Forget the Auroras – My Favorite Experience in Finland Was a Midnight Sauna Under the Midnight Sun
Forget the Auroras - My Favorite Experience in Finland Was a Midnight Sauna Under the Midnight Sun - Stepping Into a Scandinavian Tradition
Stepping into a wood-fired sauna is a cherished tradition across Scandinavia, with Finland boasting over 3 million saunas for its 5 million residents. As an eager traveler ready to immerse myself in local customs, I was thrilled at the prospect of stripping down and sweating it out, Finnish style.
Saunas hold an important place in the Nordic way of life, used for centuries as a social gathering place, a place to bathe before modern plumbing, and even a place to give birth back in the day. Beyond the practical reasons, saunas fulfill a deep spiritual need for cleansing, relaxation and community.
The Finns credit their saunas for forging close familial bonds, as parents pass down sauna traditions to their children. Even in the depths of winter, loyal sauna-goers maintain their ritual of heating up the wooden room, whipping themselves with a vihta (bundle of leafy birch twigs), and then plunging into an icy lake or rolling in the snow.
As an outsider, I was curious how I would be received at a such an intimate cultural experience. But I was warmly welcomed when I arrived at the lakeside sauna complex, located just outside Helsinki. Families lounged on picnic benches while children played tag. The sun hung bright in the late evening sky, reluctant to set at such a northern latitude.
What else is in this post?
- Forget the Auroras - My Favorite Experience in Finland Was a Midnight Sauna Under the Midnight Sun - Stepping Into a Scandinavian Tradition
- Forget the Auroras - My Favorite Experience in Finland Was a Midnight Sauna Under the Midnight Sun - Preparing Body and Mind for the Heat
- Forget the Auroras - My Favorite Experience in Finland Was a Midnight Sauna Under the Midnight Sun - The Gentle Rhythms of the Sauna Ritual
Forget the Auroras - My Favorite Experience in Finland Was a Midnight Sauna Under the Midnight Sun - Preparing Body and Mind for the Heat
Stepping into the sauna, I was greeted by waves of dry heat emanating from the kiuas, the wood-burning stove that heats the room. I had arrived early while the kiuas was still being stoked, watching the flames dance behind the cast iron door. The thermometer on the wall steadily climbed as the seasoned kiuaskivi stones absorbed the fire’s glow. Soon it would exceed 176°F (80°C), the preferred temperature for loyal sauna enthusiasts.
I had been forewarned by my Finnish companions that proper sauna etiquette dictates being comfortable in your bare skin. This stripped-down vulnerability helps reinforce that all are equal inside the sauna. So I disrobed and found my place on the wooden benches, enjoying the faint scent of birch infusing the air.
Despite the intense heat, it’s essential not to rush the sauna experience. My breathing steadied as I focused on sending warm energy through every limb. The goal is total mind-body relaxation, not breaking a sweat. Throughout the session, we’d occasionally ladle water over the stones, sending up clouds of reinvigorating steam.
I took the opportunity to ask about the vihtas scattered around the sauna. These bundles of leafy birch twigs are employed to lightly whip yourself or your fellow sauna-goers. Far from punitive, my friends explained that the vihta treatment stimulates blood flow and leaves the skin tingling.
Unsurprisingly, new sauna-goers often struggle with dizziness or nausea from the oppressive temperatures. Staying well hydrated before and after sessions is critical. Cool down periods outside the sauna are also key to avoid overexertion. Building up stamina slowly over many sessions lets you savor the soothing benefits of every phase.
Forget the Auroras - My Favorite Experience in Finland Was a Midnight Sauna Under the Midnight Sun - The Gentle Rhythms of the Sauna Ritual
The sauna experience follows a soothing, predictable rhythm perfected over centuries of tradition. As I settled onto the wooden benches, I surrendered myself to the gentle pace set by the kiuaskivi stones as they radiated heat. The Finns understand that rushing the sauna ritual destroys the meditative benefits that come from matching one's breathing to the gradual temperature shifts.
My companions instructed me to sit upright with my arms relaxed, eyes closed, and simply focus on my inhalations and exhalations. The goal is to clear the mind completely, almost a moving meditation. As the minutes passed, I noticed my thoughts slowing down, my muscles releasing any tension. The pervasive dry heat seemed to enter my pores and melt anxiety away.
We honored the tradition of silence during the first phase inside the sauna. As a chatty American, I initially struggled with this custom but soon appreciated the profound peace that comes from quieting external chatter. My mind floated in a calm, neutral space, fully present yet emptied of the constant mental clutter we often carry. I understood how generations of Finns have relied on their saunas to provide mental clarity and emotional balance.
Occasionally we'd stretch out with our feet toward the hot stones, warming our legs right up to the calves. When a flush of heat became too intense, we'd shift back until we cooled somewhat. This gentle moving meditation continued, swaying between heat intensity and relief. We'd periodically ladle water over the stones, sending clouds of steam to reinvigorate our senses.
The stimulation of the vihta birch branches also followed an unhurried tempo. Lightly whisking shoulders, arms and legs sentpinpricks of sensation across my skin without any pain or discomfort. I imagined countless Finns bonding this way over the years, unfussed about nudity and completely relaxed.