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Sauna 101

A primer on some of the foundational terms and protocols in the sauna world. Definitely an incomplete list so if you have something to add, please send it in for consideration. 

The Basics

Sauna
(Formal)

Sauna is a Finnish word that describes a physical interior environment that is heated to to temperatures ranging from 80C to 130C and used for bathing. Traditionally, a sauna is a wood panelled room with benches and is heated by a wood-burning, electrical or gas heater. The heater is covered with rocks upon which water is intermittently thrown creating humidity in the form of steam. 

Pronunciation: sow:na

Sauna (Informal)

At Saunaist we consider a wider range of heated shelters as saunas, in spirit at least if not in technical form. These ranges from sauna tents with portable heaters that can be brought on camping trips, barrel saunas which are often an inexpensive beginner option and almost any other configuration whereby an enclosed shelter is heated by a pile of hot rocks such that the heat and steam can be enjoyed by its inhabitants. Spiritually, sauna at its core is about using fire to heat rocks that can generate steam so that we can sweat. Pretty simple. In the definitely NOT saunas camp are Infrared Cabins, "sauna" blankets and "sauna" mats.

Löyly

Often referred to as the “spirit of sauna”, löyly is both the act of ladling water on the rocks (eg. “can you please throw some löyly?”) and the effect of the steam as it washes over your body (eg. “wow, that’s a great löyly”). Traditionally, in Finland, sauna bathers first warm up in the ambient heat of the sauna. Then, after some time has passed, they will ladle water over the rocks on top of the heater to produce steam. In a good sauna this steam (löyly) is an enveloping force that blankets you with a thin layer of what feels like wet air stimulating both pain and pleasure receptors simultaneously. Although a “good löyly” is a very personal experience, it is often the way by which the quality of a sauna is measured by the bather.  

Pronunciation: leu-lu

Sauna Rounds

A vernacular expression that describes the number of cycles of thermal bathing that sauna bathers enjoy during an individual sauna session. A cycle is usually comprised of a heating phase (sitting in the sauna), a cooling off phase (shower or cold plunge) and a rest phase (10 minutes or more of resting outside) before it is repeated. On average a sauna session can last between 2 and 4 rounds (or more).

Vihta or Vasta

Popular in several northern sweat bathing traditions (Venik in Russia, Vanta in Lithuania), the Vasta (Eastern Finland) and Vihta (Western Finland) are forms of sauna massage whereby - after a löyly has been thrown - a bunch of young birch branches are used to gently (or vigorously) beat the recipient who is either sitting or lying down on the sauna bench.

 

Often called a whisk in North America, the practice involves dipping the whisk into a bucket of warm or hot water prior to administering said beating (not to worry, this is an entirely pleasurable experience). It is said that sauna whisking promotes circulation and relaxes muscles, amongst other benefits.

Pronunciation: veeh-tuh and vas-tuh

Kiuas

The Finnish word for sauna heater or stove (interchangeable). The kiuas is the engine room of the sauna. It usually comes in the size and shape of beer fridge and is powered by wood, electricity or gas. When a sauna is well designed, an appropriately sized kiuas will provide both deep, resonant heat as well as sharp, sometimes stinging steam. The deep heat comes from the thermal mass of the rocks piled on top of the kiuas while the sharp steam comes from the löyly that the rocks produce when water is poured on them.

Pronunciation: kiuw-uhs

Sauna Rocks

In their simplest form, sauna rocks are the rocks piled on top of the kiuas (heater) to a) retain heat for the sauna and b) produce steam when water is poured on them. But what kind of rocks should be used? The Finns say sauna rocks should be igneous (volcanic) as they are denser, coarse-grained and less prone to breaking or exploding when subjected to long durations of intense heat. Igneous rocks are often cragged and irregular in shape which further endears them to sauna builders as their shape and form helps catch the löyly water in their mini pockets and extend the evaporation period whereas with round, smooth rocks (like river or lake rocks), some of the water can slip over the rocks, falling to the floor before it has a chance to evaporate. 

Avanto

Directly translated to “hole in the ice” in English, avanto is the quintessential complement to the Finnish sauna experience. The classic Finnish sauna archetype is a quaint sauna cabin perched on the shores of an idyllic lake which of course freezes in the winter. There is nothing quite like bursting out of a hot löyly session, running barefoot through the snow and plunging into an avanto.

 

Tips:

  • Inexperienced sauna bathers should ease themselves into the practice. It is ok to just go up to your waist the first few times to acclimatize. Then maybe a quick dunk before eventually settling in for a nice sit. 

  • If you have to scamper over snow or ice to get to your hole, consider footwear. If you're not careful your hot feet can stick to the dry ice, noting also the risk of slipping. 

Pronunciation: ah-vahn-toh

Savusauna 

Directly translated to “smoke sauna” in English, savusauna is often referred to as the purest expression of sauna. Pre-dating the advent of combustion stoves, savusaunas are the ancestors of the modern day saunas we know.

 

Usually comprised of a roughhewn wooden hut with a small door and a giant pile of rocks inside, savusaunas are conspicuous in that they don’t have chimneys. A fire is lit in a cavity underneath the rock pile and the rocks are preheated for up to 12 hours. The smoke is then released through a small vent hole in the wall or ceiling and once exhausted, bathers can enter and luxuriate for several hours in the dark confines of the sauna.

 

With the invention of wood-burning stoves and later electric heaters, savusaunas became relics of the past in the early part of last century. However, a few remained and are still in use today and there is now a movement to preserve these vestiges of sauna history. 

Pronunciation: saw-voo-sow-na

Aromatherapy

Aromatherapy is the practice of using essential oils for therapeutic benefit. In a sauna context, aromatherapy refers to the addition of small amounts of essential oils to the löyly water which is then ladled onto the rocks.

 

Depending on the oils used, the resulting fragrance imparts a delicate yet pronounced aromatic expression to the sauna environment. Some oils are intended to be uplifting and mood boosting while others are intended to relax and destress.

 

Of course, the best aromatherapy comes in the form of adding a few sips worth of beer to the löyly bucket. 

Saunaolut 

Sauna beer. Specifically, the beer you enjoy at the end of your sauna session. 

Pronunciation: sow-na-oh-loot

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