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The History of Saunas

Jun 25, 2008
Saunas have been around since ancient times and are still very popular today. The question often arises as to where saunas originated, how they are used, and why they continue to have such a strong presence.

The purpose of a sauna is to provide wet or dry heat sessions that promote both relaxation and perspiration. This takes place in a small room where bathers remove their clothing and assume a comfortable position while the hot temperature (greater than 80 C) penetrates their pores. The opening of the pores and sweating make it possible for impurities to easily be removed from the body. The detoxification has not only physical benefits, such as an improved immune system, but also psychological benefits, including a reduction in stress.

The word sauna simply means a traditional Finnish bath. In ancient times, saunas were small dwellings dug in the bottom of hills and slopes to keep people warm in winter. The sauna consisted of a fire wherein stones were heated to high temperatures, then doused in water to release steam heat. The heat would be so strong that often people would undress when this was done.

As time passed, the sauna evolved and began to feature a metal woodstove along with a chimney. Steam vapor was also generated by spraying water onto the heated stones. Air temperature was typically set between 70 and 80 degrees Celsius but on occasion exceeded as much as 90 degrees Celsius.

In order to take full advantage of the sauna, the Finns gathered a bundle of bird branches containing tiny, fresh leaves. This was called a vihta. The vihta was used by bathers to gently swipe the skin in order to stimulate the pores, enhance cell production and improve blood circulation. Another benefit of the vihta was that it gave off a very pleasant scent that stimulated relaxation in the same manner that many of today's aromatherapy products work. In fact, the vihta is still used by some individuals in the sauna.

Saunas provide stress relief in two ways. One is the natural relaxation you'd experience when spending time in a dry or wet sauna. The other way in which a sauna relieves stress is by releasing chemicals from the body. When your skin heats up during a bath, large quantities of chemicals that cause stress are expelled from the body. Thus, in addition to reducing the amount of chemicals in the body, the sauna bath also slows the formation of chemicals.

Since the sauna makes you sweat, and the sweat removes toxins, the overall experiences helps to detoxify your body by forcing toxins out through the skin.

The Finns keep the rich history of the sauna alive today by making it a part of their daily ritual. In Finland, saunas are considered to be a natural and effective way of refreshing both the mind and spirit. There was a time in history when members of a Finnish family would bather together in their sauna at home. Another interesting fact about the Finns is that many Finnish women used to give birth in the sauna!

Finnish migration to other parts of the world aided in the dissemination of information about saunas, how they were made and used and their many benefits. This enabled individuals from other cultures to learn about saunas and use them, and it paved the way for future advancements such as electric sauna stoves and far infrared saunas, which became very popular. Today, the sauna is recognized and enjoyed globally, and continues to be enhanced both aesthetically and functionally.
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