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How to Keep Everyone Happy in a Sauna

Ah, the sauna. Or should I say, saun. A pillar of the Estonian way of life.

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Considering their placement in gyms and spas, many North Americans would logically determine sauna use as a personal wellness or fitness activity. Saun is indeed good for you. The steam cleanses your skin's pores. You sweat out impurities. The heat eases the tension of muscles and joints. Blood circulation is improved. Yet, the purpose of these hot wooden rooms is broader and more social.

I don't need to tell any Estonians how to do their saun. Still, the next time someone asks you what the deal is with Estonians and saunas, and you want to prepare them for a good Estonian sauna experience, don't forget to mention some of these points.

Hot, But Not Too Hot: For a classic sauna, it's said that the ideal temperature range is between 60 and 70 degrees Celsius. In reality, Estonians will commence at 70 degrees: a starting point for a trip up to 100 degrees or more, depending on how intense one's sauna pals are.

80 is a sweet spot, between wondering why you bothered to go inside at all and feeling like a dried apricot. This keeps it accessible for anyone with asthma or heart disease, too. A good sauna host will be mindful of their guests' heat tolerance levels.

Keep it Steamy: I don't know about you, but I've never understood a dry sauna, like the ones you'll find in some gyms. If putting water on the hot stones isn't allowed, you might as well just sit outside on a humid North American summer day!

Once a desirable sauna temperature has been reached, you can make steam, or leil. Whoever is sitting next to the bucket that's been filled with water is the one in charge of scooping and splashing water onto the stones.

If you decide to add some water independently, reach for the bucket and make eye contact with all those around you, as though you were reaching for the last slice of a cake. If you see lots of furrowed eyebrows, retreat back to your seated position. If faces are stoic, proceed. When you add water, just add a little bit at a time.

Hydration: If you're trying to keep it healthy, drink some crisp mineral water to replete what you sweat out. If the saun is being used during a celebration, beer will probably start floating around and the saun will become an additional party room. And if you really must drink Gatorade, do so when you get out of the sauna, sneaking clandestine sips when no one's looking.

Attire: Swim trunks or a bathing suit might seem most suitable, but can start to feel uncomfortable as the temperature soars. If you want to cover up, a towel is probably a better choice. In fact, you'll want a towel anyway, to sit on so that your skin doesn't sear on the wooden surfaces and to keep things hygienic. Whether it's a mixed or separate sauna depends on the place and the crowd, but be prepared for nudity — a sauna brings everyone to the same point as human beings!

On top of this, a saunamüts (“sauna hat”) made of wool or felt is recommended to keep your head cooler, especially when you're on the higher perches of the saun.

Elevation: Speaking of the high perches, shout out to all of the tough folks up on the top levels of the saun, while the rest of us are keeping it a bit cooler lower down.

If you're a sauna host, fortunate enough to have a sauna of your own to share with friends, try not to be hard on the low benchers. Sitting lower down is actually a good way to be able to linger in the saun for longer, so you can simmer at a slower pace.

Timing: When it takes between 30 and 45 minutes to get a saun to the ideal 80 degrees, you may envision staying inside longer to make it all worth it. More likely, however, is a session of up to 10 minutes in length.

If you want, you can go in a few times with breaks in between. When you come back in, don't let the heat out, though, by hanging out with an open door! Otherwise, you'll hear cries of anguish as the cold air rushes in and everyone tries to get their sweat on again.

Get Out Your Aggression: Ok, not really. Please be gentle when you get to the stage of hitting people with vihad (those tied up bundles of birch or oak branches used for improving circulation and more) in a sauna!

Let's assume someone has brought some pre-prepared vihad. Before the sauna session starts, dip the leafy and woody parts of the viht in cold water for half an hour each. Then, soak the leafy part again in a vessel of warm or hot water while things heat up.

Give everyone ample time to sweat, and towards the end of the session, you can shake off the water from the viht over the hot stones and start the ritual. Either for yourself or for a friend, use the viht to hit the skin on the back, front, legs, and arms a couple of times. Use a bit of oomph, but not too much.

The Conversation: Most people would probably rather keep conversations light in a saun. If someone starts talking business or opens their heart to you, though, make the most of that candid, trusting moment.

Above all, read the room. If it's a low key sauna, it's worth holding off on doing that elaborate aufguss routine with towel twirling, essential oils, and the Hans Zimmer soundtrack. There are other venues for this type of performance.

The Cool-Off Period: When all is said and done, hopefully there's a lake, pond, or some snow to jump into, to relish in that feeling of being invincible against the cold. If not, enjoy a cool shower and head out for something to eat and drink.

By bringing up these points and any others I might have missed, let us always serve as noble ambassadors of saun to our friends!

This article was written by Vincent Teetsov as part of the Local Journalism Initiative.

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