Finnish Sauna Culture

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'All people are created equal; but nowhere more so than in a sauna.'





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Naked, climbing up onto a bench. In the small, dark room, we can vaguely make out the shape of other humans. There is a smell of warm wood. Slowly lowering ourselves into the heat, skin against the steady, warm wood is grounding, holding us. We melt.


The sound of fire cracking. On top of the stove is a pile of stones. Someone dunks a ladle-like scoop into a bucket of water and throws it over the hot stones. The water evaporates immediately and the sizzle is loud. It marks the coming of the wave of hot vapour which envelops us from feet to face and we melt more.
A place of softening, calm contemplation, words spoken gently. The sacred sauna space.






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The act of throwing water to the stones to create the steam cloud is called löyly (pronounced 'LOOHhwle'). With an ancient translation of 'spirit of life', löyly is a celebration of the elements: Fire in the sauna stove, Earth in the rocks, Water thrown upon them and transformed into Air.






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Out of the heat, down the jetty and into the lake. It is pouring with rain, our eyes and ears are water level. We can see, hear, taste, feel, smell nothing but the dense rush of plummeting rain droplets hitting the lake surface and sending splashes high above our heads. Time has stopped in that moment before panic, just enough air to breathe. All-encompassing, exhilarating and hilarious. The rain stops and we float around naked in the misty silence.






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We fell in love with the FinnishSaunaCulture. And it has nothing to do with steamy sex, or S&M branch whipping.
The Finnish think of the sauna (pronounced SOW-na, as in cow) like a womb. When settling or moving house, the first thing to be built is the sauna. Traditionally, children were born in the sauna, heated to a warm temperature, with a fire for heating hot water, and spend their first few weeks there in the warmth. The family want the lakes and forests of their surroundings to be the first thing for the baby to see, through the small sauna window. And upon approaching death, the sauna is a comfortable, peaceful place.







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Dark and meditative, a space free of hierarchies in which one should not discuss their title or religion. Water is heated for washing, rye is dried, meat is cured and malt is prepared. A space for physical and mental cleansing, soothing of tense muscles and minds. 

The Finnish insist that despite the heat, time in the sauna cools down irritable situations; the Finnish parliament has its own sauna for MPs to debate in. 
'Politics could not be hidden up a sleeve when no sleeves were worn.', Kekkonen, Finland's president from 1956 to 1982.






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Most homes have a family sauna, and with roughly 188 thousand lakes in Finland, an average of 1 lake to every 29 people, many saunas are at the lake-side. After time in the hot sauna followed by time in the cold lake, hot sauna, cold lake, hot sauna, cold lake, comes a rush of endorphins and a feeling of invigoration.

If Britain could get over its general cringe response to the concept of sauna culture, perhaps it would find itself with a warming antidote to moping around in the coldgreydrizzlerush.

At Christmas time, sauna is had in the early afternoon before the festivities begin: A purification sauna, with birch branches soaked to bring the smell of midsummer and to slap against your skin to stimulate circulation.





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Tontulla sauna


We were the first volunteers at Micke and Jouni's house and they became like family to us. We took sauna after days climbing the outside of the house with nail guns, fixing wooden cladding up and building crop-circle themed window frames ready for winter.
'Never kill your darlings.'
After breakfast we sung African songs and after the most colourful dinners we'd had yet, we fumbled around the steps to Finnish folk dances.






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When we weren't hanging around the roof of the house, we were in the forest or the lake. The Finnish are true hunter gatherers; The knife-wearing joked about in Denmark was true, of course a knife is the invaluable foragers' tool.






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Whispered over coffee with a friend isn't the one-week-only deal on custard creams at the shop, but the recent discovery of a chanterelle growth site, treasure emerging like bright orange aliens in the mossy green forest floor. It spreads, as village gossip does, and you have to get yourself there on a Friday because they'll be gone by Sunday.






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We were invited to a local professors house for sauna and learned that rather than an invitation to dinner or drinks, an invite to sauna is an honour: To sit together in quiet celebration of our interdependent existence with nature.






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Solbacka sauna



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Five families and a varying number of temporary volunteers made up Solbacka eco-community, close to a lake, deep in magical Finnish forest. On Sundays we dumpster-dove near to €1000 of food and drink from the local town supermarket bins: A lot of organic stuff, huge smoked fish, chocolate sauce, milk, yoghurt, breads, meat and unlimited fruit and veggies. All totally edible, mostly packaged in plastic, depressingly thrown into landfill. Jella got fat and Angus ate continuous plates of sausages.






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Sauna came when the village needed it. It was the source of hot-water for washing, and a time that everyone would get together. Constructed from straw-bales and cob, pitch black inside, it was a hot earthy cave. In a meadow outside the sauna, an amphitheatre-like clay pit had been dug into the ground, for skin scrubbing and general slipping.






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One day an elk's liver was brought out of a freezer and appeared in a bucket in the outside kitchen. If you can't picture the size of an elk, consider a Scandinavian elephant. 
Angus tried to lift the liver from the bucket to decide what to do with it and it swallowed his arms.






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Helsinki smoke sauna


With Jouni from Tontulla we travelled to Helsinki. Helsinki is a capital city for nature-activity lovers; Rivers join the sea with regular swimming access points, boats can be taken to islands, and there are large areas of wilderness for cycling and berry-picking. Jouni took us to a smoke sauna, sauna in the truly traditional Finnish style, in a nearby wilderness. A smoke sauna has no chimney, in the morning a fire is made beneath a huge pile of stones, the room is allowed to fill with smoke, once the smoke disperses the door is closed and the sauna is ready to use. Smoke saunas are usually much hotter at 90-100°c
It was quiet on a week day and we were there with the serious sauna go-ers, mostly large men wearing felt hats, and some proper cold-water-lake-swimming old ladies, also wearing felt hats. Between sauna sessions they sat around the benches outside, crunching crisps and sausage picnics. From the outside, the smoke saunas appeared as little wooden huts of black wood, along the shore of the lake. In Winter the lake freezes over, but lake swimming must go on so holes and passageways are cut through the ice.


Sauna speak: Finnish measurements
Vaaksa - the distance between the thumb and finger of one hand.
Peninkulma - the distance a dog bark travels.
Poronkusema - the distance between the points where reindeer wee.






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Up to our cheeks in the already icy September water, peering across the lake at the sun setting through the becoming orange and yellow of Autumn Aspen and Birch. Submerged in euphoria, partly down to the sauna-swim-sauna endorphin rush, mostly down to discovering love, friendship and frankly fucking fantastic people in all corners of the world.
























'Thank you for existing.' 






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3 comments:

  1. Fantastic pictures, fantastic words and a fantastic experience. What a hoot! I want a Sauna too.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Wow, Angus, Holly and Jalla! Lovely images and stories :) Wishing you the best for your 2016!!!

    ReplyDelete

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