Experiencing a traditional Finnish Sauna
I’m privileged to have experienced traditional saunas living here in the Nordics.
From my Swedish family-in-law’s modest size basement sauna to some amazing Finnish saunas, more recently at stunning Mukkula Manor and Lehmonkärki Resort with its rugged yet super modern villas and their splendid lake views.
There are over 3 million saunas in Finland. Population in Finland? A little over 5 million.
Needless to say, the tradition of Finnish saunas is deeply embedded and intrinsic to its culture.
Amid the pristine eco-lodges of Lehmonkärki, right in the heart of Finland’s Lahti region along the shores of its second largest lake Päijänne, is where I met traditional folk healer and Finnish sauna specialist Maaria Alén. I got to experience some Finnish folk sauna healing while being whisked with some prickly juniper branches as well. These traditions are closely tied to nature as well as deeply respecting it. According to Maaria, “The traditional sauna healing is based on Finnish folk traditions. It strengthens our connection to our roots. It helps us understand better who we are, where we come from and what is valuable and worth saving in our culture.”
For the uninitiated, the Finnish sauna is a wooden chamber with a stove that provides steam to help you de-stress, remove toxins from your body, relax your mind, connect with your senses, and revitalize your soul in a sense. The water thrown on the stove is called “löyly“. The temperature within the Finnish sauna is controlled by löyly on the hot sauna stove. You can hear in the video above Maaria chanting the words löyly in the song in a reverent way to appease the spirit of the löyly.
At first, you might feel like the warm moisture is choking you and cutting off oxygen, but relax… It’s all in your head and within minutes, you’ll fully begin to enjoy the sauna experience.
Ice swimming in Lahti, Finland
But I have to say one of the highlights of my recent trip to Finland was trying an activity I’d never tried before…. Ice swimming.
Well, for me, it was more like ice dipping though I tried it twice. This was meant to get the blood circulating and when I was at Mukkula Manor at the crack of dawn to photograph the morning light, I saw a few locals trot down towards frozen Lake Vesijärvi to take their daily morning dip in its icy waters. They stayed in for no more than 2-3 minutes each but they hopped in quietly like they were just sinking into a warm bathtub at home.
My heart was racing as I tiptoed across snow from the sauna over to the hole in the frozen lake in nothing but my swimsuit and a woolen sauna hat. I was so nervous. Thoughts flashing through my mind at the moment included instant cardiac arrest and I immediately thought of my two little toddlers.
How would daddy explain this to them? “Mommy was stupid and hopped into a frozen lake!”
Anyways, while at Lehmonkärki, I stepped down those freezing cold metal/wooden steps into water that instantly felt like needles being poked into my skin… in a very relaxing and pleasant way, actually.
I did go in waist deep both times I tried but the next time, I’ll go all in and chest deep.
Because…you know.. baby steps.
Here are a few more photos from my experience at a traditional Finnish sauna as well as ice-swimming in Finland. You can view more photos in my image bank.
If you can brave the biting cold, winter is absolutely the best time to visit Finland. During this season, deep-seated traditions bubble up to the surface, including ice swimming which I also tried. If you’re wondering how a pro who swims daily reacts versus an amateur testing it for the first time, here’s a short video I took of fellow blogger Sangyune Lee and local Finn Maria Ansas.
There are several public saunas in Helsinki including the newly opened Löyly which stretches along a patch of Helsinki’s waterfront. If you’re in the Lahti region, then absolutely try the saunas at Mukkula Manor and Lehmonkärki Resort.
There are some basic rules and etiquette to follow when trying a Finnish sauna as well as ice swimming.
- You are to sit either naked, in a towel, or your bathing suit in a sauna.
- More importantly, you also need to sit on a towel on the wooden panels otherwise your butt will get burned.
- Do not touch any metal inside (including window handles). They will burn you.
- Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate… with water to replenish all the fluids your body is rapidly losing.
- Avoid drinking alcohol even if locals are doing it. They are the pros. You’re not.
- Take occasional breaks to dip in ice water or roll in fresh snow to get your blood circulation going.
- Do not take babies and very small children into saunas. Even adults struggle in its heat.
- When ice swimming, take a deep breath and slowly step down the ladder into the hole.
- Do not put your head under water. Always keep at neck or chest level.
- It’s not as piercing cold as you think especially coming from a hot sauna.
You can learn more about Finnish sauna traditions from the Finnish Sauna Society which was founded in 1937 and has over 4,000 members.
Have you ever tried a Finnish sauna before? What did you think?
I explored the Lahti region of Finland as part of the exceptional Nordic Bloggers Experience (NBE) where I was also running a blog workshop as a presenter. All opinions, observations, and oddities are all mine and mine alone.