it is the best way to get to know someone! It’s said that in Finland, most important decisions get made in saunas rather than in meetings.
Now that you know a bit more about saunas in general, let’s talk specifics.
What is the birch twig bundle in the sauna? It is called a ‘vasta’ or ‘vihta’ (the name depends on the region in Finland). It is a bundle of fresh birch twigs that you gently whip yourself with. I know it sounds strange, but it’s really good for your skin, or so they say. It’s believed that hitting yourself with it increases blood circulation and smoothes the skin. The birch twigs are used particularly in the spring when they are fresh.
How often do you throw water on the stones? Firstly, throwing water on the hot stones is called ‘löyly’. There are no rules for how often you should throw more water on the stove, it is down to preference. Whenever you feel like another wave of steam, go for it, but please be considerate to the people around you. It should be nice for everyone. The sauna is a communal space.
What should I wear? Nothing. You first take all your clothes off, something you have to try not to be shy about as it is very normal in Finland. It is considered polite to shower before going in, however.
How long do you sauna for? As long as you like! Generally, people have at least two sessions broken up by a jump into a lake. The cold shock is said to be good for you just as the heat is, thus the combo is unbeatable! Now you must try it for yourself!