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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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Like many Americans, I first experienced a sauna in the sterile (and none-too-hot) confines of the local sports and health club. Despite this tepid introduction, I became hooked, and I've subsequently spent a lot of time searching for sauna authenticity.

My most grueling sauna took place at a fishing camp on the Volga River in the Soviet Union. Called a banya by my Russian hosts, the sauna was preceded by several bowls of steaming fish soup, a distillate of everything in a fish that tastes fishiest, and several rounds of straight vodka served in glasses the size and heft of mason jars. Once inside the banya I was swept up several times in the naked embrace of my 300-pound host, who bubbled over with alcohol-fueled international goodwill. When the banya came to an end, we neither showered nor jumped into the Volga; we simply toweled off and dressed, each at one with his sweat.

In most other sauna hot spots, a quick cool-down is thought to be the proper finale. Rolling in the snow is highly touted by some aficionados—I can testify from experience it feels like squirming naked in driveway gravel. A friend of mine had a far better idea. He built his sauna high above a Minnesota lake and included a long wooden slide from the bath hut to the water. After roasting in the heat, the bathers would burst one at a time from the sauna, grab one of the plastic sleds stacked by the door, slap it down on the slats, hop aboard and ride pell-mell into the water. The particular strength of that technique was that there could be no changing of the mind once a body was set in motion.

Another friend thought of the ultimate sauna in terms of raw numbers. Having read that some Finns had endured saunas at 267� F, he and a few friends stoked a fire with seasoned split birch until the thermometer inside the sauna read 300�. "You had to wet down your hair and eyebrows," he said. "Otherwise, the pain was unbearable, and combustion likely." After he had cooled down, my friend wrote to the Finnish Embassy in Washington, D.C., to claim the world record for heat. The Finns' reply was polite yet clearly unimpressed. High temperature alone has little to do with the quality of a sauna, the Finns sniffed.

They should know. The supreme arbiter of what is and is not an authentic sauna is a 2,000-member body called the Finnish Sauna Society. Its headquarters are near Helsinki on a wooded island in the Gulf of Finland called Lauttasaari.

It is late January when I arrive to partake of a sauna prepared by the society. As soon as I step inside the headquarters, I get a handout and a lecture. The handout is an American magazine article about a portable heater and slip-on nylon bag called a Walk Sauna. The biting admonition that not all "saunas" deserve the name is delivered by Juhani Per�salo, the society's president. "There is a saying that one must behave in the sauna just as in church," Per�salo says. Perhaps. But I suspect Per�salo underestimates the ingenuity and the economic potential of a device that combines the Finnish passion for sauna with the American passion for watching TV.

We retire to one of the society's four pine-paneled saunas, and I discover Per�salo, a medical doctor in his 40's, to be far from a scold. He is gracious, likable and, except for his spectacles, completely naked. In Finland, business meetings between strangers are often conducted in the soothing surroundings of the sauna, and it has been suggested that the combination of high heat and nakedness enabled the Finns to successfully negotiate the international trade minefields between East and West during the cold war.

It's nearly dark, but I can see a wall thermometer that reads 100� C (212� F), hot enough to boil water. "So, why aren't we turning medium rare?" I ask.

"First—and this is very important—is that you're sweating," says Per�salo. A rivulet of perspiration trickles down his temple. In fact, he informs me, we will be sweating at the rate of about a quart per hour. "Circulation through the skin increases manyfold as the blood capillaries and the blood vessels of the outer layers dilate with the heat," Per�salo says. Because I am curious about these things, I have brought an oral thermometer, which I pop into my mouth. After several minutes in the sauna, the thermometer reads only 100.9, the equivalent of a slight fever.

"What about the heart?" I ask, thinking about it pumping away to keep blood rushing through all these wide-open capillaries, and of the shock it must endure from sudden cool-down procedures, like the dive into the Baltic that I know awaits me.

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