SAUNA The Power of Deep Heat
By Emma O’Kelly
Photography by Maija Astikainen
Editor’s Note: Garrett is author of the book Sauna Magic. He was a 2016 guest to my cabin sauna and Sauna Talk podcast guest, and attended 2023 Sauna Days. A deep resonating sauna thinker and appreciator, we are pleased to welcome Garrett Conover with this book review.
Emma O’Kelly and Maija Astikainen have delivered a magnificent addition to the literature of sauna. The scope and timing are perfectly attuned to the resurgence of interest in global bathing culture and the deep connections to traditions, community building, wellness, and current evolutions.
Not a lot of books on the topic in English earn the description of “magnificent.” While most possess parts meeting the standard, many are overall inconsistent. The best of the older offerings tend to be good because of a narrower specific focus, such as those covering Finnish traditions, or Russian Banya.
When Norwegian-American Mikkel Aaland published Sweat in 1978, he broke ground that led to a global encompassing of the topic that continues today, informing the current resurgence and explosive growth in interest. Many people regard him as the godfather of all-things sauna due to the reach of his ongoing influence. Mikkel wrote the forward for Emma and Maija’s Sauna.
Over time, there have been periodic waves of interest in sauna, but the current one is not just huge by comparison, it is still building with no hint of when it might crest.
Sauna: older knowledge and new directions
Part of this new groundswell is driven by the ease of internet access to all sorts of information, and the growing presence of interest groups on social media expressing perspectives from around the world. Suddenly, all of us are much more cognizant of many refined traditions we may have been unaware of given the limits of earlier publications. Now we are privy to a far wider realm of countries and regions, each with specific variations of knowledge.
From this wider sampling comes the accelerated evolution of practices resulting from blending traditions with innovations of the moment. Emma’s journey joyfully starts in the here and now, and we get to share in her wide-eyed excitement as she encounters a range of practitioners, from keepers of the flames of older knowledge, to the new directions taken by “thermaculture” enthusiasts not confined by the specifics of change-resistant traditions.
Emma shares her introduction to Finnish style sauna, her connection with photographer Maija, who becomes both a travel buddy and collaborator, and then they are off. Readers witness the journey through the Scandanavian countries, the Baltic regions, the Netherlands, and the UK. Through Emma’s eyes we get to feel the excitement and heightened alertness when everything is new and wondrous. Details big and small shine with equal brightness. With each encounter and interview, we learn along with her as elements are revealed by those who know them best.
Sauna is not presented as a chronological travelogue. Each chapter groups larger themes such as health, community, history, rituals, and connection to nature, and within each are sub-headings which detail finer points. To illuminate such points Emma is likely to describe multiple examples from the full range of her travels. The genius of organizing the material this way is that two important features are cast simultaneously in sharp relief.
Those elements common to most traditions regardless of country, borders, and regions, shine luminously in concert with those details that are culturally unique, refined, and full of nuance. She trusts each reader to be observant, and encourages our own conclusions regarding what interests us most.
Sauna health studies
The chapter sub-headings are short, typically just a few pages. While they collectively build the book as a whole, they also lend themselves to being savored as stand-alone, inspiring nuggets. Other bright spots emerge as well. For those of us not wanting to spend time sleuthing our way through technical medical journals and scientific abstracts, Emma has distilled current health research into readable, jargon-free English. She also spices the narrative with little sparkles of humor and personal reactions to her encounters, adding balance to her admirable tone of non-judgement, and carefully refrains from steering us to see things her way.
Miaja Astikainen’s photos range from the illustrative to evocative, artistic, and resonant compositions. The combination of text and photos create a book well within the “must have” realm of sauna books. While I am quite forgiving, wanting even less stellar sauna books in my library just for the hidden good parts, I remain thrilled with the arrival of SAUNA The Power of Deep Heat. For anyone choosing only a few books on the topic, make sure this is one of them!
Garrett Conover — Author/photographer of SAUNA MAGIC Health Happiness Community