Experiencing the art of the Lithuanian sauna

  • 2001-08-09
  • Ann Pellagrini
VILNIUS - Since coming to Lithuania in 1999, I've had the great fortune of trying out a variety of saunas and witnessing for myself the various sauna rituals. Whether in the town sauna, where citizens without running water at home come weekly to bathe, or in log cabins in the countryside with their natural pools, different saunas attract different people and have an etiquette all of their own.

I soon learned that the word for sauna in Lithuanian is "pirtis," which refers to bathing or a very hot bathhouse. Saunas are not new in Lithuania, and they are enjoyed in a variety of ways all over the country, as they are throughout Central and Eastern Europe.

Soothing sweat

The sauna dates back to ancient times, and according to the Lithuanian Encyclopedia, the purpose is to sweat, bathe, have your hair done, do laundry and see the doctor.

There are different types of sauna around the world. Finnish saunas use heated stones, and the air is very dry with 10 percent to 15 percent humidity. There are three levels of heat, ranging from 50°C at your legs to up to 100°C at your head.

The Roman one has three rooms situated next to one another with vents to blow in hot air. The third room is 65-80°C, and this is where you sweat.

The Turkish sauna is similar, but more relaxing. I saw one last year in Istanbul that was a large, humid and steamy 300-year-old, marble-encased room with marble slabs on which to sit or be massaged on.

Russian saunas also have moist air with lots of steam, accompanied by stones that are heated to 700°C. Water is poured over them creating 100 percent humidity.

Saunas in Lithuania are usually Russian, but Finnish ones are fashionable and increasing in popularity.

Building a sauna requires special consideration. It can be built with wood, clay, brick, tile or stone, but all of the materials must be dry. Where you build it is up to you, but many people try to build their saunas in or near some beautiful natural setting - which in Lithuania is not hard to find.

For most people, the sauna has many benefits. However, those with high blood pressure should avoid it. Saunas are good for your organs because they raise the body's temperature, which makes you breathe quicker and raises your blood pressure. This in turn makes everything inside your body move a bit faster.

Sweating allows the body's water to be removed via the skin, which decreases the amount of work performed by the kidneys. The capillaries enlarge, increasing circulation, which in turn circulates the reserved blood in the body. This is mostly stagnant blood that pools in the outer regions of the body like hands and feet.

Dead skin begins to peel off the body and with it all those bacteria, microorganisms and dirt you never knew you were carrying around. Your pores open up allowing the skin to breathe. Some people will accelerate the peeling by using loofas to slough off as much dead skin as possible.

In saunas of the Russian type, which can be experienced almost everywhere in the Lithuanian countryside, the beating of the body with a "birch broom" (excluding the head) is believed to make everything in the body stronger, help the blood to circulate quicker and get the skin to open up. After seeing smiles on the faces of those administering the beatings, I feel sure that this activity also helps to alleviate aggression and anger.

But what about the use of cold water following a sauna and a beating? It seems that drenching one's self with cold water after sweating trains your blood to circulate even better - perhaps from the sheer shock of it.

Sauna suits

You've heard of cruise-wear, but have you heard of sauna-wear? Well, it does exist and it's almost as silly. Sauna-wear consists of a hat that looks like something a tree elf would wear if you ever saw one. They have a round brim and are pointed like a miniature witch's hat. Some are felt, while others are made from thick cotton and can have a fringe around the border. The purpose of the hat is to protect your hair from damage by the sauna's heat.

A towel, wrap or robe is used to cover up while in the sauna for those who are modest and for keeping warm between sessions. Sandals complete the ensemble, needed for walking into and outside the sauna as well as to protect your feet against foot fungus.

Bathing suits may be used at your discretion. Like everything else, some people match perfectly while others look like they've had a fashion accident.

So much for the clothing. What about sauna order? After each spell in the sauna, you should go into the outer room to rest and cool down. Cold water is not used after the first time, as the body needs to adjust. After you feel rested, you return to the sauna for the next session. Following the second time in the sauna, you then pour cold water over yourself or, if it is available, go for a dunk in a pool, pond or stream and then to go sit and rest.

Last winter, I began going to a weekly coed sauna in a log cabin building in the countryside. After being in the sauna, many of the men and some of the women would venture outside to the frozen pond behind the building and immerse themselves in the freezing water.

When I first saw this, I thought it was just another crazy nature ritual that could probably be traced back to Lithuania's pagan times. Instead, I just doused myself with pots of cold water from the pond, but I screamed all the same.

In order to better understand Lithuanian culture and ways of living I decided, after about a month, to take the plunge in the frozen pond. To my great surprise, I not only felt invigorated, but being naked outside under the stars and moon in the middle of winter made me feel connected to everything around me.

After that, I went to the pond to cool off and communed with nature during every season.

After the third spell in the sauna, you can explore honey or salt treatments to benefit the skin. Coarse salt, when rubbed on the skin, acts as a natural abrasive and removes dead cells and also removes impurities from it by drawing them to the surface. After rubbing salt all over the body, return to the sauna to sweat a bit more.

Honey, which is used for many different natural-healing remedies, is also used to soften the skin. After sweating in the sauna, honey is applied to the moist skin and then the person returns to the sauna for a bit more sweating. If your skin is oily, add a little lemon juice to the honey. One additional benefit to using honey is that you have something to snack on between sweating sessions.

Back to the beating

The "broom" that you are beaten with in most saunas in Lithuania consists of several birch branches tied together in a bundle that fans out about eight inches across. A good broom has lots of leaves and is tied in such a way that it remains intact after a vigorous bashing.

The brooms can be made from oak, birch and juniper for their many vitamins and healing properties, or from cedar or eucalyptus for their good smell. Some brooms are made from stinging nettles, which have small thorns. When these meet the skin they release an acid that contains many vitamins and minerals that you need and which is also said to be good for those suffering from rheumatism.

At the beginning of the sauna, the broom is soaked in very hot water to soften it. Some people wave the broom above the body of the recipient trying to move the steam toward the skin, while others choose to launch directly into hitting the skin and beating the steam into it.

Some unwritten rules seem to be that the broom should not touch the head, because it will take too much heat there, or areas of the body with varicose or other vein ailments or near the kidneys. However, all other parts of the body are free game.

Sometimes people pour scented teas or waters on the stones to help their breathing or just to add a nice scent to the room. For colds or stuffed noses, oils or teas made with menthol, mint or eucalyptus are used to help soothe breathing. Other scents used for calming the nerves include linden tree blossoms, caraway seeds, thyme, melissa officinalis and chamomile.

More reckless sauna addicts pour beer over the stones, which can be dangerous because of the sheer inebriation that results.

Although the health benefits of saunas are very impressive, there are other benefits that are just as important. In a world where things change faster than people are able to adjust, time has become a priceless commodity. Time just to be with yourself without having to do anything else is vital to let the mind run free and to be creative. It's also a time to just hang out with your friends and family without doing any other planned activities.

Lithuanians understand the importance of unplanned and unstructured time. They are skilled in the art of relaxing and sometimes they relax in ways Westerners would find a waste of time.

By making time slow down and sweat with friends, Lithuanians are creating connections within themselves and with their friends on a very basic level. They are cleaning and clearing out their bodies and minds, and they are feeding their souls.