The Finnish sauna is a great equalizer. It represents the non-hierarchical nature of Nordic society. There’s even a saying that expresses the inclusivity of this heated box: “Everyone is created equal, but nowhere more than in a sauna.” It’s true – as there’s no VIP system, everyone is a hän in a sauna. A former president, for example, can sit beside a butcher.
So here I am in a dimly lit wood-panelled room with my fellow hän. Some are whipping themselves lightly with a bundle of fresh birch twigs. Another is throwing water on the hot stones, turning it into waves of fragrant vapour, or löyly; it makes a hissing noise. Usually, there is only one ladle in the sauna for this purpose. As several people steam together, discussing the need to put in more water before taking action – so conditions don’t get too hot or uncomfortable for anyone – is democracy and empathy at work.
In a sauna, all you need to be is your authentic self. Every time I bathe in one, I’m reminded of the fact that bodies come in all shapes and sizes. In addition, encountering people without uniforms or makeup makes it easier to communicate with each other in an open and honest way – there’s nothing left to hide. It is said that more important decisions are made in saunas than in meetings.
The one I’m in is among the over two million saunas in Finland. These can be found in homes, offices, factories, sports centres, hotels and even a fast food restaurant. And why not? Sauna bathing is said to bring about numerous health benefits, from reducing stress and soothing aching muscles to invigorating the immune system. Aside from cleansing the body, the sauna also purifies the mind, leaving a bather feeling at peace with the world.
What could be more Finnish than that?