Sauna and Birch Leaves

Sauna has a long tradition and cultural significance in the Nordic countries, being a place of choice for relaxation and cleansing. It is a Finnish word and indeed Finland leads the table in terms of number of saunas with an average of one sauna per household in 2010. That’s more than 2 million saunas for a population of just under 5.5 million!

What happens in a Sauna?

The sauna stove, also called “the heart of the sauna”, is heated up so that the sauna temperature is around 80-100 degrees Celsius. People should enter the sauna either naked or wearing a clean towel. Hot water, typically infused with birch leaves (fresh in the summer, dry in the wintertime), is thrown on the stove to emit gentle and fragrant steam. People typically enter a sauna 2-3 times per session. Breaks are generally spent cooling down by showering, dipping into a lake, or simply relaxing outside before heading back inside.

Health effects of sauna?

Sauna relaxes the muscles in a way similar to having a massage. Sauna can be recommended to people of all ages in a good physical consition, however it is not recommended for people with heart problems as huge temparature differences between being in the sauna and breaks can be stressful for the heart. Generally though, this difference in temperature has the effect of improving blood circulation.

As the temperatures are high in a sauna, it is important to drink water in order to avoid dehydration. Taking a sauna while intoxicated (drunk) should be avoided, as there is further risk of dehydration and passing out is very dangerous for one’s heart. Nevertheless, it is common for people to enjoy cold beverages while taking a sauna and especially after a sauna session.

Sauna in folk medicine and tradition

Before the introduction of modern hospitals to Finland, saunas were used not only as a place of cleansing, but also for childbirth, healing, and for washing the dead before burial. Sauna was the most hygienic place in a household, as high temperatures killed off bacteria. Folk medicine relied heavily on herbal infusions and hot water was readily available in saunas.

In addition to practical uses, saunas were also considered holy in the Finnish pagan tradition. This is the reason why saunas are a place of relaxation and “slowing down” to this day.

“In a sauna, everyone is equal – because the symbols of power are left behind in the dressing room.”

For more detailed instructions on how to take a sauna, you can follow these steps:

Sauna is a ritual and an experience – there is something about it that makes you want to take it again. You can enhance the experience by adding birch leaves into a bucket of hot water, creating a fragrant infusion that you can throw onto the stove!



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