It was exactly one year ago today as we write, that the pandemic hit Connecticut and put us all in some form of “lock down.” What a long year! But, relatively speaking, it was a good year for our ACME Finns sauna. After construction on 24 March 20 (see our article on the construction of our sauna), we began using our sauna in earnest. Frankly, we knew it was the cleanest place to be, and early reports from "Science" was that heat “killed” Coronavirus. So sauna was nearly a daily routine, especially when one of us had to leave the house or we had something delivered (another daily activity at ACME Finns). Using science to take more saunas may seem pretty rich, but there is a relationship between sauna and health that is undeniable which we will discuss in a future episode. To a Finn, this routine will seem very elementary, but since many if not most who are reading this are new to the sauna culture, we will explain each step of our routine in detail.
So before we begin, let’s clarify that you “take a sauna” and not “go into the sauna.” This is similar to taking a shower. Sauna is an activity as well as a place. While you can go into the sauna, that doesn’t mean you are taking a sauna. When I was replacing the rocks, I went “into the sauna.” What follows can be considered how ACME Finns “take a sauna.” Also, to those who have never been in a true Finnish sauna, you may wonder “how do you get clean by sweating?” A’s brother asks him this all the time. This is for a future episode, so for now you will just have to trust us when we say, you will never be as clean as you are after a sauna.
For starters, drink water. If you are well hydrated, the sauna will leave you refreshed and clean in body and mind. Avoid pre-sauna booze. Not only could it be dangerous to your health, your sauna experience won’t be as relaxing and effective. So just save the drink for afterwards during cool down.
The sauna, stove, and bucket. Note the artificial wisk.
For our ‘sauna pregame’, we start by turning on the sauna, grabbing two bottles of water and a butt towel for each of us, and filling a bucket of cold water. We place the water bucket, ladle, butt towels, and one water bottle each inside the sauna (the lower the better), then return to continue our normal business. You don’t have to put your water bottles in the sauna, we usually set our’s on a shelf next to the sauna entrance. The second bottle of water is for us to drink before beginning our sauna. It takes about 45 minutes to an hour for the sauna to warm up, plenty of time to drink that first water bottle, ensuring we are somewhat hydrated before beginning.
Ambience is all part of the experience, while southeastern Connecticut is a beautiful place, it’s not Finnish lake country. So we’ve transformed the area around our sauna to remind us of the sights, sounds, and smells of those places we are fortunate enough to visit when we go to Finland. The floor is covered with 1/2” artificial grass carpet and a Nordic wood walkway, the walls are covered by birch forest curtains and other Family artifacts from Finland, including a reindeer pelt, sauna photographs, and a couple E’s paintings of Finnish scenery amongst other things. Beautiful Finnish (Iittala) candles and holders adorn the shelves, while Steve ‘n’ Seagulls quietly plays in the background. We used sauna oils for a form of aromatherapy. Our favorites are “sisu” and ”metsä”. Normally we would sit in our “sanctuary” waiting for the sauna to reach optimum temperature.
So now that the mood is set, and the sauna has reached approximately 195 degrees Fahrenheit (80 deg C), it’s time to begin the sauna process. Our sauna process is like a ice hockey game, three periods (although in the beginning it was just two), with intermissions in between the periods. It starts with a shower, well not a full shower. Think of this shower like a shower you would take before going into a public pool. It gets all the obvious dirt and grime off you so as not to introduce it into the sauna itself. It is also important to wet your hair thoroughly at this point as this will help with your experience. For the transit between shower and sauna, we use shower shoes and linen body wraps for modesty, which can also be used inside the sauna too. As a married couple, We sauna bim bum, or natural. If a kid or guest joins us, then swimsuits are worn.
The entrance to the sauna and sanctuary
Into the sauna: Entry and exit should be done quickly to preserve the heat. Always have your butt towel in place before sitting on the bench. If you're new to sauna, you may want to start on the lower bench, if you like the heat, get to the upper bench. One note about the water bottles and bucket, while the sauna is heating up, leave them on the floor or lower bench to avoid heating them up too much. No one likes to drink hot water, and the colder the bucket water, the better.
Now that you are seated in the sauna, start your timer. Our timer is a hourglass that is calibrated for 18 minutes. Occasionally, we pour water on the sauna rocks to create löyly or ‘sauna steam’. This löyly is what makes the sauna special. It immediately fills the sauna with steam and increases the intensity of the heat. We normally add sauna oil to a diffuser stone that sits in our stove. We also add it to our water bucket. This fills our löyly with a fragrance that will enhance your experience.
Another unique item that is frequently used in during sauna is a Finnish bath whisk or vihta. The natural version is made up of small birch twigs with the leaves attached. There are artificial whisks, also called accelerators, that can be purchased, but these do not provide the same experience or scents provided by the natural vihta. A will explain how to make and use a vihta in a future episode.
After pouring water on the rocks to create your löyly, we then begin vigorously beating our bodies with the vihta. This will stimulate your blood vessels and provide a wonderful fragrance for your body. The motion of the vihta will also “pull” the heat to your skin, again intensifying your experience. If we don’t have a vitha, we will slowly move our outstretched arms from high to low in large circles, pulling the löyly to our skin.
As we are heating up, it’s common for us to take turns ladling water from the bucket over our head and body. This is where cold water is best. The contrast in the temperature is exhilarating, even just in small amounts. The water will also rinse any leaves that may have stuck to you during your vihta session.
A snow friskä between sauna sessions
After 15-18 minutes are up and it’s time to go rinse. In Finland or other places where there are lakes, rivers, or even ponds, the sauna bathers could opt to rinse in one of those natural bodies of water. In the winter, snow can be used by the more adventurous sauna enthusiasts (see photo above). For most sessions, we use our shower, starting with warm water to rinse those impurities from your pores, but finishing with cold water to help close to those pores as your end your shower. At this point, you can shower similar to you morning shower, shampoo, shave, condition, repeat. We have also used our pool for the cold ‘friskä’, but this still requires a rinse in the shower to remove those pool chemicals.
After we have rinsed, we have the option to jump right back in the sauna or take a rest in the sanctuary or sitting area. A couple of important things to note here: 1. Going back into the sauna has been the best option when our friskä was a cold lake, pool, or snow. 2. When we decided to sit for a while, it was always in a calm setting, with light music at low volume. Our voices were also calm and quiet. This was also a moment for us to continue to hydrate.
Once we decide to go back into the sauna, the process is very similar to the first session, with maybe less vitha, but that is the bather’s choice. Don’t forget to flip your timer and maybe even add another couple drops of aroma oil. Continue to add water to create that great löyly. Taking a sauna with others inspires some good conversation. We came up with some of our best ideas in the sauna. A clear head, no modern distractions, and that fresh feeling that a sauna provides is nothing less than inspiring. After 15 minutes, it's time for friskä again. Pool, snow, or shower, is what we used. If you use the shower, try gradually turning the water to a colder setting to get that exhilarating feeling. When complete, the third round is optional, but looks similar to the second.
After completion, we perform one final rinse. We’ve learned that having some loose fitting clothes works best for sitting in the sanctuary during the cool down period after sauna. I have even stayed in my wrap, and sipped on a nice cold Finnish Lonkero a.k.a Long Drink or “pieni lasi” of Finlandia Vodka. A Miller Lite works well here too. The cool down should take as long as it needs to. Occasionally and especially on colder days, we would sit outside on our patio. Once we were cooled down, we returned to the sanctuary.
As you can see, from turning on the sauna until completing the cool down, it takes nearly two hours to ‘take a sauna.’ We always plan when we will take a sauna to be sure we will have plenty of time to carry out our routine and enjoy the benefits of our sauna experience!
Always remember, Hyvä sauna on aina kuuma!
Pick your flavor of Lonkero and relax!!