In Finland, you’re not really friends with someone until you’ve seen them naked.
Which, contrary to what you might be thinking, isn’t weird. Because, in fact, you see all sorts of people naked. Your family, your business associates, your neighbors, and even complete strangers!
Go ahead and try to picture all of those situations without feeling awkward. (If you’re an American, that’s literally impossible. And if you’re Scandinavian, bless you, you’re probably trying to figure out what the big deal is.)
But in short, the Finnish sauna is a HUGE part of Finnish culture. It’s a relaxing, meditative activity that you enjoy with people you’re close to (unless you go to a public sauna – then it’s just randos). And it’s also an activity that you enjoy in the nude.
- RELAX! It’s fine. The door says so.
Mixed gender saunas are pretty normal. But it’s a very non-sexual activity, so it’s not a big deal to the Finns to sit side-by-side in their birthday suits. Mixed saunas are most common with younger adults, but families also frequently sauna together.
So when we went to Finland, despite my lingering doubts and self-consciousness, I tried really hard to pump myself up for this. I love to immerse myself in the local culture while traveling, and the whole sauna thing seemed like THE BIGGEST DEAL, so I couldn’t imagine missing out on it.
However, when Michael and I did our research, we found that public saunas are few and far between these days. Apparently everyone just has their own sauna now, in their own house or their own apartment. (And for some reason, it felt improper to knock on random people’s doors and ask to have a meditative, naked bonding experience with them.)
- We didn’t completely miss out on the mix of culture + nudity in Finland though. There were lots of naked statues. So there’s that.
While Americans think of saunas as a luxurious treat, Finnish people view having a sauna as an absolute necessity. To them, saunas are revered, almost holy. They’re a way to cleanse the body and the mind, and most Finns sauna at least once a week.
In fact, before the rise of public healthcare, most mothers actually gave birth in saunas. And to this day, many Finnish business deals are still sealed in the sauna room. Which is comparable to how Americans will often negotiate business deals at a fancy lunch or on the golf course. (Except, you know, more naked.)
Unfortunately, we didn’t get to sauna in Finland. But… we did the next best thing, and had a Finnish sauna in Sweden! Our hotel in Stockholm had a free sauna and relaxation room, so while we were waiting for Michael’s family to arrive, we went to check it out.
- Piles of fluffy towels and mini bottles of shampoo – a sure way to get me on board with these shenanigans.
We started with a quick rinse in the shower, and then went into the hot room. There’s a special stove that’s used to warm the sauna, and it was all heated up and ready to go. The temperature of a sauna depends on personal preference, but the Finnish Sauna Society (which is a real, legitimate organization) recommends a temperature of somewhere between 80-100 °C (176-212 °F).
And if you want to make the room hotter, there’s a bowl of water for this purpose. You take the ladle and throw water from the bowl onto the hot stones of the stove. This creates steam, increasing the moisture and the heat in the room. It also makes it both harder to see and harder to breathe. Hooray!
- A seemingly innocuous bowl of water. DON’T TRUST IT.
You sit on a towel for hygienic purposes, but otherwise, you just let it alllll hang out.
In fact, wearing clothes (or even a bathing suit) is a major faux pas in the sauna. And I mean, to be fair, going in clothes is just weird, because you will be extremely sweaty and uncomfortable. But if you go in your bathing suit, traces of chlorine (from previous swimming) can vaporize in the hot room and cause breathing difficulty for people with asthma and/or other respiratory problems.
So if you’re still feeling uncomfortable about being naked, remember that your bare tush is literally saving lives.
- Note: I covered up with a towel for the purposes of this photo. I also subjected my iPhone to 200 degree heat for this. You’re welcome.
Also note, that despite my smile, I felt like a turkey cooking in the oven.
I mean, it’s so hot that your body is literally steaming, and it feels like little wisps of “you” are rising up into the air along with the steam. (Hopefully, the parts of me rising with the steam were the pieces of me that think watching reality TV is an appropriate use of my time, or the bits of me that like to eat an entire box of Wheat Thins for a mid-afternoon snack.)
But SERIOUSLY you guys, it’s so hot.
And despite the fact that your skin is mere seconds away from boiling, you’re happy about it. It’s a bizarre feeling. You’re burning up, but it just feels so good. Like ordering delicious lamb vindaloo from that legit Indian food place on a roasting hot summer’s day, and the sun is beating down on you, and your entire face is on fire, and you could fill at least 7 swimming pools with your sweat.
You’re thinking to yourself, “Why on earth would I torture myself like this?” but also “OMG this is the best. I hope this never ends, and that I just re-live the last 15 minutes of my existence on a loop for the rest of my life.”
- Hmmm. Should I go ahead and willingly subject myself to EVEN MORE temperature extremes? Yes. I must. It’s the Finnish way.
But at some point, it really is TOO MUCH. So you leave the hot room, and depending on where the sauna is located, you jump in a lake, in the sea, into a swimming pool, take a shower, or roll around in the snow. (And yes, all of these activities are still naked activities.)
Since we were in a hotel, and streaking through the lobby to find a skinny-dipping pool seemed somewhat inappropriate, we just used the showers. But we took SUPER COLD showers. Because apparently that’s how you’re supposed to do it. Also, I sang a song while I showered.
“Pins and needles on my bodyyyyy, as I go through crazy temperature extreeeemes! Hopefully I don’t die in the hotel showerrrr, trying to fulfill my Finnish culture dreaaams!”
After you cool down and stop singing – which is pretty quick, due to the ice water and your husband lovingly telling you to “please stop that” – you get back in the hot room.
- And you can bet this crazy rapscallion (aka the sauna stove) will be there waiting for you.
The “insanely hot room + insanely freezing shower” cycle is usually repeated 2-3 times (for maximum cleansing, and for maximum questioning of your life choices).
Then, at the very end, you wash once again.
Post-sauna activities might include: drinking a beer, eating a sausage, regulating your body temperature back to a non life-threatening degree, and remembering how to breathe air that has less than 100% humidity. Eventually, you probably get dressed again. Or at least cover your (now steam-dried) bits and pieces with a robe.
- There’s a room for that. You can do all of those activities here.
I won’t lie. Since this was my first time to sauna, I’m pretty glad it was just me & Michael in there. Having the place to ourselves allowed me to take pictures of everything, sing loudly in the shower, and tearfully say goodbye to the little wisps of Bri that like to eat entire boxes of junk food in one sitting.
But next time, I’m totally willing to up my game. I want some Finnish BFFs, after all. And to help with this endeavor, I even came up with a few more verses for my song.
“My first time was just practiceeee, but next time it’s legitttt!
Because once you Finnish saunaaaa, you can never quitttt!
Being naked will still be strange, but tradition survivessss!!
And in a true Finnish sauna, bare tushes… SAVEEEE PEOPLE’S LIVVVESSSS!!!
Note: If you’re trying to sing along, there’s no discernible tune. It’s just incomprehensible wailing and flailing of arms, preferably while your skin is on fire and possibly sloughing off inside the sauna room.
(But if you want to see me pretend to sing things, you can go to the mini Dubsmash roundup of Helsinki.)