A Tour of Our Modern Finnish Sauna (+7 benefits of Finnish sauna)
Join me for a photo tour of our modern Finnish sauna on our Northeastern Minnesota property! You’ll learn about the history of the Finnish sauna, how we repaired ours after a devastating fire, how we take saunas (yes, we go in naked!), and the 7 health benefits of Finnish sauna.
Nearly 5 years ago, my husband and I were sitting in the living room of our 2-bedroom, 1,000 square foot apartment, dreaming of land.
This wasn’t a new thing for us. We’d sat in the living rooms of the many homes we’d either owned or rented, dreaming of raising our family in the country, searching the Internet for available properties, even calling realtors and setting up showings.
We wanted at least 5 acres, but no more than 10. Well water. Space for chickens or other livestock. Gardening space. All non-negotiables for us.
Occasionally, we’d find something that met (or almost met) our requirements. Each time, we’d meet a roadblock.
But, this day was different.
Out of the blue, I told my husband, “We don’t have to stay in Texas, you know. We can live anywhere. What if we looked outside of Texas? What if we left the South all together??”
And that changed everything.
So, sitting in the tiny living room of our tiny apartment, laptop in hand, my husband began to expand his job search to include several states we were interested in — Vermont, New Hampshire, and Oregon.
Not many days later, he told me that he had sent his resume to a company in Northeastern Minnesota!
“What?! It’s so cold up there! I don’t want to live that far north. It’s practically the Arctic Circle,” I gesticulated.
Then, I tried arguing our way out of it with practicality.
“They’ll see that we’re from Texas and won’t want to pay for us to move.”
“They’ll probably hire someone who’s local or within the company.”
I had all kinds of reasons why we shouldn’t move to Minnesota.
How We Ended Up in Northeastern Minnesota
That company loved my husband’s resume. Just one week after receiving it, they wanted to fly us both up to see the company, meet the owners, and look at homes. They even set us up with a realtor.
I spent that entire week before the flight feverishly scouring the Internet and all available real estate websites for a property. After all, I was NOT moving 1,200 miles away from our families if we were just going to end up buying another neighborhood home or renting again.
One afternoon, I found what looked to be a gem online. It was a 1970s home on a little over 5 acres. It had a well, septic system, a pole barn, spot for a garden, and room for chickens. The home was large enough for our family, but not too big.
And, it had one feature we never would’ve imagined in a hundred years: a traditional but modern Finnish sauna!
I called the realtor and set up a time to see the property during our visit the following weekend.
Remarkably, the real estate listing didn’t have one photo of the outside of the property, except the house itself and the sauna. Yet, something deep within me knew: if we got this job, THIS was the house for us.
Sure enough, as soon as we pulled up the driveway to see it for the first time, my heart leaped. I had made up my mind before I even walked in the door.
This was it. This was what we’d been dreaming about for all these long years.
My husband was excited about the prospect of being the director of the IT department at this company. We were both excited at the prospect of living and raising our kids (then 9 and 10) on this beautiful piece of land.
So, I made him a deal. If he wanted that job, I wanted the red house with the sauna.
One month later, we closed on the property. 🙂
A (Very) Brief History of the Traditional Finnish Sauna
Sauna (pronounced “sow” — rhymes with cow — “nah”) is the only Finnish word in the English dictionary. It means “bath” or “bathhouse”.
The sauna tradition has been part of Finnish culture for at least 2,000 years. Some believe the tradition is nearly 10,000 years old — as earth pits that would’ve been covered in animal skins have been discovered.
The Finns were originally nomadic tribes and clans, but as they began to settle, more permanent structures were built for their saunas.
The first fixed sauna was perhaps nothing more than a pit dug in the ground containing a fire and covered with hide or branches but it soon became a more permanent structure and as its solidity grew, so did its significance.
The next evolution of the sauna was an enclosed cabin with a fire heating a pile of stones. Once the fire had burned down and the smoke had cleared, the residual heat in the stones would keep the sauna warm for hours.
This type of sauna was the norm for hundreds of years and it was during this time that most of the original sauna traditions and beliefs developed. (Source.)
Wherever Finns traveled, they brought the sauna with them. During times when bathing was historically avoided elsewhere, the Finns washed and purified themselves in their saunas at least once a week.
By the 1920s, smoke saunas were being replaced with more modern ones. Wood-burning stoves with chimneys kept the sauna from becoming smokey.
Birth & Death in the Sauna
I live in an area of Minnesota that was heavily settled by Finns in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Many of these Finnish families actually built their saunas first and lived in them to stay warm for the winter, while they waited for Spring to begin building their houses.
Sauna is a vein that runs deep in Finnish culture.
For the Finns, saunas were not just for bathing. Used for religious ceremonies, body cleansing, relaxation, social gathering, and healing illnesses, the sauna is at the heart of Finnish culture.
Traditionally, women gave birth in the sauna. Old people went out to die in the sauna. And when someone died, their body was washed on the wooden benches of the sauna.
A couple of sauna-related Finnish proverbs:
- The sauna is a poor man’s pharmacy.
- If tar (pine sap), vodka, or the sauna won’t help, then the disease is fatal.
The Sauna Spirit
We are so blessed with friends (who are our chosen family) who have taken us under their wings and gently educated us about not only Finnish culture, but honoring our own ancestors in the sauna as well.
In cultures with saunas (Russia is a sauna culture also), the Sauna Spirit is revered.
In Finland, the Saunatonttu is a little gnome or wise fairy.
Depending on the home, the Sauna Spirit might have been an invisible entity — a sort of earthly nature sprite — honored with offerings of food placed outside the sauna or with a ceremonial firing up of the sauna especially for Saunatonttu (source).
Or, some families had actual stones with a man’s face carved in them which they brought into the sauna with them as the Sauna Spirit (source).
Our Sauna Spirit is represented by a small sailing captain yard statue that was left here when we bought the property. To add some Viking spirit, we have adorned his head with a moose pelvis we found while walking through our woods. (Look at the bottom left corner of the photos of the outside of our sauna and you’ll see our Captain Sauna Spirit.) 🙂
The sailing captain shows the significance not only of living so close to Lake Superior, with its many ships but also of this land, which has been inhabited by Finnish families who sailed over from Finland so many generations ago.
We have recently learned that our land was owned by a Finnish immigrant before it was sold to the builders of our house — and then sold to us!
We honor our Captain Sauna Spirit by leaving offerings of herbs or salt in a birdbath near the sauna and also by pouring water over the rocks one last time before closing the door and allowing the fire to burn out. The final steam is for Captain Sauna Spirit.
We like to think that, with our recent updates and changes, the camaraderie we share in our sauna, and our stewardship of the land, we are keeping our Sauna Spirit happy and content to watch over our sauna for years to come.
Black Friday Burn: 2018
On Black Friday in 2018, we were preparing to sauna with some friends after dinner. My husband lit the fire and came inside. Because it usually took a couple of hours for the huge barrel stove to heat the space, we had time to eat dinner first.
Yet, when he went back out to check the stove, the sauna had caught fire!
It took 4 adults and our 2 teenagers hauling water in 5-gallon buckets from the house and buckets of snow from outside to put it out. But, we had it out before the volunteer fire department showed up.
Thankfully, the sauna was covered under our homeowner’s insurance, because that fire did nearly $20,000 in damage.
The sauna room and dressing room were badly damaged by smoke, and the entire back wall was burned. The attic, ceiling, and roof also suffered damage, as well as the insulation, metal siding, the electrical wiring, lighting, and the original inner door.
Since the fire was caused by the old barrel stove (that was too big for the space anyway), we decided to upgrade to a much nicer, smaller, more efficient sauna stove from Finland. The old barrel stove now sits in front of the sauna and functions as a planter and a reminder of what we overcame that day.
To make it extra safe, my husband put in a brick hearth under and around the stove. And, we have a fire extinguisher, too!
Our sauna now has our (much safer) custom touches to it, while still retaining the character and charm it always had.
A REAL Sauna + Finnish Sauna Etiquette
According to Northern Tradition Shamanism, there is a “sauna” that uses infrared or electric heat and no steam at all. And then there is a SAUNA — the original stofa ritual that honors the powers of water, fire, stone, and steam, which is the Breath of the Ancestors.
Therefore, a proper Finnish sauna should have these elements:
- a source of wood heat with real flames
- stones to throw water on to create steam
- water for the stones and for washing
- a fresh birch whisk (called a vasta), which is used to beat the skin to improve circulation and to add a beautiful scent to the air
- knowledge of proper sauna etiquette
Now, this isn’t to say that modern infrared saunas offer no health benefits. On the contrary! I believe they are very good at opening detoxification pathways and removing toxins such as heavy metals and killing infections and parasites.
They are not, however, Finnish saunas with spiritual or ritualistic significance, and I felt I needed to make the distinction.
Regarding sauna etiquette…
A sauna is not for partying, rowdiness, or fondling each other. It is a solemn occasion, and a quiet, meditative ambience should be promoted. Being naked is mandatory; one should go in as one came out of the womb. The sauna is a rebirth experience in its own way. In our modern society, some people may feel shy about being naked, but this is fairly critical. Anyone who would be so rude as to comment on someone’s body, or give someone an unwanted touch, shouldn’t be allowed to be present during such a ritual anyway. (Source.)
Also, nakedness is preferred in our sauna, but not required. Our sauna is a judgment-free zone.
We’ve had people sauna in bathing suits, in shorts, shorts and t-shirts, and underwear. We want our sauna to be a safe and welcoming space for all. Everyone is encouraged to wear what makes them most comfortable.
Our Modern Finnish Sauna
A far cry from a pit covered in animal skins or a turf-covered ground sauna, our Finnish sauna, like most saunas in the country of Finland now, is much more modern.
According to a neighbor, our sauna was built on-site sometime in the early 1970s. Until the Black Friday fire, nothing about it had changed.
It is a wood-framed structure, with electricity, insulation, and even an attic.
Our modern Finnish sauna has 2 rooms: a dressing room and the sauna room, both made entirely of cedar. That’s right — the walls, floor, ceiling, benches, and hooks are all sturdy, sanitary, water-resistant cedarwood.
One enters the dressing room first — a small space with benches and clothing hooks on one side. There is plenty of space for undressing and hanging clothes and towels on the wooden hooks.
The dressing room benches are a great spot to socialize before, during, or after a sauna. We also keep water and bottles of essential oils on the small window shelf in the dressing room.
Next, a cedarwood door, built by my husband, opens to reveal the sauna.
We have 2 shelf-style benches and one corner bench next to the woodstove.
Our Harvia sauna stove, which we had sent over from Finland, sits on a brick hearth in the corner of the room. An insulated steel stovepipe goes up and through the roof to the outside.
It is extremely safe — much more so than the original barrel stove that sat too low to the ground and had holes in the back!
How We Take Saunas
When we are in the mood for a sauna (usually once or twice a week in Spring, Fall, and Winter), my husband gathers wood and lights the stove. Within 30 minutes of lighting the new stove, the temperature hovers between 120 and 130 degrees.
This water serves many purposes: it’s poured over the rocks to create steam, we dip into it with wooden spoons or a pitcher and pour over ourselves to cool off, and it’s used for washing and bathing.
Then, we undress, hang our clothes on the hooks in the dressing room, and enter the sauna.
At first, it’s nice to just lie on the benches and allow our bodies to adjust to the heat — which we prefer to be between 130 and 160 F.
After a little while, we pour water over the rocks, and they sizzle as steam fills the sauna.
The top bench is by far the hottest zone. I prefer the bottom bench. Children typically play in water buckets on the floor, as it’s the coolest space.
As we get a good sweat going, we’ll step out into the dressing room or outside to cool off.
At the end of the sauna, we use the water to rinse off the benches and floor and then pour a final pitcher of water onto the rocks for the Sauna Spirit to enjoy.
In Finnish culture, it’s typical to sit in the sauna for 30 to 40 minutes, sweating profusely, then jump into a cold pond or lake nearby or roll in the snow to cool off, then go back in and repeat that process 3 or 4 times.
When we have snow on the ground (and it’s soft!), sauna takers will roll in the snow. And, we all laugh and scream with excitement! Unfortunately, we don’t have a lake or pond nearby.
After 90 minutes or more, or whenever we decide we’re done, we pour one last pitcher of water over the stove and close the cedar door. We’ll sit in the dressing room to cool off for a few minutes before dressing and heading back to the house.
We don’t put the fire out. It goes out naturally and dries out the moisture in the room.
Do You Sauna Naked?
Ok, I can just anticipate that most people, especially in the U.S., are wondering this… LOL
So, yes, we take saunas naked. It’s actually uncomfortable to sauna with clothes or even a bathing suit — more below.
My husband and I take saunas together quite frequently. When we first moved here, our kids took saunas with us, but as they’ve grown into teenagers and are naturally body-conscious, they rarely sauna now.
Many Finnish and Scandinavian families live in our region, therefore a naked, co-ed sauna is the norm. Since moving to this area, we have discovered that the ideals of modesty are extremely geographically and culturally based.
For example, in the South, the idea of being naked with anyone of the opposite sex, besides your spouse, is unheard of. Conversely, in our community, there is much less emphasis placed on appearance, dress, and modesty in general. It would be weird to sauna with clothes on!
(Though we have had people sauna in their swimsuits or wrapped in towels, which is perfectly fine. Our sauna is a judgment-free zone.) 🙂
We have had 3 generations in a family in our sauna, infants and toddlers, older community members, and couples that are our age. It is a lovely time of relaxation, togetherness, conversation, and fun!
The bottom line is this: anyone who is rude enough to use this ritualistic time to comment or objectify another’s naked body shouldn’t be in the sauna at all.
7 Benefits of the Finnish Sauna
The Finnish sauna is different from today’s very modern and expensive NEAR and FAR-infrared saunas. These use infrared bulbs to induce sweating, and the Finnish sauna uses a wood stove for heat.
Generally, sweating is beneficial, no matter how that sweating is induced. Yet, the sauna offers many more benefits than just bringing on a good sweat.
#1 — Calming the nervous system.
One of the signals that your body is in a parasympathetic (or relaxed) nervous system state is sweating. In fact, many people with revved up nervous systems find that it is very difficult for them to sweat. The moist heat of the sauna is so relaxing and eases pretty much all stress.
#2 — Good for circulation.
Taking a sauna is akin to light-medium exercise and is very good for the circulatory system. It helps avert hypertension, and consequently, other cardiac diseases.
Heat causes blood vessels to dilate, improving and increasing circulation.
#3 — Speeds up healing.
Dilated blood vessels = increased blood flow = faster healing.
Sauna speeds up the body’s natural healing process — for aches, pains, cuts, and bruises.
#4 — Eases sore muscles and joints.
The high temperature provides a natural environment for muscles to relax and let go of tension, whether that tension is from the soreness of exercise or manual labor or from stress.
Once again, increased blood flow encouraged by the sauna also brings natural healing to sore muscles and joints.
#5 — Deep sweating eliminates toxins.
There is a big difference in the small amount of armpit or upper lip sweat you get from going for a walk and the deep sweating induced by sauna.
Sweat production naturally cools the body, however deep sweating (where the core temperature is elevated) can help reduce levels of heavy metals and other chemicals in our bodies. Simply put, saunas are one of the best ways to support our bodies’ natural detoxification processes.
#6 — Improved sleep.
Many, myself included, can personally attest to the improved, deep sleep attained after taking an evening sauna.
#7 — Helps fight illness.
When the body is exposed to heat and steam, it produces more white blood cells, which fight illness and kill viruses and bacteria.
Additionally, if congestion is experienced as part of a cold or flu, the steam and heat of the sauna mimic a steam tent — but for the whole body!
Little did we know that we were buying a home with health benefits! Ha! I’m so glad we did because our modern Finnish sauna has become one of our favorite things about our beautiful property.
More Posts About Our Little Homestead You Might Enjoy…
- 7 Tips for Minimalism in the Real Food Kitchen
- How We Eat Real, Organic Food Without Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, & Costco
- Pressing Apples Into Cider
- A Tour of Our Garden
- How to Make Fresh Mint Sun Tea
- Our Move to Northern Minnesota