Column: Finnish saunas: The naked truth
For residents of Finland, the sauna is the perfect place for many of life’s most important activities — from baking and bathing to building businesses and birthing babies. A Finnish proverb says, “First build the sauna; then the house.” As a result, Finland — with a population of about 5 million, — erects half of all the world’s saunas and has more saunas than automobiles. But for foreigners, Finnish sauna traditions can be a little unnerving.
The earliest Finnish saunas, developed hundreds of years ago, were constructed without chimneys, allowing smoke to fill the building as the burning wood heated the stones on which water is then poured. Many Finns still prefer these so-called “smoke saunas,” particularly for special occasions. Participants emerging from a smoke sauna may be covered from head to toe with greasy soot, which many believe has therapeutic properties. Finnish sauna users traditionally swat themselves with leafy young birch twigs, a practice they believe increases blood circulation and makes the experience more beneficial and enjoyable. Even in winter, participants often jump into the nearest lake or pond after sweating in the hot sauna and then return for more.
Like Americans asking people to join them for lunch, Finns often ask friends and business associates to join them in the sauna. Finns usually sit in the nude on their hard sauna benches and consider requests to wear a bathing suit at least a faux pas and perhaps an insult. Finnish men and women sometimes sauna together, as do families. They insist that the experience is never sexual because their saunas are sacred places, where swearing and even arguing are taboo.
“Sauna,” which Finns pronounce “SOW nuh,” is the only Finnish word to enter the world’s vocabulary. If you are invited to a Finnish sauna, say the word correctly and leave your modesty behind.