Mikkel Aaland

"It's All An Adventure"

Using and Building Your Own Sauna or Sweat Bath*

Return to the Sweat home page, here.





There are so many ways to use and enjoy a sauna or other sweat bath. Sauna people like their bath hot and relatively dry, while Islamic hammam bathers enjoy cooler and steamier sweat baths. The early Romans used both climates in their baths. Some cultures like the American Indians chanted, while others basked in quiet meditation in the sweat bath. The Scythians and Russians threw drugs and alcohol on the heated rocks to produce intoxicating vapors-a practice discouraged by other sweat bath cultures.


*Note: The how-to-build section of Sweat is not included here. It is available for purchase in ebook form. See sidebar or below for links.


Pick and experiment with rituals, techniques, and climates that suit your sweat bathing needs.


Here are some worthy suggestions sauna bathers commonly offer: (Many of these points can apply to any sweat bath.)


•Allow yourself reasonable time for preparation and bathing. Saunas need to “ripen,” time for the kiuas to heat the rocks, walls and benches. Remember, comforting heat radiates evenly from all sides, not from a single source. Sauna is best taken in a leisurely fashion so bathers can savor each other’s camaraderie. In Finland, an entire Saturday afternoon is traditionally set aside for sauna and related activities.


•Refrain from eating and drinking a few hours before sauna (see cautions.)


•Before undressing, attend to details such as towels, loofahs, soap, vihtas and other sauna implements. Fetching a forgotten brush is a nuisance once bathing begins.


•Attitudes toward nudity are relaxed in Finland and other Scandinavian countries. To bathe clothed is unheard of. However, bathing is often done in separate shifts for males and females. If inhibitions rule, loosely wrap a towel around your waist and shoulders. A void constricting clothing like a swim suit, it will cut off circulation and inhibit sweating.




Washroom racks for soap, brushes, towels, etc.


To promote cleanliness, bathers can shower or wash before entering the sweat room (if the wash room is separate.) In the sweat room a towel or washable cover may be placed over the bench to keep the seat clean for the next bather. A Finnish doctor said, “Keep your juices to yourself.”


Immediately after entering the sweat room toss water on the heated rocks (löyly). Get those negative ions circulating. But warn fellow bathers of your actions, so they can anticipate the wave of heat by ducking or moving to a lower level.


After sweating, cool off. (Time in the sweat room is an individual matter-15 to 20 minutes is average.) For the hardy, soft snow and ice water are invigorating pleasures, to put it mildly. Beware sharp, scratchy ice, and wear slippers when walking in the snow. Hoses, buckets and showers provide gentler cooling. Or else, simply sit in a cool, quiet place.


Washing usually occurs between the first and second sessions (during the second session if there is no separate wash room). Heat and sweat purge dirt and pollutants no other bath reaches, including the one you may have taken in the beginning, and must be scrubbed and rinsed off the skin.


A luxury not to be missed is the back scrub by a friend or a massage given after the body is softened in the heat.


Another pleasure is whisking with the vihta. On a Saturday afternoon sounds of birch hitting flesh whispers throughout Finland. Finns consider a sauna without a vihta like a meal without salt.


After two to four sessions in the sweat room, relax, enjoy a state of repose. Remain naked and dry naturally. People with dry skin can rub in lotions or oil. Dress only after sweating has stopped. A loose robe can be used for trips to the toilet or refrigerator for drinks or food.


A general rule, often repeated, is to keep the sauna a quiet retreat where daily rigors are left outside. Enjoy your bath two or three times a week.


Soon after the bath, clean the sweat room, to prevent mold, mildew and body odors from soaking in. Duckboards, head rests and seat boards should be rinsed: and tilted away from the floor and benches.



Bathing implements


Buckets can be made of wood, plastic or stainless steel. The more expensive wood buckets are carved from birch burls and don’t split or leak when dry. Staved wooden buckets have a limited life and shrink and leak when dry. Some ladles are carved from wood, while others like the one shown have a wooden handle and stem and bowl of metal. Metal ladles last longest. Also shown below are after-bathing shoes, sponge, stiff brush and birch vihta.



Sweat Spices


Ways to enhance your sweat bath:


•Make a vihta, from birch branches, cedar boughs, eucalyptus, oak or other broad leaf species. (See “Make a Birch Vihta” below for instruction.)


•Use loofahs, scrub brushes and other coarse material to scrape and wash the skin. Loofah are found in any bath store and some department stores. They are inexpensive but you can grow your own. Loofahs come from the tropical loofah gourd which grows and looks much like a mature zucchini. It needs only to be hung and dried.


•High priced “bath scrub brushes” can be substituted with a dime store stiff brush, even those designed for scrubbing walls. A void brushes with plastic bristles. They won’t soften as well as the natural ones. Vihtas dunked in soapy, warm water can also be used as scrub brushes.


•Add herbs, oils or certain alcohols to the löyly water. Löyly tea can be brewed from sage, basil, laurel bay (not too much, it’s potent), rosemary, and other delectable herbs. For warding off colds, a löyly “tea” can be made of spearmint, wintergreen or eucalyptus oil. Beer, used in small quantities, generates a wonderful musky smell. Add a few drops of honey and the smell is slightly sweeter (too much and your eyes will sting from the burned glucose.)


Experiment with different brews but be conservative, the smell can be overwhelming.


•Drink juices, mead or beer after the sweat. Fluids are depleted and must be replaced. Everyone develops favorites, but a drink that provides carbohydrates helps the body recover faster. Tests have shown that light beer offers the most, but should be drunk sparingly. Hard alcohol is usually not recommended because it detracts from the natural “high.” (In the Nordic spirit, a shot of ice cold aquavit or Finlandia vodka is fine-but practice restraint, only one shot. )


Mineral water, although it only replaces lost fluid, not carbos, is a common after-sweat drink. Salty foods like pizza, sardines, sausages, help replace lost sodium as well as satisfy the hunger that sometimes follows sauna.


Make a Birch Vihta


Birch vihtas are best prepared during the late spring and early summer when leaves are soft, supple and firmly attached to the stem. (Eucalyptus and some other vihtas are available year round.) Birch vihtas can be placed in plastic bags, frozen or hung upside down and dried and saved for winter. Before using them, soak for a few minutes in hot water until the leaves are soft. Unhappy stories come from people who have unwittingly added a sprig or two of poison oak or ivy to a vihta-be careful!




Gathering birch for a vihta


1) Pick branches and cut to length, 50-60cm (20-24 in.) Leaves from middle-aged trees make softer vihtas.


2) Arrange twigs in a convenient bunch with shiny side of leaves facing outward.


3) Fashion and slip twig band over “handle” as far up as it will go. (See photo below.)





4) Make another band for lower end of handle. Bands can also be made of twine or heavy string.





Accidents in the sweat bath are rare and can usually be attributed to a lapse of common sense. The most usual mishaps are hot stove burns or bruises from a slip on a wet floor or bench. Mind your footing and see that good duckboards and a guard rail are installed.


•Remove jewelry and glasses before entering the sweat room. Metal gets burning hot, and heat causes capillaries and skin to swell making rings and tight bracelets constricting. Contact lenses may dry and provoke eye irritation – pop them out before sweat bathing. Glassware, bottles, or cups – don’t belong in the bathing area.


•Too strong a löyly can scorch skin and lungs. Go easy with the dipper.


•Eating before sweat bathing puts a strain on the circulatory system. As before swimming, wait an hour or two after a large meal before entering a sweat bath. Also, it is best not to bathe on an empty stomach. Sweat bathing, like any exercise, uses energy and some people in a depleted condition may experience nausea or even fainting. Settle for lower temperatures and shorter bathing sessions. It is also sensible to avoid sweat bathing when you are physically exhausted or after a long illness. Mental exhaustion is not included in this caution. Finnish students traditionally recuperate in the sauna after the year’s final exam.




Everyone reacts differently to heat. Learn your limits by beginning with lower temperatures and raising them gradually. Let your body tell you when it wants out – don’t force it to endure uncomfortable heat. The body adapts with repeated exposure to heat. Sweat will flow more readily and the cardiovascular system functions and cools more efficiently.


People not acclimated to heat may feel nauseous or faint. Nose bleeds or other injury to blood vessels may also occur. If treated properly there is little danger. Nausea is induced by a lack of blood to the parasympathetic nervous system and is a sign of impending fainting. This can result from bathing on an empty stomach when your blood sugar is low. A poorly vented sweat room can also cause nausea. Leave the room if you feel nauseous, lie down and have someone bring you fruit juice. Its sugar will help dispel your discomfort.


Fainting may also occur if you stand up abruptly in the sweat room. Blood vessels are relaxed during bathing and when you stand suddenly, blood rushed down, depriving the head of blood. Move slowly in the sweat room.


Injury to blood vessels sometimes occurs with the sudden dilation of weak vein walls. If this happens, stanch the bleeding with a compress, leave the sweat room and lie down. Next time, try lower temperatures.







Return to the Sweat home page, here.



The Illustrated History and Description of the Finnish Sauna, Russian Bania, Islamic Hammam, Japanese Mushi-Buro, Mexican Temescal, and American Indian & Eskimo Sweatlodge


by Mikkel Aaland

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