The Wonderful World of Saunas


Yep, saunas are such a big deal in Finland, they even make excellent indie horror films about them. Check it out, fright fans. It features the best supernatural screen entity since "The Ring." (Image courtesy Bronson Club films)

Prior to this month, I don't think I'd stepped inside a sauna for close to two decades. Back in the late '80s, my family made an epic drive from Newfoundland, Canada, to Middle Tennessee, and I remember us stopping at a couple of hotels up north that offered such amenities.

When you're 7, however, you're not really in a position to appreciate the finer qualities of a good lengthy sweat. Three minutes of squirming and pouring too much water on the stones is generally enough to satisfy your hyperactive curiosity (or get you kicked out, whichever comes first).

So the next 20 years passed by relatively sauna-free for me. After all, most of that time was spent in the American South. But a few weeks ago, the masterminds at HowStuffWorks.com assigned me a couple of articles on saunas (How Saunas Work and 5 Strangest Saunas) and all of this changed.

Article assignments here often take us by surprise, providing the same service that the articles aim for: opening our eyes to the fascinating complexity of the world around us. I knew going into the research that there'd be a bit more than steam physics and sweat physiology to cover. After all, the practice of sweat bathing has its roots in ancient times. But man, I was blown away by how deep those roots really go.

Go back far enough and you have the human animal with basic hygienic needs. Over time, this fateful species found enough free time to develop its own culture and beliefs -- which both serve to complicate the hell out of everything. Suddenly, you don't just have hygiene, but such ambiguous terms as "cleanliness" and "purity." As a result, various bathhouse cultures and cleansing rituals sprang up through the centuries. In Finland, they learned to sweat it out in a heated cabin -- and the rest is sauna history.

The whole Finnish angle on saunas is fascinating in and of itself. I'm not sure you can really exaggerate the importance of saunas in Finnish culture. Seriously, even their prisons have saunas and several of the bizarre innovations in 5 Strange Saunas are thanks to industrious Finns.

So I guess all of this amounts to me shilling for these two articles, but hey, I'm pretty proud of them, and I think the information is fascinating. If you want to learn more about the whole historical angle, I highly recommend "Clean: A History of Personal Hygiene and Purity" by Virginia Smith. It's a very accessible and entertaining text. And for saunas in particular, Mikkel Aaland's "Sweat" provides a wealth of additional firsthand info on Finnish sauna culture.

As for me, the articles prompted me to finally check out the rather basic sauna facilities at the local YMCA. Now, I have to say I'm hooked. There's just something serene and meditative about sitting there in the dry heat with the scent of steamed wood all around you, feeling your inner systems kick it up into high gear and feeling a fresh sweat wash across your skin.

At the Y's unisex facilities, they seem rather insistent on the whole swimsuit-or- towel-please policy, but I had the chance last week to use a single-sex sauna at a hotel in Ayutthaya, Thailand, and I have to say that the classic Finnish style of full nudity really makes for a better experience. That way, it's just you and the sweat -- and a feeling of participation in something truly ancient. Lose yourself in the löyly at HowStuffWorks.com: How Saunas Work 5 Strange Saunas How Sweat Works How Sweat Lodges Work


About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.