The traditions of the authentic Finnish sauna are fostered by a dedicated association.

IS THERE anything that defines Finnishness more than sauna? The two other “big Ss” – sisu and salmiakki – may come close, but the place that the steam bath holds within the Finnish cultural identity is undisputable. For an indication of this, just take the documentary Steam of Life (“Miesten vuoro”), which in 2010 won the hearts of the public (along with a range of awards).

Little surprise, then, that a dedicated association works to maintain the heritage of Finnish sauna. The Finnish Sauna Society, which was founded in 1937, works to preserve and spread word on the traditional sauna culture and promote the steam bath’s healthy and wholesome effects.

The society maintains a sauna establishment in Vaskiniemi (in Helsinki’s Lauttasaari), which hosts six different saunas: five with wood-burning sauna stoves (kiuas), and one modern, electronically heated sauna, all reserved for the members’ and their guests’ use. The society also organises occasionally seminars and other events, and publishes a magazine, Sauna, four times a year for its 4,200 members.

The number of sauna enthusiasts in Finland is naturally not limited to the society’s membership – there are indeed 3.2 million saunas in Finland in total, says Jarmo Lehtola, chairman of the society. “There is thus an equal number of experts on sauna.”

Lehtola regrets that for foreigners, the first contact with sauna commonly takes place outside Finland, which means that they walk away with a faulty idea of what the authentic experience is like. Also the unfortunate sauna competition a couple of years back – something the society was not involved in – may skewer the image of what sauna is really about. Conversely, according to surveys Finnish sauna is recognised and desired also abroad, he says. “The quality of the Finnish sauna has been proven by centuries of use.”

Sauna has also found its way into Finnish history, as “sauna diplomacy”, in which negotiators have a steam bath during or after discussions, has long traditions in Finnish politics. President Urho Kekkonen, it has been said, made extensive use of this diplomatic tool in his domestic and international dealings. Lehtola also says that the former president Martti Ahtisaari, who was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 2008 for his role in resolving various conflicts, has acknowledged the power of sauna as a meeting place, as the naked environment strips people of their titles and thus facilitates open discussion.

As for sauna’s positive health effects, Lehtola mentions blood circulation: in a hot sauna, the blood veins closer to the skin expand, enhancing skin blood flow. But some of the effects, though not less significant, are harder to measure. “The most important health effect of sauna is a totally relaxing, ‘slow life’ attitude it carries.”

As Nokia’s star is waning, could sauna become the next major export from Finland?

Teemu Henriksson
PHOTOS: Kirby Wilson - Kallerna