Savoring Saunas 

Islands, April 1995
© 1995 by Greg Breining

WHAT COMPARES to your first deep breath in a genuine Finnish sauna, where the aroma of spruce mingles with a hint of wood smoke? 

Nothing. Nothing, perhaps, except pouring hot lead up your nose. I breathe through cupped hands to keep my nostrils from burning. Next to me in this searing heat, Juhani Peräsalo sits as naked and white as an egg. "They say this is the place for only real Finns." He grins or grimaces. In the shadows, I can't tell. "We Finns, we have too much sometimes of sisu. Sisu is like macho. 'We stay here! We don't go out!'" he shouts. "That's nonsense," he says. "That's nonsense." 

Peräsalo and I are testing the saunas of the Finnish Sauna Society. Peräsalo, as long-time society member, past president and head of the society's research activities, is perhaps Finland's foremost ambassador of the sauna. "I feel it is my patriotic duty," he says. Yet Peräsalo's no fool. He knows saunas won't survive an additional 2,000 years or win foreign converts if they kill all who enter. 

"Too much is always too much," Peräsalo says. He throws open the door and flees into bright daylight. I'm right behind. 

Cooling our heels, quite literally, we enjoy the long view of the Gulf of Finland, studded by islands and framed by Lauttasaari's birches and pines. One of many island pillars supporting the Finnish capital, Lauttasaari has none of downtown Helsinki's historic, cosmopolitan charm. It consists of homes, apartments, businesses and tiny summer cottages. It does have a pleasant bike path that circles much of the island, past the Helsinki harbor, beaches, public parks and several fortifications used during the Crimean War 140 years ago. 

But the island's most notable feature, built on a rocky point where a gun battery once guarded the entrance to what is now a marina, is the Finnish Sauna Society. Founded in 1937 to protect and promote Finland's sauna heritage, the society counts about 2,000 members. The organization maintains four traditional saunas at its Lauttasaari hideaway. It also encourages historical and medical research and sponsors sauna conferences. Finally, the group is a kind of ecclesiastical authority, overseeing an institution much older than Finland's Lutheran church, and to many Finns, more sacred. 

"Sauna belongs to our everyday life," Peräsalo says. "We have used our sauna for centuries to clean ourselves, to maintain our health and to help treat a variety of ills." Finland, with only 5 million people, has no fewer than 1.6 million saunas in homes, summer cabins, apartments and hotels. "I am sure I was in a sauna before I was one year old," he says. "I feel that I have always been in a sauna." 

Peräsalo and I duck back inside. In no mood for a scalding, we open a different door this time and usher into a much milder sauna. This one is about 180 degrees, Peräsalo estimates; the other probably about 230 degrees. A genuine sauna, he says, ranges between these extremes and is much hotter and drier than a Turkish bath or steam bath. 

Not only a sauna promoter, Peräsalo is also a doctor. As we roast, he explains, our bodies act as radiators, dispersing heat to the surface, and shedding it through perspiration and evaporation. "First - and this is very important - is that you're sweating," he says. "Circulation through the skin increases as the blood capillaries and the blood vessels of the outer skin layers dilate. Your blood pressure goes down. After that, your heart beat increases to keep your blood pressure normal." 

My own heart is racing. Don't worry, Peräsalo says. "Research has shown that even after a myocardial infarction one can go into the sauna without complications." 

The problem comes in plunging into cold water or snow - the proper conclusion of a good sauna, according to many Finns. As cold causes capillaries to squeeze shut, Peräsalo says, "your blood pressure goes as high as it is likely to get." 

"So you don't jump into the Baltic?" I ask. 

"I don't, I don't." 

We pass through the showers again and enter the next sauna. The air here is heavier, the heat more penetrating. It is hotter than the previous sauna, about 212 degrees, but the main difference is the löyly, Peräsalo says. He reaches for a bucket of water and ladles water onto the red-hot rocks that cover the wood stove. A burst of heat washes over us. That is the löyly, Peräsalo explains. The word is impossible for a non-Finn to pronounce and nearly as difficult to translate. Löyly is really part boiling-hot water vapor, part metaphysics. 

"The sauna has a reputation of being a holy place," Peräsalo says quietly from the shadows. In fact, Finns have a saying: In the sauna behave as you would in church. Väinämöinen, in the Finnish epic Kalevala, speaks to the glowing furnace stones:

Come now, God, into sauna
to the warmth, heavenly Father
healthfulness to bring to us,
and the peace secure to us.

Saunas were crucibles of magic and health. Surrounded by fundamental air, fire, stone and water, healers cured diseases and exorcised spirits. "Cuppers" lacerated patients' rosy skin to draw away "bad blood." Bathers whipped themselves with whisks of birch leaves to cure pain and illness and improve their fortune. Modern research makes fewer claims for saunas, though the heat does loosen tight joints and muscles. A Japanese researcher recently reported beneficial increases in blood flow to the heart muscle of patients with cardiovascular disease. 

Basking in the warmth and restorative effects of a gentle sauna, Finnish women of past generations gave birth. In fact, says Peräsalo, it is still possible to find Finns who were born in saunas. 

Saunas provided an important threshold for young men, he says. Children would sauna with their parents. Outside of family, men and women usually took saunas separately. "When a young boy could go with his daddy or grandpa to the sauna, everyone knew that he was going to the sauna with men. It was a huge step for a boy. 

"In medieval times they had saunas everywhere in Europe," Peräsalo says. But without strict Finnish rituals and segregation of the sexes, most saunas degenerated into bordellos. "They spread sexually transmitted diseases, especially syphilis. Officials felt they had to close them." Once banned, the sauna disappeared from many cultures, surviving only in Finland, northwestern Russia and Estonia. 

The epitome of the Finnish tradition is the "smoke" sauna. The sauna of centuries past, the smoke sauna is heated by an unvented stove - in its simplest form, a hearth of rocks fired to glowing red. For hours, as split birch burns, smoke billows from the open window and door. After the fire dies and smoke clears, the sauna is closed up, and the hot rocks raise the temperature inside the room. "Every good smoke sauna burns down every five years," Peräsalo quips. In fact, it has been nine years since the sauna we enter now has burned down. 

Many a fire has blackened these log walls and imparted the faint smell of wood smoke. The temperature is near boiling, but I find the deep gloom relaxing. So does Peräsalo. He dashes the rocks with a ladle of water. Vapor covers us like a warm blanket. "The löyly is soft," Peräsalo says. Why is that? Perhaps because of the long heating time, the darkness of the walls, or even the ionization of the air, he muses. "But it's so complicated I don't get into it. A sauna can't be that complicated." We peer out the long, narrow window, imagining the coolness of the birch and the sea. 

When we are satiated with heat, Peräsalo points me toward the scrub room, where a kylvettäjä waits by a padded table. She is middle-aged, built as sturdy as a stump. I flop onto the table. With a soaped luffa, she scrubs with terrifying efficiency - back twice, then front twice. Satisfied my freckles are indelible, she washes my hair and sends me back to the saunas.

Relaxed to exhaustion, I consider Peräsalo's advice: "Too much is always too much." Time to quit, perhaps. But then I think of William Blake: "You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough." 

I head to the hottest sauna once again. I imagine I know how a baked potato feels. Fully cooked, I charge out the door and race down the path, onto the dock, down the ladder and into the cold Baltic. Icy daggers pierce my legs, my belly, my chest. I float neck deep for a bitter second. That is more than enough. I scramble back up the ladder. Suddenly I am filled with an intoxicating sense of warmth, even as I stand naked in the crisp Baltic air.