The pleasure and pain of an ancient Finnish ritual.
WORDS: ANJALI KHOSLA | ART: EDWARD DŻUŁAJ
It is estimated that there are 3.3 million saunas in Finland, a country with a population of about 5.5 million people. Unlike the U.S., a sauna is not really a luxury in Finland. There, you might find one at the public library, at a gas station, in a low-income housing block, at Burger King, at the bottom of a copper mine, in Parliament, or on a ferris wheel.
The Finns often refer to sauna as a “spiritual” experience; in the olden days, women gave birth in the sauna, believing it to be a more sterile environment. Many Finns enjoy lightly beating themselves with birch branches as the hot air rises.
I recently spent a month at an artist’s residency in Haukijärvi, a barely discernible hamlet in Finland’s west. Like many homes in the country, the residency’s compound features a tiny, rustic, dimly lit cabin where local school teachers used to take their sauna. It is here where I took most of mine.
“The Finns often refer to sauna as a “spiritual” experience; in the olden days, women gave birth in the sauna, believing it to be a more sterile environment.”
The sauna stove is not electric; it burns wood. To enjoy it, one must first commit to some labor. There are two rooms in this hut. In the first room, I unroll slatted mats and arrange them neatly on the floor. A metal cauldron sits atop a small stove. I fill the cauldron, bucket by bucket, with water from the tap. I empty ash out of the stove, before moving to the room next door to do the same. I crouch on my knees and coax a fire in each little furnace. Then I go out for a while and drink lots of water.
Forty minutes later, I slip into the cabin and remove my clothes. I mix hot water from the cauldron with cold water from the faucet and rinse myself with a pail. In the other room, soft light from the one leafy window rests on the ancient sauna stove piled with rocks, its crackling orange mouth agape and gap-toothed where a shard of glass has fallen away. In all the Finnish saunas I have visited, the seating is tiered, bleacher-style. Our sauna, which can seat only five people, has two levels. Naked, I shut the door behind me and step to the second level, place a small towel on the bench, and sit down. The fire snaps. The thermometer beside the window reads 100 degrees Celsius.
I spread water with a ladle. I take my time. The stones hiss, I close my eyes in anticipation. Steam veils my face. Sweat and condensation drip from my chin, my stomach, the backs of my legs. More water, more burn. I reach down and feed the stove two more logs. The bark coils in the flames. More water, more burn. I lean back; the wall behind me is so hot, my hair sticks to it. 120 degrees Celsius! I move down to the first tier, where the heat is less intense.
After another minute, I get out, wrap myself in a towel, and go outside, leaving the sauna door ajar so that the temperature will be less extreme when I return.
The air is fresh and cool against my skin. My head is as clear and empty as a jar in the sunlight. I lean against a mossy boulder and look up at the birch leaves. They jangle dryly in the breeze, glint like sequins. An iridescent dragonfly hovers above me. Ants climb busily over my feet, just another obstacle they have to cross.
When I start having thoughts again, it is time to go back in the sauna for another go.
After a last turn in the heat, I step back into the second room and fill a bucket from the cold tap. I scrub shampoo in my hair, soap my chest and arms. Outside, Finnish birds chirp. This experience is so visceral, extreme, and immediate that it irradiates my ability to think past what I see and feel in the present moment: the hot air on my shins, the shock of the frigid water when I pour the bucket over my head.
After this type of sauna, “there is no need to shower,” Ida, my residency’s kind and enigmatic director, explains. “You are clean.” Clean, yes, and rosy-cheeked, calm and rested, elated and aware, alive.
“ Even Finns find sisu difficult to translate into English—struggling to describe it to me, they often pointed to their guts.”
Before I left for Finland, a friend gave me a copy of Katja Pantzar’s book, The Finnish Way, about a local concept called sisu. Even Finns find sisu difficult to translate into English—struggling to describe it to me, they often pointed to their guts—but I think it means something deep inside that drives a person to do things even when they are very hard. Finnish psychology researcher Emilia Lahtisurveyed over a thousand Finns, asking them to help her define the term. In a 2019 paper examining those responses, Lahti espouses a theory of “embodied fortitude”—that sisu involves unlocking one’s own “latent energy” in order to push past what is comfortable. The Americans at my residency sometimes used the term “grit” to describe sisu, though sisu evokes, for me, a quieter and more mysterious tenacity.
I am rather cynical when it comes to broad-stroke national characterizations and self-help theories alike, but that word, sisu, brings to mind my childhood in Minnesota, a region densely populated by people of Norwegian, Swedish, German, and Finnish descent. As I rode my borrowed bicycle to and from my favorite Finnish swimming lake each day, the landscape, even the houses, were uncannily similar to the countryside near the small city in which I grew up. Perhaps Finnish immigrants, well over a hundred years ago, chose Minnesota because it was so much like their homeland. Both places are bitterly cold in winter, though Minnesota is never so perpetually dark as Finland, where summer nights and winter days are disorientingly brief. The two cultures share a common stereotype: that they value self-sufficiency, hard work, and, well, a sort of stoicism or resolve in the face of challenge. These qualities certainly feel necessary in January, when your frozen pipes have burst and you have to shovel two feet of snow out of your driveway in order to get to work.
I suppose these qualities were also necessary for a brown Minnesota kid, who looked different and was different, to survive not just the winter, but the growing autumnal darkness, the slow spring, and the sweltering summer. And they were necessary in rural Finland, where I was flagged as a foreigner in ways that my co-residents were not. Like the time at the local grocery store, when I was cheerfully interrogated about my nationality—and about drugs.
“Well, when I'm in South America, then I look different from everyone else,” one woman told me as we sat on the modest beach beside my swimming lake. I smiled, said nothing, and waded in, my arms cutting a path through the creamy water lilies and black water striders that skimmed the surface, which reflected the gauzy clouds and the blue sky beyond.
“The planet is littered with people hailing from all sorts of environments who, with muted dignity, do the things that need to get done.”
Finns are not, broadly speaking, overly loquacious people. Minesotans can be more small-talky than Finns, but many are similarly reticent. I judged this quality harshly as a child, and I still recognize its harmful aspects. But as I get older, I find that seeds of that quality have grown inside of me: a desire to keep things in, to not trouble others with my problems, to successfully deal with challenges by myself. Though demonstrating one’s sisu is certainly a cultural expectation in Finland—“It is something that is respected here,” one gentleman told me over beers—it’s not like this spirit of self-sufficient determination is limited to Finns, or their Minnesotan counterparts. Certainly there is something to the idea that living in a dark and frozen climate can influence one’s culture, but it’s not just cold that shapes a warm heart. The planet is littered with people hailing from all sorts of environments who, with muted dignity, do the things that need to get done, even when those tasks are extremely challenging and not very rewarding.
“So, are there any lazy Finns?” I asked the same man.
“Of course,” he laughed, polishing off his beer. “There are lazy people everywhere.”
The public sauna in the region near Haukijärvi is located on the shore of a chilly, evergreen-framed lake where one can swim and cool off after a bout inside the heat. Entry costs six euros and, as it is a mixed-gender public sauna, swimsuits are required. Some Finns also like to wear felted sauna hats, occasionally using them to express their personalities: a cap shaped like a strawberry or a pirate’s tricorne, crossbones and all.
With three tiers on either side of a big wood-burning stove, the sauna here can easily accommodate 30 people. Some days, the public sauna is fairly chatty; other days, it is a quiet affair, everyone sitting silently like Nordic worshippers in the pews. I visited the public sauna on Sauna Day, a national event, because I was hoping to find the atmosphere more festive and sociable than usual—but that day, the Finns inside were the quietest and most meditative I had encountered.
Inside, one observes Finns’ diverse handling of the water ladle. Some are vigorous, splashing water generously and repeatedly on the stones. Strong, hot tremors of wet air radiate in all directions, assailing our skin with their heat. Others are more gentle, slowly and studiously drizzling water from the ladle onto the stones, creating a soft steam that caresses me like velvet.
“ Having enough resolve to keep doing something that is hard has its limits; at some point you have to listen to your body, otherwise you might, I don’t know, die.”
“That is the correct way to use the ladle,” a Finnish reporter I met there insisted, though others disagreed. On one occasion, a stout woman marched into the public sauna, procured a hose from the corner of the room, planted her legs squarely in front of the stove, and launched a powerful stream of water onto the stones, an expression of unmitigated delight on her face. The room filled with burning, eyelash-curling steam. My eardrums emitted an alarm tone. Having enough resolve to keep doing something that is hard has its limits; at some point you have to listen to your body, otherwise you might, I don’t know, die.
Gasping, we foreigners staggered out of the sauna like peaceful protestors assaulted by a cloud of tear gas. Silent as ever, the Finns soon followed us, including the mischievous hose lady, leaving only Ida behind. Whenever I encountered Ida at the residency, she was hard at work, fixing something that was broken, perpetually mowing the lawn, solving a problem without being asked. I peered back through the sauna door’s glass window. There Ida sat, legs elegantly crossed, smiling softly like a bodhisattva in the middle of the bench, slouched relaxedly in her bikini and Crocs as the steam enveloped her in increasing opacity.
Assigning a name to an intangible and inarticulable concept like sisu is a way of packaging it, making it easier to grasp. In cold lakes, the word sisu echoed in the hollow of my skull as my body chattered and tensed, encouraged me to keep swimming toward the center until my body warmed and thrilled; sisu floated behind my pupils at the public sauna as I pushed myself to move up to a hotter step, to endure as the Finns were enduring, perched like monks at a high school football game.
Sisu sat with me in the smoke sauna, which can take all day to heat up. A savusauna, as it is known, has no chimney; smoke fills the room and then, when it’s hot enough, the smoke is let out of the cabin. Alongside a few other Americans, I hunched through a short door and found myself in an unlit, high-ceilinged room fragrant with burned wood and tar. As my eyes adjusted, I climbed the rickety stairs to a wooden catwalk which surrounded, on three sides, a large stove. The mood among the participants was contemplative and hushed. The heat was oppressive. I cupped my hands around my nose and mouth. My breath felt cool on my palms. Afterward, as we refreshed ourselves in the lake, my fellow Americans and I still tasted smoke in our mouths.
“Life is the lake, it tells me, when you look down, you cannot see past your own legs.”
These are all small and pleasurable acts of perseverance, but I believe they come from the same place inside myself that drives me to keep going when life is more dark than light. Perhaps, for Finns, sauna is a bit of a sisu-builder, challenging them a little even as it restores their reserves, readies them for the next moment of actual adversity in their lives so they can mine that energy, access their latent fortitude.
Steam rises from the stones, but not everything is covered in mist. Leaving my Finnish idyll behind, I know what I am returning to: ongoing acts of cruelty in my country, problems in my own life. Again that word, sisu, whispers its own name in my ears. Life is the lake, it tells me, when you look down, you cannot see past your own legs. Ida perpetually shoving her lawn mower across the bumpy ground, the neighbors chopping sauna wood for all eternity. Wrinkled women in one-piece swimsuits and wool caps at the edge of the ice, the water below as black as the sky. Syringes of steam up the delicate tissue in my nostrils. The switch of a silver birch. A flapping fish in a diving duck’s beak. Keep swimming to the deepest part, it whispers. Stay and fight, whatever that may mean for you, and for you, and for you. You may have to do things that are hard precisely because they are hard, even though there is no promise that your efforts will be rewarded. The consequences of not doing hard things may prove even harder.