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How to Spot a Real Sauna? No Sweat
Greg Breining
February 25, 1991
Just because it's hot and dry and there's wood on the walls doesn't mean it's authentic—simply ask the first Finn you see
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February 25, 1991

How To Spot A Real Sauna? No Sweat

Just because it's hot and dry and there's wood on the walls doesn't mean it's authentic—simply ask the first Finn you see

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"Research has shown that even after a myocardial infarction one can go into the sauna without complications," Per�salo says. "When your vessels dilate, your blood pressure goes down because resistance to the blood flow declines. After that, your heartbeat increases to keep your blood pressure normal. The net effect: Your heart beats faster but works no harder. It is like gearing down a bicycle."

But going for a cold swim is another matter. "As you enter the water, your blood vessels suddenly constrict," Per�salo says. "Your blood pressure goes as high as it is ever likely to get." For that reason anyone worried about his heart should cool down gradually after a sauna.

I mention my friend and the "world record" sauna. Per�salo smiles indulgently. A genuine sauna, he explains, ranges from about 175� F to a bit over the boiling point—hot but not excruciating. "The key is dryness," he says. With that, he tosses a dipper of water on the glowing kiuas ("rocks"). Hot vapor, called l�yly, washes over us and quickly dissipates, leaving the humidity at about 20%. "A desert climate at Arctic latitudes," Per�salo says, smiling.

After a few more minutes, Per�salo and I hit the shower and then head for another sauna. This one resembles the sauna we just left but is heated to only 180� F. After 15 minutes, we file directly into one of the society's two smoke saunas. Like saunas 1,000 years ago, the smoke saunas are heated by unvented hearths. Once the kiuas glow, the fire is allowed to die and the smoke escapes out the windows and door. Traditionalists prize the smoke sauna above all others for the lingering aroma of woodsmoke and the relaxing gloom of the soot-blackened walls, which absorb some of the heat. But smoke saunas are not without hazards. "Every good smoke sauna burns down every five years," Per�salo says.

The doctor carries a wooden bucket filled with water and bunches of leafy birch twigs. "This is called a vihta," he says, handing me one of the switches. He takes one for himself, wrings water from the leaves and gently whips his shoulders, back and legs. I do the same. The vihta smells fresh and spicy, yet the impact of the scratchy leaves and the fanning of hot air make my skin burn. "It accentuates the effect of the heat and stimulates sweating," Per�salo says.

Historically, there were cures and rituals attributed to the vihta. To treat an itch, a bather swept the skin three times with the branches. A person could be released from the power of the devil by beating himself on the face with a vihta.

"In Finland, the sauna was taken as a holy place," says Per�salo. Because saunas were where healers cured diseases and priests exorcised evil spirits, it is no surprise that saunas also became traditional places for childbirth. They are rarely used in this manner anymore, but it is still possible to meet Finns who were born in saunas.

"In medieval times they had saunas everywhere in Europe," Per�salo says. Which leads me to wonder why they remain popular only in Scandinavia and northwestern Russia. Per�salo explains that public saunas elsewhere in Europe eventually became bordellos. "They spread sexually transmitted diseases, especially syphilis. Officials felt they had to close them. Once banned, the sauna disappeared from many cultures."

For two hours Per�salo and I move between sauna and shower. Finally, he points me to the scrub room, where the kylvettaja, a middle-aged woman with forearms as knotted as cedar roots, stands beside a padded table. As I stretch out, she scrubs my back and then my front, using a loofah as though it were a rolling pin. Finally, satisfied that my freckles are indelible, she sets me upright and gives me a shampoo. By now I'm relaxed nearly to exhaustion, yet one part of the ritual remains—to plunge through a hole in the ice into the Baltic.

I retreat to the smoke sauna for several minutes to soak up heat and gather my nerve. Then I fly out the door and bound down the hill toward the sea. I'm too slow: I get colder with every step. It is dark. I run onto a dock and slide down its ladder. The black water touches my foot like a sharp knife. There's no sugarcoating this. It is not brisk or bracing or invigorating. It is bitterly, painfully cold. Climbing lower still, I feel daggers in my legs, then my belly, my chest. When they pierce my neck, I scramble back up the ladder.

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