So I must warn you,” began my friend and Helsinki local Krista Fransman when we met on the steps in front of the city’s iconic cathedral. “Swimming costumes are not allowed. It’s the rule – you have to go naked.” Seeing the straps of my bikini top had clearly reminded her that she has not fully prepared me for what is to come. I weighed her words in my mind as we walked towards Helsinki’s hip Kallio neighbourhood, north of the city. I am not naturally shy, but I did feel uncertain at the idea of complete nakedness in public.
“Don’t worry,” consoled Krista, as she read my thoughts. “Women and men will be separated.” For many of us, baring all in public can be a bit of a taboo; nakedness being something we equate with more intimate moments. We often feel awkward, preferring to maintain a modest approach to public bathing (and by that, I mean taking the word ‘public’ out of the picture). In sauna-crazy Finland however, where tradition dictates that everyone bares all, the Finns have grown up with the idea of nakedness and embrace it to the fullest. Families, groups of friends and even work colleagues often go to saunas together – it is very much a bonding session.
Giving me a crash course on sauna tradition, Krista goes on to describe how sauna was historically used as a way of maintaining public hygiene, similar to the concept of public bath houses like the hammam in the Arabian culture or the onsens of Japan. Saunas were where people gathered to clean and to catch up on neighbourhood gossip, when facilities for private bathrooms were not yet commonplace.
“It would have actually been the most hygienic place in the whole community,” Krista explains. “Women would come to the sauna to give birth, and when you died, your body would have been brought to the sauna for a final cleanse. If you think about it, the tradition of sauna is integral to our life and death.”
To this day, every house in Finland has its own sauna, and every apartment block has a communal sauna for the residents. Finns make regular visits to escape, relax, reflect and sometimes to socialise, and it is common knowledge that the president of Finland, Sauli Niinistö, discusses his most important matters in balmy sauna temperatures.
“I often visit the sauna after work,” Krista told me, “I see it as my time – it is when I can sit, de-stress and think about things.”
Krista leads us to Kotiharjun Sauna in Kallio, one of the city’s oldest sauna establishments, where they still use a wood fire rather than electricity for heat. Opened in 1928, Kotiharjun retains much of its original wooden interior and is popular with Kallio locals.
We entered the dressing room, where a group of ladies were in various states of undressing. Instinctively, I looked away at first, only to realise that everyone was engaged in a lively conversation, eye-to-eye, with no sign of self-consciousness – as if being naked is the most natural thing in the world. But then it occurred to me – why shouldn’t it be the most natural thing in the world?
Of course, we know how empowering it can be to embrace our body shapes just as they are, and many of us do so in private, but in public it can feel harder to let go of the ‘perfect’, airbrushed body images we see all around us. ‘Am I too fat? Am I too skinny? Do I have too many wrinkles or scars?’ we think to ourselves. We hide our perceived imperfections under our clothes and the idea of being naked in front of strangers is an intimidating prospect.
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I undressed and immediately wrapped my towel around me. I thought of everything I’ve been taught about modesty, and how it has affected my idea of body image as an adult. Watching these women being so comfortable in each other’s naked company, I decided that it was time to let go, to get out of my comfort zone and immerse myself in the full Finnish sauna experience. I breathed deep and dropped my towel. Then, head held high, I walked into the steam room with the group – a celebration of women’s bodies just as they are.
Inside the sauna the scent of wood was soothing and the seating area was like a mini amphitheatre. Krista explained the tiered seating system. The top step is the hottest, where the temperature registers at 90°C. With every drop in step, the temperature falls a little. Social convention dictates that it’s those who are sweating it out up top who are in charge of when extra steam is required. We chose a spot in the mid-section and caught up with each other’s news in hushed voices. All the while we spoke, the giant iron oven hissed and steam spread through the room with each release of water. As I became accustomed to the heat, I felt my muscles and my mind relax. Random thoughts seemed to pour out of me and I understood why Krista came to the sauna to de-stress – it felt as if my mind was being cleansed along with my body.
Krista and I found ourselves discussing our childhood memories, our past relationships, our plans, our worries, our hopes and world order – from Brexit to Trump and everything else inbetween. It really is no wonder that the Finns conduct business meetings in a sauna. There’s an honesty about being naked, and something about the humidity that makes you want to find clarity, to delve into the deepest parts of your mind.
The longer I spent in the sauna, the less I felt self-conscious of my nakedness too. Half-way through the session, we cooled down by stepping out onto the street (towels on this time). Again, I realised how fully Finns integrate sauna into their day-to-day – during the 10 minutes we sat in our towels by the footpath, no one gave us a second glance. We were just normal people taking a break from the steam.
Back in the sauna, feeling comfortable in my own skin, a sense of freedom and release flowed through me. I felt a deep sense of being in the moment, of knowing myself and feeling content to just be. Being able to let go of my reservations and be proud of my body felt good. It still does. Once you have embraced your nakedness in a Finnish sauna it really does feel like the most natural thing in the world.
Finnish sauna etiquette
If you’re visiting a sauna in Finland, leave your bathers behind and follow these steam room dos and don’ts…
Just in case you were worrying… a pre-sauna shower is de rigeur.
Don’t add water without permission
You might like it hot but throwing water on the stove without asking permission is no-no. The people sitting on the highest bench set the pace, as they will be the ones feeling the heat!
No drinks allowed
You’ll want to drink plenty of water after a sauna, but there are no drinks allowed in the sauna itself. Pop out into one of the cool down spaces to rehydrate.
Keep the noise levels down
Conversation is encouraged but it’s strictly hush hush, so if you and your sauna gal pal get the giggles it’s time to step outside!
A woman stands in the snow at Kuusijarvi Sauna Maria Olin-Bolin
Top 5 saunas in Helsinki
For an authentic Finnish sauna experience visit this traditional woodfire heated sauna in the central district of Kallio. Opened in 1928, the sauna interior retains its original, much-loved wooden décor.
With its woodburning stoves and rustic outlook, this is the genuine Finnish sauna experience away from the city centre. The sauna opens Monday to Wednesday evenings or you can make a private booking.
Allas Sea Pool & Sauna
The most picturesque sauna on Helsinki Port, this sauna and sea pool is popular with both visitors and locals all year round. The venue offers extra activities as well, such as sauna yoga and a deckside café.
This super stylish new sauna sits on the western harbour end of the city. Feel the heat and then head to the terrace restaurant for a healthy twist on Finnish classics such as salmon soup and homemade rye bread.
Journey outside Helsinki and enjoy a traditional sauna in the countryside near Helsinki airport. Make it a day trip and take a walk in the forest and a swim in the lake, even in winter!
Photography by Iisakki Glass Village and Maria Olin-Bolin.