Well, it’s been three months since I arrived in Finland! Time is still passing too quickly for me, but life has settled into something of a routine— however much of a routine you can have when your classes are never the same from week to week!
One of my absolute favorite routines is going to the sauna. Not just any sauna– the polar bear sauna!
For those of you unfamiliar with the Finnish tradition of sauna, here’s the overview:
- Sauna is a major part of Finnish culture! According to VisitFinland, the Finns will “start feeling incomplete”. That might be a bit of an exaggeration, but this centuries-old tradition is amazing, and after incorporating sauna time into my life, I can see why!
- Saunas in Finland are a near-religious experience. While everyone in the sauna is accepting of strangers, conversation is not essential. Sauna is a great time for deep conversation with friends, or a relaxing time in your own head.
- When you’re nearly (if not fully) naked around strangers, you learn a lot about body acceptance. You just can’t be self-conscious about yourself or judgmental of others in the sauna. That might be because everyone is sweating buckets, but nonetheless… sauna time is not a time for being self-conscious, it’s a time of introspection!
- Going to the sauna has tons of health benefits! This includes stress relief, relief from sore or achy muscles, flushing out toxins, cleansing the skin, and many more. Read about some of the benefits here. I’ve noticed some of these myself!
- Spending time in the sauna followed by dip in cold water increases circulation and heart rate. After going to the sauna a few times, I’ve noticed that my heart rate increases after the time in the sauna and a dip in the lake. You really become aware of your heartbeat, breathing, and circulation.
For those of you interested in a longer explanation of the sauna experience, I recommend reading this post.
The polar bear sauna in my town (check out their website!) is a pretty decent size. It’s only 3-4 km away from my apartment, so I usually walk there. The polar bear sauna costs 95 euro for a membership pass for a full year, but since we’re only here for a few months, we get a guest pass for 5 e. Since the polar bear sauna is a public sauna, swimsuits are mandatory, even though that isn’t the norm for most Finnish saunas. Members have these patches that they sew onto their swimsuits.
My friends and I have made Sundays our semi-official “Polar Bear Sauna” day, though on Wednesdays, there’s a sauna available for (free!) use in my apartment complex for residents. Women and men have a separate time, and clothes aren’t mandatory there. It’s a very small room, but it has the same effect– even without the lake!
The inside of the polar bear sauna is a typical sauna with heated rocks in the center flanked by two water troughs, with scoops for water hanging on the edge of the wooden frame around the rocks. The entire sauna room is made of wood, with a chimney in the center over the rocks, tiny LED lights in the ceiling and along the edge, and small windows facing the porch (overlooking the lake) and the parking out out front. There’s a clock on the wall so you can keep track of time.
Before you go into the sauna, you change into your swimsuit in the locker room in the main building, then walk outside a short way to the sauna building. If you want, you can hop in the lake first or rinse off, but my friends and I usually just slip off our flip-flops in the mud room (with taps and a towel rack) before opening the door to the sauna, where you are suddenly blasted with stifling hot air! (I admit this may be the wrong way to do the sauna, but we’re foreigners so I think we’re excused…)
The first time at the sauna, this was quite shocking. The people in the sauna– mostly older Finns– kept adding water to the stones to make steam, which meant that we were sweating profusely within seconds and most of the time, it was difficult to breathe! With a room so hot, it felt like we were breathing fire— or at least, trying to. It was awful! We could barely stay inside for 10 minutes at a time, and even then, we had our eyes closed and our hands covering our face, trying to cool down the air before breathing.
(For the record, that method is helpful but also results in more sweat running down your face from your hands… which is kind of gross.)
The rule of thumb seems to be “stay in the sauna until you can’t stay in any more”. For my friends and I, this means 10- 15 minutes in the sauna, or until we can’t breathe. Breathing is important, so when that becomes difficult, it’s a good time to go outside. Sometimes, you feel like you could stay in the sauna forever! In the sauna, it’s essential to listen to your body– if you feel dizzy, lightheaded, or have difficulty breathing, then you should get out! Sometimes sauna time can be physically taxing, and making sure you are safe is far more important than braving out the fire-breathing dragon-steam.
The first time we went to the sauna, it was REALLY cold outside– something like -8*F! This made for a beautifully clear day, but the lake, which was already frozen over, was insanely cold. We only made it in a few times, but mostly we stood outside for a while and enjoyed the feel of sunshine on our skin as we cooled off. This remains a very pleasant way to shift from the heat of the sauna to a normal body temperature, instead of the shock of the extremes. Definitely my favorite, though less effective now that we’ve been having warmer temperatures.
The extreme shift in temperature is part of what makes the sauna experience so great, even if the first time it is horrible! It’s very hard to force yourself to go down a ladder and swim in a frozen-over lake, even for a few seconds. Everything in your mind is screaming at you that it is a bad idea, and sometimes the water is so cold that your chest clenches up and you swear that your heart stops for a moment. In that moment, you are hyper-aware of every inch of your skin and then suddenly, you’re climbing out again.
And then you drink some water (from a bottle, not the lake!) and head back into the sauna to do it all again… which seems crazy.
After a few circuits, it’s time to leave. We usually make it about an hour or an hour and half, in 10-15 minute intervals of sauna and 5-10 minutes of lake/outside time. At the end of it all, we’re slightly sweaty but very relaxed, if not a bit sleepy.
This is definitely one of the strangest and best experiences I’ve had in Finland. It’s a quintessentially Finnish thing to do, and although it seems crazy the first time, there is something magical about the experience as a whole. After weekends of partying or unhealthy eating, there’s nothing quite like a sauna (and ice-swimming!) day to make you feel fresh and ready for the week… even if you will definitely need a shower!
At any rate, I hope you have a chance to try something like this one day! It’s definitely an experience, and you may fall in love with it.