While the physical benefits of sauna are well-known, the evidence for its role in improving mental health is really heating up – something the Finns have known for years.
Sauna plays such an integral role in Finnish society it was once used as a place to give birth and also to lay out the dead. Nowadays it’s a common place for families and friends to come together to relax and at times it even plays a role in Finnish business culture.
While some Finnish workplaces have their own sauna, companies can also rent a space outside of the office to enjoy some steam and snacks, allowing employees the opportunity to leave the formalities and stressors of their jobs behind.
At one of Finland’s most successful tech companies, Eino Joas leads a team of game developers, and while at times the pressure can be intense, he finds taking time out to sauna together can bring benefits for both body and mind.
“For me sauna is a really important place to unwind and de-stress,” he says. “While the warmth relaxes your muscles and soothes tension, the still and tranquil atmosphere helps quiet the mind. Sauna is a safe place, a small detached nook where you can leave the tensions of everyday life behind.”
While relaxation is important, sauna is also a place traditionally touted as facilitating important discussions, even during Finland’s political history.
“There are countless stories about sauna playing a role in decision-making in Finnish society,” says Eino. “One for example quips that it’s a great place for negotiations, as it forces you to keep them short. But even if you don’t decide anything there, sauna plays a role in bringing people together. Enjoying a relaxing moment with your colleagues and conversing with them in the warmth can work wonders towards building stronger relationships.”
Some believe that part of this could be due to the fact that being naked strips away pretension and hierarchy and that sitting side-by-side in the dark can be less confronting than speaking to someone who is sitting directly opposite you.
“While it’s always a place of relaxation, sauna is also a place where many conversations are had,” explains Eino. “With topics ranging from the very lighthearted to those that are very deep, personal and difficult, discussions that are hard to have elsewhere sometimes feel comfortable to bring up there. I’ve probably had more heart-to-heart conversations in the sauna than anywhere else.”
As well as fostering conversation, many Finns also enjoy sauna for the opportunity it brings to embrace a comfortable silence, be it in a group or on their own, and to calm a busy mind.
“Being alone in the sauna changes the experience somewhat,” says Eino, “and sauna can become a place of contemplation and reflection. Other times, it’s a place to regain your mental space and think about nothing at all, just listening to the sizzle of water on the stones and feeling the steam on your skin.”