In the countries we visited, important rites of passage – birth, death, marriage – were held in the sauna; spells were used to boost fertility, to bring good luck and love. In Finland, the sauna was known as the Poor Man’s Pharmacy and folk healers would perform blood-letting, cupping and deliver babies in its herb-infused steam. We met Finnish old timers who had been born this way, along with shamans, hipsters, office workers, heavily pregnant women, toddlers and gangsters and we shared beer, vodka, sausages and stories with them all.
We learned that when steam is involved, its curative powers are unquestioned. In its midst, psychological woes dissolve, physical aches and pains are remedied, conversation is restored and business deals are sealed. It lies at the heart of every ritual, the powerful companion to folk songs, chants and leaf whisking. It’s the gateway to ancestral wisdom and deeper, unspoken feelings. You could say that it is the protagonist of the book.
All the saunas we featured are open to everyone, for what is sauna, if not a place to gather with friends and family, to unravel internal conflicts and undo the knots? To turn off the tech and tune in to the moment? We tried and tested around 60 saunas, and after single every one we came out feeling restored, energised and happy to be alive.
Being Finnish, Maija grew up with the sauna. Being British, I didn’t, but, like her, I’m now addicted. As I scrub myself down at the end of each session, I wonder how long I will have to wait until my next. And it always feels too long.