“There is only one rule in sauna,” says my Finnish host Seppo Peltonen. “It’s about pleasure.
Pleasure and nothing else.”
If that’s the case, I must have been doing something wrong during my visits to health-club saunas over the years. For me, the experience involves a post-workout routine based on tolerance and overcoming discomfort. The enduring image in my mind is of the male sauna-goes squirming on a hot wooden bench with his eyes riveted on the sauna hourglass, perhaps wishing he was in a unisex emporium where naked sweaty flesh is a more attractive proposition. He grits his teeth and wriggles his hands as the last grains of sand slide down, signalling a welcome end to this dose of heat, fire and steam.
In other words, about as far from a pleasurable activity as you could imagine. But that’s back home in Britain. In Finland, it’s a different story altogether, as Seppo is quick to point out. “For us Finns, sauna is a holy place,” he says. “It’s relaxation and enjoyment, a time for families and friends to be together. It should be natural; it’s clean… a beautiful place.”
And when I complain about the heat during one of many visits to saunas in and around Helsinki, he tells me: “Step out if you are too hot. It’s not a competition.”
The saunas Seppo and I visited during my trip were of the true Finnish variety, where we created invisible waves of steam ourselves by gently tossing water onto heated rocks. This prevents the sauna from becoming too dry. It also
Think of your fellow sauna-users and follow these tips for a safe and enjoyable session:
• Shower first to moisten the skin and remove any odours
• Bring a towel or paper mat to sit on
• Avoid excessive noise, laughing or joking; no farting or snapping your towel
• Never enter a sauna while drunk (or high)
• Don’t sprawl — allow space for others to sit down
• Wipe down where you’ve been sitting — never leave it wet
• Exit and cool off when hot by taking a brief shower or sitting in room temperature
• Take a second round, cool off again and repeat this cycle as it feels comfortable
• Wash up and dry off, allowing enough time for your body to cool before getting dressed
conjures up a sense of magic, as the dark interior of the sauna cascades with the sound of charged energy and suspense. Seppo and I visited rooftop saunas adjacent to pristine lap pools; others were on the seashore or beside a lake bordered by magnificent pines and firs.
We sampled electric, wood and smoke saunas, and Seppo described each one’s special characteristics like a viticulturist extolling the merits of a shiraz compared to a merlot, or a cabernet sauvignon compared to a pinot noir. We used the sauna before and after swimming, and even plunged ourselves into an icy cold pool. In passionate tones, the likes of which I’ve only encountered when men discuss sport, Seppo explained the tradition and history of sauna bathing in Finland. He boasted that there are so many saunas in the country — private and public — that at one coordinated moment every Finn could be simultaneously enjoying a comfortable sweat. Obviously, the virtues of a sauna run deeper than my pre-Finland experiences, but what do those involved in the business back home think?
Will Shaw, the facilities manager of LA Fitness, the UK’s largest chain of health clubs, claims that saunas are not about taking as much heat as you can but are part of the total health and fitness concept. “The focus is on relaxation, pampering, comfort, and chilling out,” he told me. Saunas go into every LA Fitness gym, and their usage is extremely high. When I asked Shaw about the purpose of the hourglass he said it was for safety, “to ensure that no one remained in the sauna too long.”
If you can’t stand the heat..
It may be true that the hourglass protects some men from overheating, but according to Tony Pendleton, the UK managing director of AB Lagerholm, the largest sauna installer in Britain, “For most men, the sauna is a trial by heat. And when they’re in there with their mates they might compete to see who can withstand the heat longer. That goes completely against the sauna ethos which is based on an ‘each to his own philosophy.
“In fact, all anyone needs to know is, ‘Do what feels right’,” continues Pendleton. “I spend half my time dispelling all sorts of myths about sauna, particularly the idea that installing a sauna at home is outrageously expensive. If that was the case, how do all the Finns do it? I can’t emphasise enough what a pleasant fitness and leisure practice sauna is. Nothing is more relaxing and beneficial, especially at the end of a busy week. Like I say to people, ‘You have to undress to unstress.'”
Clearly, the majority of our fitness routines today have become measured, rational practices that we endure as a means to an end. In the name of achievement and health, we work through pain, ignore injuries and focus on doing more. Intensity, volume, peaking, tapering, nutrition supplements, weight loss ¬these are just a few of the concepts and notions that govern many of our health and fitness decisions as men. Professor Andrew Sparkes from Exeter University, who has written extensively on gender and sport, believes that “an all-consuming process of scientisation and medicalisation has made achieving fitness for men a self-surveilling, socially-scrutinised act — Are my abs flat enough? Are my biceps big enough? Are my electrolytes balanced?’ Inch by inch, second by second and gram by gram, men are slowly losing any sense of `movement as enjoyment’, not to mention any embodied appreciation of themselves and their lives.”
So can self-knowledge and self-awareness ever enter the fitness equation when we are continually bombarded with stricter, more prescriptive exercise guidelines? My jaunt to Finland told me that the sauna might present us with at least one fitness opportunity.
As you’d expect from the name, pure escapism is what’s on offer. Go for a relaxing dip in the stainless steel swimming pool or work off excess energy in the gym. There are plenty of spa treatments for those who need to revitalise their bodies and minds. Indulge yourself with a herbal linen wrap or an Indian head massage.
Dripping with goodness
But at the same time, saunas do offer additional health benefits besides relaxation. Medical research conducted in Finland has shown that taking two saunas a week for six months can lead to a 30 per cent reduction in symptoms related to the common cold. More recently, German researchers, led by Dr Birgit Schittek of Eberhard-Karts University in Tubingen, found that sweating guards against skin conditions. Schittek’s team pinpointed a germ-fighting gene called dermicidin, which is manufactured in our sweat glands and helps fight off bacteria. Other known benefits associated with a weekly sauna include fewer joint and muscle aches, so it really is the ideal way to recover from a strenuous workout.
A session in the sauna is also an effective way to bounce back after a big night out — all that sweating helps gets rid of a lorry-load of toxins. Moreover, there are essentially no risks associated with saunas (aside from the embarrassment that may arise should you mistakenly stumble into the ladies’ sauna). Similar to most fitness activities available in gyms today, taking a sauna involves a number of safe physiological short-term effects that have long-term health benefits. Putting biological indicators aside for a moment, are any British men enjoying the deep-down, sensory sauna experience, Finnish-style? To see for myself, I paid a visit to the Porchester Spa in London’s Westminster, to find out whether the pleasure principle held any currency in the UK. It offers patrons full-length lockers, Contact: 01428 726020 or fresh towels, plush leather sofa beds, side tables and individual reading lamps. And the mood inside is tranquil — no blaring music, televisions or mobile phones. Even before undressing I could feel myself gearing down.
I found professionals and trades people, young and old, all enjoying sauna for sauna’s sake. One self-described “frantic City worker” told me that his Saturday spell in the sauna is practically his only chance during the week to unwind. No hourglass here, or concern with strict procedures either, just true sauna pleasure. And when I consider what fitness can really mean, including pleasure in the definition is probably not a bad way to go at all.