I’d already decided before I went to Finland that if I were to take a sauna then I would do it fully clothed.
Well, maybe not fully clothed but at least wearing a swimsuit, what with me being a bit of a prude and all that.
In January I went on a snowshoeing holiday to the Hossa National Park in Eastern Finland, about 100km south of the Arctic Circle. This was a guided trek through stunning landscape, moving from cabin to cabin. It was to be a week of unusual and brilliant experiences, one of which was the Finnish tradition of sauna, which they take very seriously.
On the first evening our lovely guide Petri gave our small group the low down on how the Finns do sauna:
1. Take a shower beforehand to clean off.
2. Without clothes take sauna – it is polite to sit on a towel.
3. Take beer into sauna and drink it! The Finns have a saying; “You can have beer without sauna but you cannot have sauna without beer”.
4. When you want more steam you take the bucket of water and ask your sauna mates “may I?” Usually, you will get a collective “yes”. Then take the scoop, aim well using backhand (yes, backhand!) and throw water onto the coals. Your sauna mates then say “Kiitos”, meaning “thank you”.
5. When you are ready (there is no competition here), take yourself outside and get in the ice-hole (or, if the tourists prefer, make a snow angel in the snow..). Apparently, three seconds is the minimum amount of time that you need to be in the hole before you get the endorphin high.
6. Go and sit in the changing room for a few minutes and enjoy your high.
7. Repeat about three times.
8. Take a shower
We were told the two “rules” of sauna:
1. No swearing
2. No farting
(No, not even if it’s silent!)
At the start of the week we were respectfully asked how we would like to take the sauna; with or without a swimsuit? As a group or separate male/female groups?
We were an even split, 3 male and 3 female including our guide and two of us were a couple. So we decided to all go in together but I explained that my swimsuit would remain firmly on.
Not too long into the sauna experience, I realised that it’s a lot easier to take a sauna without your swimsuit. The thing is, you need your towel for after the ice hole dip when you are endorphining (no, it isn’t a real word) in the changing room, and a wet swimsuit will soak your towel pretty quickly.
The ice-hole had its own challenges, did I want to get into a hole filled with freezing water? Not particularly. But, after hearing about the highs and how good it is for your body, mind (and spirit?) I had to give it a go.
Drilling out the ice-hole in semi-darkness
Let me just give you a bit of background info. Our accommodation stays were ‘wilderness’ cabins and each cabin was very basic with no running water or electricity – apart from our ‘base cabin’ which is where we stayed a couple of days before we set off on the trek.
Each cabin had its own woodshed with attached compost loo and sauna room usually in a separate building away from the cabin. The sauna was then a bit of a walk to the lake where we would have to cut the ice-hole (I say ‘we’…I actually did zero cutting of the ice-hole). Preparing the sauna was the first job when we arrived at the cabin after a day’s snowshoeing – this meant chopping wood for the fire and fetching water from the well for sauna and washing.
Discussing ice hole ‘duties’ after a day’s trek.
Cutting the ice-hole involved using a sort of giant corkscrew to make holes in the corners, and then sawing with a giant saw. The loose square of ice was then pushed down and away under the surface of the frozen lake. There are handles – like the ones you get in swimming pools – so that you can get in and out of the hole.
I thought the water would be freezing, but of course it isn’t otherwise it would be ice! The water is actually 2 degrees and a lot warmer (or less cold) than the snow. It’s just the idea of getting into a black watery hole that makes me not want to get in, you know what I mean…?
There are also steps inside to help you get out but at this time of year they are covered in ice so you need the bars also. On the first (and only) night when I was brave enough to try the hole (twice though!) I got in up to my neck and managed to count to three in one second, which apparently doesn’t count. I then sort of hoiked myself up with the bars (thank god for good upper body strength) and ungracefully slid out on my knees. I now have a lovely scar and bruise on my left knee which I am most proud of.
Would you get in an ice hole at the end of this pier?
The walk back to the changing room is painful, the cold starts to crawl up your legs from your snowy feet, even though you may be wearing flip flops, but after a few mins of ‘thawing’ in the changing room you start to feel really good. Refreshed, exhilerated, happy.
After the first night I decided to ditch my swimsuit and just cover myself with a towel. This was so much easier, but then I had the dilemma of doing the washing thing; how was I going to wash in private in the shared sauna let alone the communal shower?! Thoughts raced around my anxious mind but I soon learned that there is a certain respect that comes with Finnish sauna. One where people will look away when you wash, which in turn gives a feeling of trust.
This sense of respect and trust was a theme that ran throughout my week in Finland. I’m pretty sure it runs through the veins of the Finns and for that I am grateful. I felt a change in myself as I started to trust more and then immerse myself into the whole experience.
I also learned that there is an importance placed on well-being – something we should all embrace. And that beer warms up quickly in the sauna so you need to drink it fast!
Until next time, go well
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