Finns Get a Break from Stress in Saunas

by VR Sreeraman on  May 28, 2009 at 5:25 PM Alternative Medicine News
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While Brits beat stress by relaxing in the pub and the French chat over a cup of coffee, people in Finland choose to kick back in a roasting hot room where the temperature can soar close to 100 degrees C (212 degrees F).
 Finns Get a Break from Stress in Saunas
Finns Get a Break from Stress in Saunas

The Nordic country of 5.3 million inhabitants is estimated to have more than two million saunas and almost everyone visits one every week.

The sauna has been a central part of Finnish culture for almost 2,000 years and is one of the country's leading national pastimes.

"The sauna is so popular in Finland because people brought it with them when they moved to the towns from the countryside," Pekka Leimu, professor of ethnology at University of Turku, told AFP.

He explained that this movement of people led to public saunas being built for workers and from the 1920s onwards, saunas were built in the basement of apartment blocks.

In the beginning, the bathing rooms were heated by a wooden stove. Those are still in use in the countryside, but saunas heated by electric stoves are more common in cities nowadays.

"The sauna has adapted to the modern way of life in Finland," Leimu said.

A sauna in Finland is typically taken in the nude, and as a result men and women bathe separately. Mixed saunas do exist but only among close friends and family.

Sauna users throw water over a pile of heated stones, that gives off a hot steam known as "loeyly" in Finnish.

Lasse Lehtonen, the new chairman of Finland's Sauna Association, told AFP Finns view taking a sauna as a good way to let off steam.

"The sauna is associated with relaxation and feeling good," he said.

Lehtonen explained that while high temperatures improve blood circulation, there was no strong evidence that a sauna would be particularly beneficial or harmful in terms of physical health.

"For me, the sauna is a source of mental and physical peace and it is used to serve as an important counterbalance to busy working life," added Marketta Forsell, the Finnish president of the International Sauna Society.

Niilo Heinonen, a student at Helsinki University of Technology, takes a sauna at least once a week with his friends. He said the sauna needs to be hot for bathers to get the full benefit.

"If it is not hot enough the sauna is no good. Between 80 and 90 degrees C is the optimal temperature for me," he said with a smile.

In cities, saunas are built as a separate room next to the bathroom.

In the countryside they are typically constructed as a small wooden cottage on the lakefront or seashore for a quick dip in between sweat sessions.

For many Finns, a perfect sauna experience would be at such a cottage, especially during the summer, and would require a few birch branches held together to form a whisk that is flicked across the body to boost blood circulation and release tension.

According to Forsell, birch leaves were in old times believed to heal the skin. Birch leaves also spread a nice aroma in the sauna, which nowadays is often the main reason for using the branches.

For Iiris Kokko, the sauna is a great meeting place to socialise with friends and catch up on the latest gossip.

"As a student I have to go to sauna with my friends if I want to hear all the gossip," she said.

But in times gone by, it was not just a place to meet with friends and family.

In the Finnish countryside, women often gave birth in saunas up until the 1940s. With hospitals and doctors unreachable from the remote parts of what was once a poor agricultural country, the sauna was the only room that could be easily cleaned.

The sauna was also the main place for Finns to wash themselves until most houses became equipped with hot running water in the 1960s.

So while it is one of the country's national obsessions, some people take their sauna experience to another level.

Heinola, a town some 140 kilometres (87 miles) northeast of Helsinki, has become world famous for its World Sauna Championships, held since 1999.

The competition is a real test of endurance. The winner is the one who sits in the sauna for the longest amount of time, putting up with temperatures of 110 degrees C.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, nobody from outside Finland has ever won the men's event, while Finnish women have picked up the title every year apart from three occasions.

Source: AFP

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