Back in 2018, I was traveling the length of the Russian-European border, exploring the geopolitical legacy of WWII and how it’s still playing out today. The first stretch of my journey was through Norway, Finland, Russia, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. I knew before I set out that saunas were a thing in this part of the world, but it wasn’t until I got to Finland that I realized what a variety of saunas there are. Each country has a distinct approach, and they’re all very proud of their sauna rituals.
In England, a sauna is something you do when you’ve finished working out at the gym. And it’s always quite awkward, sitting with a bunch of half-naked people.
But in Finland, it was remarkable how normal it was – to the Finns, going to the sauna is like going for a pint. Everyone has a sauna, everyone builds their own, and people even conduct business meetings in them. It is as integral to their culture as pubs are to us Brits. And, yes, they do take beers in with them.
I’ve always found it interesting to encounter health techniques and rituals in their places of origin, and to compare it to the health fads that come out of places like California. The fads lose much of the background to “effectiveness” in a bastardization of different cultures. For the Finns, saunas are fun, but for Latvians, the sauna is a much more serious affair.
Latvian sauna rituals are completely different from anywhere else, because they incorporate Latvian paganism. This has become increasingly important in the post-Soviet era, as Latvians reestablish and reinvigorate old traditions. There would be no beer-drinking here, but a full psychological treatment by the sauna masters, realigning energies and cleansing the spirit. The whole experience was trancelike, with an “out-of-body” element to it.
The types of sauna differed in their methods of heating, as well as how they were used. In Finland, I went to a public sauna, whilst in Estonia, I sauna-ed on a farm that operates as a guesthouse. The Estonian one was the most laid-back, and also the hottest – it was heated by setting a fire in the hearth and keeping the windows closed, so that the whole room fills with smoke. They then open the window to let the smoke out, and close it again to trap in the heat. But they don’t waste the smoke – during the day, they hang meat up in there to cure it; then, in the evening, they take the meat out (no pun intended), and you can go in for the sauna.
Jumping into cold water between heating sessions seemed to be a consistent theme, which is something that athletes across the world now use as part of their recovery. It’s funny to think of sports scientists at the cutting edge of injury prevention advocating the same thing that Sami reindeer herders and Estonian farmers have been advocating for centuries.
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Ash is a travel writer, filmmaker and storyteller who explores the world with curiosity, excitement, and a sense of adventure. He has just finished a 5,282mi (8,500km) overland from the top of Norway to Crimea.
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