The early Finnish sauna was an outdoor cabin or chalet and became popular in the 12th century. A fire is stoked with wood and the smoke from the burning wood is let into the sauna. There was no chimney for the smoke to rise through, only a small hole in the roof.
The smoke was what generated the heat. Before the sauna was used, the smoke was let out. With the heat left behind, the Finns had a sweat bath or “savusauna”. They added to this dry heat “Löyly,” which is the splashing water on the rocks that had been heated by the burning surge of hot steam that cooled the sauna some and raised the humidity. A more humid sauna caused more sweating. The fragrant smoke added to the experience and was perhaps an early form of aromatherapy.
The early shamans and healers of the time used the saunas as a clean place to treat patients and to purify the body. Because of tannic acid contained in the smoke of the savusauna, the surfaces were sterilized. Thus, the village apothecary, barber or surgeon performed minor surgeries and bloodletting in the sauna. Also, it was not unheard of to be actually born in a sauna.
The saunas were also considered sacred places protected by the spirits in the forest. Through the rituals of burning the wood, letting out the smoke, pouring the water over the stones, taking the sweat bath and then plunging into a cool lake grew a sense of spiritual significance. There was a strict reverence in these motions that added to the benefits of the sauna itself.
These smoke-based saunas had some drawbacks as well. The main one was the soot that accumulated and had to be cleaned continually. The other was that it took hours to reach the high temperature of between 180F to 212F, and the wood had to be burned regularly. At the end of the 19th century, a new type of sauna emerged: one with a chimney.
The rocks of this new sauna were covered with some type of metal enclosure that contained the smoke from the fire under the rocks. Smoke was cleanly transferred out by way of a tube. The sauna experience could begin as soon as the wood was entirely consumed by the fire.
Later on, wood-fired heaters were used that allowed the rocks to be constantly fed with heat and sprayed with water. Electric heating systems soon followed and are in use today. These keep saunas clean and easy to maintain. However, the old scent of the wood smoke and the crackling of the fire can’t be replicated. There is a new appreciation of the savusauna today and the art of building them is being revived.
When a bather first enters the sauna, the temperature is usually between 158 to 194 degrees. The humidity is low at about five to ten percent. As the bather begins to sweat and it evaporates, the humidity level rises. Water is then poured over the hot rocks to create a surge of steam (löyly). This steam creates a tingling feeling on the skin. The bather breathes this humid air in deeply invigorating the lungs.
There are myriad health benefits gained from using the sauna. The main element of a sauna is heat and the main effect of this heat is sweating. Inhaling the steam also is beneficial.
The heat has a cleansing effect by opening skin pores and the perspiration process clears away oil, dead skin, bacteria and other impurities. Also, blood flow is increased which helps remove toxins such as lactic acid from the body. The blood supply is improved and brings nutrients and oxygen to the skin and subcutaneous tissues. Aching muscles and pain in the joints are eased by the relaxation properties of the heat. Allergies and sinus congestion are relieved, as is arthritic pain. A person feels cleansed, relaxed and invigorated after a sauna.
There are a few precautions to be noted when taking a sauna. Persons with heart problems such as high blood pressure should check with their doctors first. Also, the plunge into cold water after the hot sauna is hard on the cardiovascular system. Pregnant women should refrain from saunas because the heat will cause less blood to flow to the womb thereby endangering the fetus.
The Finns take great pride in their saunas and have the culture and folklore to prove it. The host is usually the one to pour the water on the hot heater rocks (löyly) and is in charge of adjusting the amount of water for the enjoyment of his guests. Finns also have been known to pour beer on the rocks to fill the sauna with the aroma of baked bread. Another peculiar custom they have is to “whip” themselves with a bundle of birch branches during the sauna. These branches, called “vasta” or “vihta,” stimulate the blood circulation of the skin and also fill the sauna with a pleasant and fresh smell of leaves.
The trend in the beginning of the 21st century is to recreate the savusauna. By combining current technology with the simple smoke saunas of the past, people can satisfy their innate need for cleansing, purification and invigoration.