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The sauna, the national pastime and treasure of its native Finland, is often copied but little understood by the rest of the world. While sitting in the sauna, do you ever wonder how they feel about the sauna in Finland? Do they do it differently from the rest of us? Is there a right or wrong way to take a sauna?

Two-thousand years ago in Finland, the original sauna was an underground dugout excavated out of the side of a hill. Soon after, the sauna became its own structure, a log cottage heated by an open fire (called a savusauna, or smoke sauna). Then saunas were heated by an enclosed fire with tempered rocks on top.

The typical style of the modern sauna is copied the world over. Chances are that the sauna you use is the same as one found in Finland. Modern saunas can be personalized with all the modcons. You can have a sauna with glass walls. You can build a gigantic one to hold fifty people, or a tiny one just for yourself. And you can even have a phone line installed or music piped in through the walls.

In Finland, the sauna is a way of life. It is a personal and civic necessity, not a luxury. There are saunas everywhere, available to everyone--one sauna for every five citizens. It is unthinkable to build a house without one. Even some small apartments have them tucked next to the bathroom, room enough for one or two people. Public swimming pools, passenger ferries, health clubs, retirement and rehabilitation homes, spas, and hotels have saunas available in their men’s and women’s locker rooms.

Most of the time, the sauna is a relaxing time for the family. But the sauna can also be a social occasion among friends, even business associates. President Urho Kekkonen used to strike deals with Soviet apparatchiks while sitting naked in its warm confines, sometimes cranking up the heat for a stubborn guest.

Hesitation at being naked causes many Finns to shake their heads in dismay. After all, it is unhealthy to sit in a sauna while wearing a bathing suit or workout clothes because they prevent the skin from perspiring freely. If you are embarrassed about being naked, drape a towel around your torso. Once inside, you can slide the towel off, rest your elbows on you knees, and hang your head down, though no one will really see anything in the dimly-lit room.

The purpose of a good sauna is twofold: to allow the body to cleanse itself by sweating out toxins and other impurities, and to relax the mind and muscles. In the idyllic setting of pastoral Finland, the vigorous Finns are living proof of this.

The typical Finnish sauna is an easy three-step process: heating up, rapid cooling, and rest.

1) Heating Up
It is best to rinse off under a shower before entering the sauna. Once wet, go into the sauna naked, but do sit on a towel, especially if you are in a public sauna. Stay in for about 10-15 minutes, long enough to begin sweating, and then get out and rinse off again. Go back in, this time for longer.

The whole idea of the sauna is to sweat. Sweat cleanses and purifies the body. Therefore, sauna temperature is the most important element. Too hot and you won’t be able to sit in it long enough to begin sweating. A too-cool sauna is pointless because you won’t sweat at all. Ideally, the sauna temperature ranges between 170 and 195 °F, but temperatures above are 200 °F are not unusual.

The sauna is not synonymous with steambath, so avoid any attempt to turn it into its Turkish cousin. That said, a sauna is more pleasant with a slight degree of humidity, usually around 20%. Sauna-goers pour small doses of water onto the hot rocks to produce this exhilarating hot steam, called löyly.

To stimulate the skin and bring forth a pleasant aroma, Finns sometimes beat themselves with a sauna vihta, a bundle of tender, leafy birch branches. The rhythmic beat of a vihta across wet skin opens the pores and increases blood circulation, both great for the skin. It’s not painful if the branches are indeed tender and young, but some choose to dip the bundle in water to lessen the sting anyway.

The vihta is usually reserved for special occasions because the cleanup afterwards can be miserable. The wet leaves tend to fall off the branches into the dark corners of the sauna.

2) Rapid Cooling

When the sauna is done, a Finn wants to startle body by either jumping into a cold shower, a lake, or a snowbank. The rapid change in body temperature helps to produce that runner’s high. The sudden change in temperature--from red hot to ice cold--causes blood to rush to the skin’s surface to stimulate the skin and further clean those pores. This immersion also helps to stop the sweating process.

After the cold dip, you should then take a shower to clean off completely. Using cool water, pine soap and a stiff brush (like the kind used to scrub the bugs from your windshield), stout-hearted Finns wash themselves thoroughly.

3) Rest

Rest comes in many different forms. Wrapped in a towel or cozy robe, some people just sit and read for a while. Others take a snooze. Some chat comfortably by the dock of a summer’s lake, drink in hand. For most Finns, though, the dinner afterwards is the best kind of rest. It rejuvenates the spirit and the body. The meal includes strong beer, sausages, salt herring with potatoes, and sandwiches on dark bread. The meal is typically high in sodium to replace the salt and help retain fluids lost in sweating.