Searching for saunas? Don't sweat it

  • 2008-05-01
  • By Louise O’Dwyer and Talis Saule Archdeacon

Though sitting naked in a hot, steamy room and whacking each other with birch switches has always been a popular pasttime in the Baltics, over the past few years the countries have taken the ancient tradition of the sauna to a whole new level.

A few groups of creative young entrepreneurs are now taking their love of saunas out onto the streets.
"Mobile Saunas" 's basically large trucks with saunas rigged up in back 's are the hottest thing to hit the Baltics for decades. Estonian enthusiasts have already built a small fleet of the saunas-on-wheels. Latvians have likewise managed to throw a few of the strange devices together.

Saunas can act as more than just a small room to keep people warm during the cold winter months. Canadian-Latvian Karlis Kalnins, creator of the Ponij Pirts mobile sauna, said the room could even be thought of as a path to cultural integration.

"One thing that's interesting about all the cultures that are here - these northern cultures 's [is that] they all get cold and everybody needs to get warm and get clean. What a perfect opportunity for cultural integration," Kalnins said in an interview with the Inter-Society for the Electronic Arts.

"To have people sit, get naked and sweat together and become clean, both physically and I suppose spiritually and physiologically," he said.
In Estonia, meanwhile, a group of firemen have turned an old 1968 Ford fire truck into a mobile sauna so the firefighters can go straight from a burning building to a broiling sauna.
After sitting in the steam room for a few minutes, the firemen run outside to be greeted with a cold blast from the fire hose. The truck even boasts a large projector screen to provide a little entertainment to the lounging firefighters.

Lithuanians love saunas just as much as their northern brethren, but the country has yet to take hold of the mobile sauna movement. Nevertheless, the country has no shortage of traditional saunas where people can sit and sweat to their hearts content.

Simply steamy
Despite a plethora of recent advancements in sauna technology, most Baltic sauna enthusiasts still enjoy the smoky smell and penetrating heat of the traditional hothouse.
"It takes a while to get used to the traditional sauna because of the smoky smell. It is far easier to breathe after the smoke sauna than after the electrical sauna. An electrical sauna heats the air and leaves an uncomfortable feeling in your throat afterwards," a Lithuanian sauna enthusiast told The Baltic Times.
"It is impossible to describe the ambience of the smoke sauna… it is like trying to describe the feeling when you learn how to ride a bike, or you learn how to swim or even when you make love," he said.
The traditional sauna consists of two rooms 's the steam room and the changing room/waiting room. The steam room contains a pile of rocks and no chimney.

A fire is lit under the rocks and quickly doused. The heat is stored in the room through a number of large rocks. Ash and ember are removed from the hearth and the room is allowed to heat.  It can take up to five hours to heat the room properly.

There are three distinct stages in a Baltic sauna session. The first is the heating of the steam-room, which causes the bathers to perspire and rids their bodies of any impurities. The heating is done by throwing water 's usually lake, spring, or rain water mixed with healing solutions 's onto the warmed rocks.
Once the room is nice and steamy, sauna-goers slap their skin with bunches of twigs, most often birch, to improve circulation and stimulate the pores even more.

In the final step of the process, people wash themselves with cold water by either diving into a nearby lake or river 's in the winter, sauna enthusiasts simply roll around in the snow to cool down.
Gymnasiums, hotels and health spas today offer a wide variety of different sauna experiences. "Continuous fire" saunas, along with their electrical equivalents, have heat continuously blasting the stones and are able to warm up in an hour or two.

Infrared saunas, an even more advanced version of the old idea, heats the room using infrared radiation 's similar to that emitted by the sun but on the other end of the spectrum.
The commercial sauna does have its positive points. Many complexes like the Vichy Water Park or the Druskininku Aqua Park in Lithuania have numerous saunas to accommodate all tastes. This allows the user to decide for themselves the humidity and the temperature in which they themselves feel most comfortable.
Each sauna has its own particular theme and character which makes the visit slightly novel every time. Another perk of the commercial sauna is the added extras that accompany a visit. Most hotels and complexes will have and supply an in-house masseuse to tackle those stress nodes when the sauna session has ended.
While developments such as the mobile sauna, the electric sauna and the infrared sauna are all relatively recent inventions, the art of the sauna dates back hundreds of years in the Baltics.

The history of hot
Traditionally, saunas were used as places of worship, healing, child birth and socializing.
In days of old, each small region in the Baltics boasted their own unique kind of sauna, but the same basic ideas applied to them all. The earliest ones were dug into a hillside, eventually evolving into wooden cabins above ground. The roofs were at first thatched with straw but this was later changed to wooden planks and chips to help keep the heat in.

With their construction becoming increasingly more elaborate, saunas developed into hubs of social activity. Business meetings often took place there as the sauna was considered a haven.
In darker times, rival gang members could see their adversary's tattoos and markings while in the sauna, and the intense heat also meant that it was impossible to conceal weapons. It is believed that a sauna just outside Kaunas was the meeting place for the men who began plotting Lithuanian independence.   
On a lighter note, the welcoming of a young bride to her new family was frequently carried out in a sauna. Women would often choose to give birth in a sauna, giving the child a steamy entrance into the world.
There was a sharp drop in the popularity of saunas in the mid-20th century. The old tradition seemed to be slowly dying out until the '80s, when the numerous health benefits of saunas became public knowledge. The old traditions were then reawakened in the name of weight loss and easy exercise.

The Baltic sauna ritual still stems from a time when the sauna was considered a sacred place. Though creative ideas and cutting edge technology have changed saunas almost beyond recognition, it seems Balts will continue to sweat themselves clean no matter what new form their hothouse may take.