This page has been written by Paul. Sue also uses the sauna, and, when possible, we sauna together. But, in order to keep my skin in good condition, I tend to use the sauna much more frequently.
I was introduced to the sauna in the Autumn of 1979 when staying in Finland with Graham Turner and his late wife, Marjatta. My first experience was in a little wooden sauna cabin in the woods on a slope running down to the Baltic. It had a wood burning stove which you had to light an hour before you wanted to sauna. If you wanted to cool off in the sea, you had to negotiate a steep and often muddy path down to the shore.
After I had been staying in the area for a few weeks, the sea froze.
We did not attempt to cool off in the sea; we certainly did not attempt to break the ice and jump in; but we did go out and roll in the snow. Now, that is an experience not to be missed! It almost spoiled me for anything else.
Since then, most saunas have been of the modern electric fire type. It's good, but it's not the same without the aroma of wood smoke.
What is a sauna? It is a process of getting alternately hot and cold. It's not just the heat - that on its own will make you feel ill. Most people I have met who say they have tried a sauna and don't like it made this mistake: they concentrated on getting hot, and didn't get cold enough.
The technique is very simple: you get hot until you really want to get cold, then you get cold until you are so cold you want to sit in the sauna again.
A decent sauna will offer two things: a hot sauna cabin, where you put water onto heated stones to make steam, and a cold plunge pool. When you have had enough heat in the sauna, you jump in the plunge pool and get cold. When you are cold enough, you get out and go in the sauna again. You repeat this sequence until you are fully relaxed, or your time is up.
Most modern saunas don't have a plunge pool: instead, they have showers available. Most of the time, you are allowed to adjust the temperature of the showers, which causes a problem. Many people, when they shower, have the shower temperature too high: it cools them down a little, but not enough.
The trouble is, after coming out of a sauna, shower temperatures that would normally feel hot will feel cool by comparison. Most people set the temperature too high because it feels like it is cooling (and, initially, it will be) but it is still above normal body temperature, so it is still tending to raise your body temperature above normal. You must have a cold shower - below body temperature - before it starts to be effective in counteracting the sauna heat.
To complicate matters, in my experience, in many places, most of the showers don't work properly, and it can be quite tricky to find a shower that supplies enough water that is cold enough to do the trick. The most difficult part of the sauna experience is the cold bit: you require a distinct act of will to set the shower temperature low enough to be of use.
If you use a plunge pool - and if one is available, it is by far the best option - the technique is easy: get in, put your head under, and stay in until you are ready for a hot sauna cabin again.
If you use a shower, it is not as simple. It is not easy to judge the shower temperature you need. My suggestion is that you adjust the temperature until it feels cool but not painfully cold, so that you think you will be able to cope with the tempreature for maybe 30 seconds. Generally, by the time 30 seconds are up, your body has acclimatised to the shower, and it no longer feels as cold. So turn the temperature down again, aiming for something you can cope with for another 30 seconds. Keep repeating this process until you really are cold enough and ready for the heat of the sauna again.
Try to remember the last temperature setting when you leave, and start your next shower at that heat. And remember, while you are in the shower, to make sure you cool down your head as well as your body.
There is one other practical point to remember: different showers may all look the same, but they are often very different in the amount of water they provide and the range of temperatures on offer. So try to go back into the same shower each time, otherwise you can get quite a shock.
If you alternate hot and cold in this way, your skin gets hot and cold, but the inside of your body - your 'core temperature' - remains essentially unchanged. This way, you get the benefits without feeling ill.
The sauna gets you hot, and it gets you clean. You get far cleaner with a sauna than with a normal bath or shower. Your sweat cleans out the pores and cleans the skin from within, and the heat helps to kill off any bugs that don't get washed away.
The heat of the sauna, and the rhythm of the heat and cold, is very relaxing. For a year or two, I used to sauna on a Friday afternoon: it is the perfect way to end a long and stressful week at work. I was told in Finland that the only time when the (normally taciturn) Finnish male will relax enough to really talk is after a sauna. Certainly, my experience is that people will often talk to strangers in and after a sauna in a way that will rarely happen in any other context.
The basic reason I sauna regularly is because it helps to keep my skin in reasonable condition. Some people find this hard to believe, but it is quite true - see my eczema page for more details. I used to suffer quite badly from eczema, and disliked baths and showers because they left me clean but with my skin irritated. I would take a bath or shower in the morning, to give my skin as long as possible to settle down before attempting to sleep.
But after a sauna, I find my skin is soothed and relaxed. It must have something to do with the easy way the old layer of dead skin on the surface comes away in the heat and the cold. It probably has something to do with the increased blood flow in the skin. But whatever the reason, regular saunas help to keep my skin healthy and reduce irritation.
The sauna certainly does some interesting things to your blood circulation. When you are hot, the blood vessels near your skin open up, and the blood flows close to the surface in order to cool off. When you are cold, the reverse happens: the blood vessels near the skin close down as much as possible, and the blood accumulates in your central organs, retaining the heat where it is most needed.
When you are hot, the blood has to be pumped around near the skin, which required a lot of work for the heart. When you get cold quickly, the blood vessels near the skin close up quickly, but the heart still keeps pumping away, pushing the blood through your insides. This increased flow is very good for you. It's a bit like engaging in hard physical exercise, without the work.
One of the nice things about the sauna is that it is a very social place to be. You often find complete strangers are willing to engage in deep or amusing conversations. If you sat next to each other on the bus, you would probably totally ignore each other, but somehow sitting and sweating together brings a shared experience and offers a safe context in which to talk. You can be as serious or as flippant as you like, because you know that you can only talk for a few minutes before one or the other has to go out and get cold again.
This might sound like an odd thing to say, but I firmly believe that discovering the sauna has helped many people get 'in touch' with their body - sometimes after years of a strange form of neglect.
So much of life today is regulated by external objects and events: we are dominated by appointments and schedules, constrained by opening hours and closing time, always watching the clock and answering the telephone. In the sauna, you do not watch the clock or the thermometer, except out of curiosity. Instead, you listen to what your body is telling you.
When people are new to the sauna, they are sometimes told 'do this for so long, and then do that'. You even get such instructions pinned up outside sauna cabins, for the benefit of people who don't know what to do. But once you have used the sauna a few times, you discover that your body knows better than any clock how long to spend doing what.
So the sauna helps you learn how to listen to your body, rather than rely on mechanical devices to tell you what is happening. Possibly even more importantly, in the sauna you learn to listen to your body rather than your mind.
People new to the sauna watch the water turn to steam on the hot stones, and they are tempted to panic. They often think - and sometimes say - things like: "I can't possibly survive this!" It is not a joke: the mind tells them that this is all wrong, that they can't possibly survive in such heat. It is the body that tells you: yes, you can survive - for a little while, at least - and enjoy it.
Each experience of the sauna is different. The stones are a slightly different temperature, there is more or less water vapour in the air, and your body changes in innumerable ways. The sauna is not about following rules, but about discovering the best way to enjoy it for you, here and now. Learning to be where you are, to experience the present moment fully, is a joy and a lesson that can be applied in many places once you have discovered to use it in the sauna.
And, finally, in the sauna you learn to become comfortable with your body, and also with other people and their bodies. You would not wear a swimming costume in the bath or shower, and you certainly don't want to wear one in the sauna. Not only is it unhygenic, but it feels dreadful. The last thing you want in a sauna is a piece of damp cloth wrapped round you. God gave you a wonderful body, and it is a great gift to discover how to accept it - how to be comfortable in and with your own body.
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