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Cultural Traditions in Sauna Therapy: A Global Wellness Journey



No one knows when the first sauna originated, but we know it was sometime around 2000 BC. Since then, sauna therapy has evolved beautifully, making its way into our current world. 


We have a lot of ancient traditions to thank for it, from Scandinavian smoke saunas to Finnish pit saunas dating back 10,000 years. Besides Northern Europe, sauna therapy has existed in some form or another across North and Central America, Asia, and even the Middle East. 



Each culture adopts its own unique sauna rituals and customs, but one thread ties them together: the goal of wellness. 

For those interested in the cost of setting up a sauna, check out this detailed guide from Nordica Sauna.


Today, sauna customs worldwide have become part of a worldwide ritual for holistic sauna wellness. Let’s look at some of the cultures that shaped these practices. 





Japan has traditionally had bathhouses, aka onsens, but the sauna culture arrived from Finland in Tokyo’s Ginza district around 1957. Over time, Japan adopted many traditions similar to those practiced in Finnish saunas, such as rouryu



Rouryu derives from the Finnish term “löyly,” which refers to the custom of pouring hot water over a sauna’s heating rocks. This produces steam, which aids in relaxation. 


The Japanese also use a term known as “totonou.” This word aptly describes the refreshing feeling that washes over while alternating between a sauna session and a cold plunge; again, it is a primarily Finnish tradition that’s practiced globally even today.



Besides this “borrowed” sauna culture, Japan has its own sauna-adjacent therapy. Its onsens are built around natural hot springs and inspire time-honored cultural traditions. 


Bathing in an onsen inspires a closer connection with nature because they are often located in scenic settings. The hot springs have thermal properties, healing many of the same ailments as a sauna.



Another sauna-like tradition in Japan is the “Sento,” which has a deeper spiritual and social connection. Built into a temple-like setting to honor Buddha, Sentos are communal bathing spaces where you can relax and socialize with others.




Finland is often credited with introducing saunas to the world. It’s no surprise that Finnish saunas were once known as a “poor man’s pharmacy” back in the day. Indeed, saunas weren’t just a medium for relaxation; they were and continue to be a cocoon of holistic wellness. 



In ancient Finland, saunas were a part of daily life so much that there are over three million of them today (compared to a population of five million)!


The earliest saunas in Finland were smoke saunas, aka savusaunas without chimneys. They used a crude stove that took nearly six hours to heat up. Over time, they evolved to cater to modern sensibilities. 



Today, at the heart of a Finnish sauna is a stove known as “kiuas,” which can heat the room faster and more efficiently. Finnish saunas available these days can be electric or traditional, requiring firewood to insulate the room. 


Cold plunges are among the most common practices associated with Finnish sauna bathing. Typically, it entails warming up in a sauna for 15-20 minutes before diving into a cold plunge. Traditionally, this would mean rolling around in the snow or leaping into a freezing lake. 



This drastic difference in temperature helps your body cool off after an invigorating hot sauna session while also boosting immunity. Another brief sauna session then follows the plunge. You can alternate between these until you’re satisfied.


Another relaxing practice involves whipping oneself gently with birch branches while in the sauna. This act of gentle tapping on your skin is known as “vasta” or “vihta”. It promotes relaxation, exfoliates dead skin cells, and boosts blood circulation.



Today, saunas worldwide follow this age-old Finnish tradition of cold plunges and “vihta” tapping.





A Russian banya is a cross between a bathhouse, a steam room, and a sauna. Traditional banyas are wood-fired rooms that operate similarly to Finnish saunas. A stove occupies a corner of a banya, topped off with rocks or heating pebbles for insulation. 


Russia is home to many public banyas, but unlike northern Europe, they’re usually segregated by gender. 



The Russian equivalent of the Finnish “vihta” is the “venik.” It refers to a bundle of soft tree branches, generally oak or birch, that you can use in the sauna to gently massage your body. During this process, you gently tap the “venik” across your body, from head to toe. You can also use juniper or eucalyptus tree branches.


Instead of cold plunges, the Russians punctuate their sauna breaks with an aromatic beverage like an herbal tea before returning for another session.



Middle East


The Middle East treasures a long-held tradition of “hammams,” or public bathhouses. They originated sometime during the 15th Century, after the conquest of Constantinople. The Ottoman Empire converted old Roman public baths into these Islamic-style bathing venues, which exist to this day.


Hammams are more complex than they seem. They compartmentalize each process in the sauna bathing realm. First, one starts with a steam bath, similar to a wet sauna, which heats the body. Next, you proceed to another room where you wash or cleanse yourself. 



The next step entails sitting in a room with a lower temperature to cool off. After a round of sauna bathing, you can unwind with a relaxing massage. 





Have you heard of the German spa ritual known as “Aufguss?” Germany practices this intriguing ritual that has multi-sensory benefits. It transcends the focus on sweat and heat. Instead, the ritual believes in engaging all senses and combining them with thermotherapy for a well-rounded session. 


The word “Aufguss” translates into “infusion,” which is exactly what this spa treatment entails. There is an “Aufgussmeister” or a sauna master, who conducts the session much like an orchestra. Sauna goers are privy to a sensory treat that includes elements like:


  • Essential oils and hot water poured over sauna rocks (similar to löyly)
  • Therapeutic music
  • Lighting


The Aufgussmeister directs the flow of the heat and aroma with rhythmic movements carried out with a spa towel. It’s almost like watching a show while relaxing, making Aufguss a cultural event meant both for entertainment and wellness.


Central America and Mexico


Sweat lodges, aka “Temazcals,” have been around in ancient Mexico and Central America for thousands of years. They originated as a ceremonial structure significant to Native American culture, where spiritual rituals were once practiced. 



Sweat lodges have a low profile and resemble a dome-like structure made from stone. Aside from purifying ceremonies, these lodges served another purpose. They were used to cleanse the spirit and body of impurities like a typical sauna would.


Despite their geographical difference, sweat lodges share traditions similar to Finnish saunas. They entail pouring hot water over steaming river rocks, which generates a plume of steam. 



This steam is integral to the purification process. Historically, this process was believed to liberate a person’s innermost self and help them deliver a message for the greater good.


Sessions inside a Temazcal also involve whipping yourself with a bundle of herbs as a type of massage. You can also rub your skin with aloe for a soothing experience. After warming up in the lodge, you can cool off by taking a dip in the ocean or cleansing yourself in the shower.



How Sauna Traditions are Practiced Globally Today


Today, saunas have evolved dramatically to accommodate changing lifestyles. Many saunas have modern features, from premium electric heaters to lighting technology. 



Despite these changes, the heart and soul of the sauna remain unchanged. Sauna therapy inspires you to unwind, relax, and be more mindful of your wellness journey. It uses many of the same practices that were privy to the ancient world, whether the art of löyly or cold plunges. 


To make your modern-day sauna experience more consistent, it’s recommended to practice sauna bathing at home. You can use reputable retailers like My Sauna World to order a home sauna and begin your wellness journey today.

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