Some people love them and some people hate them. There is not too much middle ground when it comes sitting in a very hot, dimly lit room in order to sweat a lot. Personally, I do enjoy saunas and use them quite a lot, which has piqued my interest in the pros and cons of using them and the culture that surrounds the practice …
All over the world, the idea of creating environments in which people could cook themselves seems to have appealed. Turkish baths and their like are popular in many places around the Middle East. In the West, I guess the most familiar form is the “Swedish sauna”, which, itself, may be manifest in a number of variations. Some saunas are very dry; others have varying degrees of humidity, which increase the perception of temperature.
Although saunas are widely used in the US and UK and many other European countries, they are particularly popular in Germany/Austria and the Scandinavian countries, but they are a national obsession in Finland. I suppose I was somewhat bitten by the bug as a result of traveling to some of these countries and now enjoy using a sauna at my local spa several times each week. I became even more enthusiastic when I heard that Finns live, on average, 4 years longer than Brits. The only obvious differences between the lives of the two nationalities are the attitude to putting babies out in the cold [Nordic people seem to think it is a good idea to give babies plenty of fresh air, all year round] and the sauna habit.
I have a theory about why saunas may be good for you. Everyone knows that, if you do a reasonable amount of exercise when you are younger, you are likely to be more mobile in old age. Similar effects apply to mental agility. I have noticed how elderly people never seem to be at the right temperature. On a slightly cool day, they are too cold; on a warm day, they are too hot. My theory is that their temperature control system is not working so well. It seems logical [to me] that exercising this system, by using a hot sauna then a cold plunge/shower, can only help to maintain its longer term functionality. Anyway, I am hoping for the best.
There are many aspects of sauna culture that vary from one country to another. In some places, taking a cold beer into the sauna is considered OK. In others, the idea of not drinking any fluid, until after sauna use has completed, is preferred. Elsewhere, saunas have historically had a slightly sleazy image [like massage parlors], but I think that this is changing. Then there is the question of dress code. I UK/US, it is most common to wear a swimming costume in the sauna. I have German friends who tell me that they think this practice is rather disgusting [Germans tend to say it how it is]. Their perception is that you are in the sauna sweating out all the toxins. These soak into your costume and resist being rinsed out by a short shower, instead soaking out nicely into the swimming pool. They believe that the most you should wear is a towel and I think that they have a point.
I have been told that the word “sauna” is the only work from the Finnish language to be imported into English. That might explain why Swedes have their own word for it [“bastu”]. 🙂