Going to Finland? Don’t miss out on the sauna experience. Whether it is with friends or business contacts, the sauna is the perfect place to clear your head and feel refreshed.
The steam spreads an opaque mist over the glass door. The outside is completely shut out. Not a sight. Not a sound. A guy pours generous amounts of water on the burning hot stones. Sweat is dripping. The water hisses as it fills the sauna with white vapor.
Sitting between strangers, sweating, in next to nothing, can be quite intimidating. And having a reputation as reserved and conservative, the Finns love of the sauna seems like quite the contradiction. But the sauna tradition goes back centuries, and the use is ubiquitous.
Dating as far back as 7000 BC, Finnish saunas are an integral part of the national culture. During the long, cold winters, the sauna was a practical place to wash and get warmed up in times with no hot running water, and the sterile environment made the sauna a preferred place to give birth.
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You can still meet people, that were born in a sauna, I am told, as I sit inside the wood-lined sauna, the heat and humidity rising as the snow starts to fall in thick cotton-like tufts outside. The tech conference Slush is roaring in the exhibition center behind us. It’s my third time in Finland, but my first time in a real sauna and not just the lame version placed inside public swimming pools I know from high-school.
Whip it, whip it real good
I am handed a coarse branch of birch wood; the leaves shriveled up in the heat. It’s for whipping myself with. I sit there, the branch in one hand, sweat dripping down my eyes, having trouble to breathe probably, not knowing how to put myself in a comfortable position. A Finnish woman that has acted as my guide since she found me with a puzzled look on my face in the women’s changing room starts whipping her legs with a branch, first soaking it in a bucket of water. I mimic her, feeling awkward. But when in Rome, right?
The guy pours more water on the rocks. Even the Finnish woman think it get’s too much and opens the door a little. Signs tell me to remember to hydrate. I take a sip of water. Hand a cup to the guy. He’s from South Korea, another avid sauna culture. He is hardcore; sitting there in his tight swimming trunks not batting an eye of the heat. We get to talk about work. He hands me a business card from his bundled up bathrobe. The saunas are, exactly, a great place to mix pleasure and business.
Sign a contract in the sauna
There are around three million saunas in Finland, and almost all companies with respect for themselves have a private sauna on location. Naturally, Slush had to have an entire sauna village! It is custom to make agreements and sign contracts in the dense steam of a sauna. And of course, cooling off in the snow or the icy water afterward.
So out we go. Even in the lush bathrobe and soft slippers, the air outside is frigid. I follow suit and jump into a bathtub shaped like a boat in the middle of the sauna village. On the surface, the water seems lukewarm and nice, but underneath it is chilling!
I quickly change to the hot tub, where to other girls with woolly hats are perched in the corners. More people jump in. Mostly Finns. One from Austria. The guy from South Korea joins us. Not long after the Finnish Minister for Finance comes by and says hello. Nothing weird here, just a bunch of people sitting in a hot tub in the snow.
Follow the rules and you’ll be okay
It is rather odd how chill and relaxed the otherwise private Finns are in the intimacy of the sauna. I go for one more try at an even hotter sauna. I remember to drink a couple of cups of water before I go in. I put the little towel on the seat and confidently shed my bathrobe. After a couple of hours of getting to know the tradition, it’s not that bad! My head has stopped spinning, and my mood has lifted. My skin is feeling refreshed and so soft, the birch branches, also called vihta, gives off a fresh aroma.
The saunas are not just used in the cold winter months. In the summer, they are equally popular. One of the Finns, a guy working with blockchain, goes to the sauna several times a week all year round. It’s completely normal to invite business contacts to the sauna, and you should never turn down the offer.
It’s relaxing both for the body as well as for the mind. Just remember the few basic rules; don’t be shy, remember to shower first, avoid big meals and alcohol before the sauna, place a small towel to sit on, hydrate, and stay as long as you like.
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