With the recent popularity of far infrared saunas and steam saunas comes the necessity of learning to use them properly and safely. Listed below are the traditional steps the Finns would take in order to benefit fully from their cleansing saunas. And the Finns should know, as roughly one in five inhabitants possesses a sauna.
It should be stated that one should consult their health care practitioner before embarking on any kind of sauna program, though it's interesting that sauna usage doesn't seem to harm the five million plus Finns and many others who know how to take a sauna correctly.
How to Take a Sauna – Traditional Finnish Style
1. First of all one should disrobe completely before entering. It is also important to remove watches, rings and all other jewelry because the heat of the sauna may distort the metal and burn the flesh that wears it.
Contact lenses and glasses should also be removed, as should dental plates and the like. It is common to wear kick-off sandals to walk into the sauna though these are usually left on the floor and never used when on the benches. In the old country, sandals were not used, but instead a bowel of water is placed inside the sauna on the floor and the feet are dipped in this as one enters.
2. Hikoilu – When entering the sauna for the first stage, it is important to remember that there will be at least two levels of benches – the high bench is always the hotter, and the corner of the room diagonally opposite the stove is always the hottest.
This stage is a dry heat where the outside cares of your life can be discarded and the mind and body refreshed. By tradition hikoilu is invariably a period of silence and lasts about 10 to 20 minutes.
3. Vilvoittelu – When a heavy sweat has been reached – one can hear the perspiration dripping down to the floor – this next phase of “vilvoittelu” has been reached and one can then leave the sauna. Traditionally users have sought a cool place of any kind like a swim in the lake or pool, maybe a cold shower, a roll in the snow, or just a bucket of very cold water. Some people simply sit down in the cool outside air.
Instinct will tell you when the correct time comes to return to the hot room, usually when the heartbeat returns to the regular rhythm. Both the heat and the cold produce a slight increase in the rate of the heart beat, but this adjusts quickly to normal in healthy people. If there is a pounding or feeling of faintness, the person must leave the heated room and sit quietly. Drinking water with electrolytes would prove helpful also as well as fresh fruit juice.
4. Vihtominen loylyssa – This is the second session inside the hot sauna room. Traditionally birch twigs were heated in a bowel of warm water near the stove and the bathers sitting on the benches would use them to beat their bodies back and front to release the oil from the leaves and to open the skin's pores.
Perhaps in modern situations, a dry skin brush would prove helpful before one's sauna session to open up the pores and remove dead skin cells. This third stage lasts about 10 minutes followed by a second cooling off before proceeding to the next step.
5. Peseytyminen – One brings a bucket of cold water, soap and scrubbing brushes into the sauna and scrubs the body. Traditionally, people would pair off to scrub each other's backs.
6. Huuhtelu – This is a longer session outside, rolling in the snow, a long swim or a washing with shower or buckets in the coldest water available.
7. Jalkilammittely – A fairly short warm up in the sauna which is usually followed by another short swim, dip or shower. Always finish with the cold, but not for a long exposure.
8. Jaahdyttely ja kuivattelu – This is an air bath for cooling and relaxation. Generally, except in harsh winters, one dries with a towel only the hair and back of the neck; after a good sauna the body can dry itself and adjust naturally to any temperatue without difficulties or harm.
The Finns really know how to take a sauna, you say? You may notice that a sauna is far from being another steam bath. The idea is that enough water is used to keep the hot, dry air from drying eyes and mucous membranes, but this depends upon the host. In Northern Finland, it was a social status symbol to be a man who could take a lot of hot steam and smile about it.