Several Rules of a Good Steam

The Belarusians and the Finns, despite substantial differences in mentality, culture and mode of life, have one trait in common, which is their devotion to a good steam, in other words, sauna bathing
Being aware of the Slavonic need to wash down the “burden” of the passing year and thus to prepare for the New Year, the Finnish sauna amateurs organized a meeting in Minsk House of Friendship with their Belarusian counterparts. One should say thorough and unhurried Finns took it very seriously. They brought to Minsk a considerable photo exhibition about sauna, a fairly large stock of literature — colourful brochures with the outline of a millennium-long history of sauna: from the dark ages to the present time.

Though rumoured to be far from talkative, Finns were not even talking, in a beautiful and earnest fashion, they were prophesizing about sauna in a lofty style. Sauna, they said, is the national treasure and part of the soul of their people, an inseparable element of Finnish people and, behold, their precious gift to the world, etc.

This meeting demonstrated the ability of the Finns to speak endlessly of sauna. For example they talked about the revolutionary role of electrical heaters, which marked the beginning of the third phase of sauna development. Electrical heater was a final solution to the creation of city sauna. Thus one of the guests said not without pride that his grandfather was born in sauna. Little wonder. Up to World War II Finnish women gave birth to their children mostly in warm and clean saunas. Certainly, a professional architect couldn’t avoid the topic of “saunization” of the population. Starting from the fifties of the previous century sauna began the unprecedented blitzkrieg of city quarters. All the multi-storey apartment houses had a sauna on the first floor, which the inhabitants attended taking turns. Moreover, almost all modern apartments in the multi-storey blocks of flats are built with the sauna, regardless of number of rooms. Even one-bedroom apartments have their own mini-saunas. By the way, nobody in the meeting argued with the guests that Finland is a sauna country and the Finns are the people worshipping sauna. There are 5.1 million people in Finland and 1.7 million saunas, which makes 1 sauna for 3 people. So nobody objected to the fact that Finns present a unique sauna people that has preserved sauna traditions and successfully adopted them to the modern way of life.

Though at the meeting in the House of Friendship Finns didn’t claim their having invented the sauna. They tactfully referred to the fact that many Slavonic, Turkic-Tatar and eastern Finno-Ugric people were sauna experts. The Finns only improved the sauna: a traditional wooden building where bathers sit on a bench and pour water on the hot stones of the heater and lash themselves with birch brooms.

The meeting didn’t do without detailed advice to the Belarusian bathers. Finns recommended behaving in sauna just like in a temple: being quiet and relaxed, because it calms and restores the peace of mind. Clearer and more materially-minded recommendations are contained in the list of rules of the Sauna Society of Finland, which was providently brought by Finns. Here are some of them.

Sauna is a multi-stage ritual taking a lot of time, otherwise you won’t get expected satisfaction. That’s why one shouldn’t clamour, quarrel, gossip, slander and break wind in sauna. Actually, the Finns recommend taking a shower or swimming in a pond before going to sauna, especially in the summer. It’s more agreeable, they said, to enter the sauna when your skin is wet. However, Finns are aware that some people adhere to the opposite opinion, which is to go to sauna being dry, to feel and even see the sweat come out. Therefore there are two schools: one of wet skins and the other one of dry skins, admit the tolerant Finns.

The optimal temperature for sauna is 80-90 degrees Centigrade (but no more than 100). One can increase the humidity by pouring water on the stones. It’s good to know that one should sit on the bench while one feels comfortable. The contests in heat endurance are not appropriate in sauna and can be harmful to one’s health.

One is supposed to sweat in sauna! But many sauna visitors know little of sweating, believe the Finns. That’s why some people start doing it incorrectly: they climb on the bench and pour two or three scoops of water on the stones right away. This leads to a sudden thermal shock, paralyzing the normal functioning of sweat glands. It takes time to sweat properly.

Thorough sweating opens the skin pores and removes fat, bacteria and grime from them. This takes 8 to 10 minutes depending on the individual capacity for sweat secretion. Increasing the temperature does not accelerate sweating. In this sense an 80 degree sauna does not yield to a 100 degree one. Moreover, too hot and dry saunas make the sweat evaporate just after appearing on the skin. The extreme pleasure of using the broom comes when one has reached the limit of sweating.

How many times is one supposed to bathe? As many as one likes. It can be once, if it’s enough for you. The rules of the Sauna Society of Finland mention 3 visits of steam-bath as a moderate routine. In the end, it’s recommended to douse oneself with fresh cool water for vivacity. One can alternate steam-bath with cooling to one’s liking. An abrupt passage from hot sauna to the cold is undesirable. Some time is necessary for adaptation. The Finns complain, that the absence of a proper cooling place is the major drawback of city saunas where there’s not even an open balcony or terrace. How much better is the sauna on the lakeshore, where one can plunge into water or even an ice-hole or roll in the snow.

Here’s a good piece of advice to the passionate or overindulgent bathers: alcohol and substantial meals should be avoided before and during the sauna. Snacks and soft drinks are suitable for a joint pastime after sauna.

An old Finnish proverb says: “If sauna, vodka and resin do not help, you have a mortal disease”. However, Finns do not advise combining these drastic measures.

Yet, sauna, according to the practical-minded and pragmatic Finns, not only calms one down, restores one’s peace of mind, but it also reduces tension, even in a political sense. Even at the top level. In this way, the former Finnish president Kekkonen frequently settled international disputes with the help of sauna.

The meeting of Finnish and Minsk bathers was concluded in a suburban sauna, where the guests were invited to enjoy a good Belarusian-style sauna.

Irina Trofilova
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