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Risto Elomaa discusses sauna culture around the World, as we get ready for a session at the Finnish Sauna Society, Helsinki, Finland.

light steam graphic

Today we learn about the International Sauna Association.

Risto has been taking sauna since one month old. He has always been interested in taking good saunas.

His wife tells him that he is “married to sauna.”

He built two saunas in Zambia.

Jijijjimjilbang was very popular in Korea, but they are disappearing as a public bathing place.

The definition of sauna:

“Sauna is a room, wood paneled, where you have a stove and stones, temperature measured at shoulder level, 80-100 degrees (175 – 212 degrees f). Relatively low humidity, which is controlled by introducing water onto the sauna rocks.”

Risto has visiting many saunas in the United States.

We are trying to get standards for sauna to avoid misleading information about what sauna is and what sauna is not.

The biggest player in the sauna space are from Germany. If you try to sell “infrared sauna” in Germany, you will get fined. At a recent spa exhibition in Germany, the Intabad Exhibition Organization authorities forced a Chinese exhibitor to take down their signs saying “infrared sauna” and rename them “infrared cabin.”

It is much cheaper to build an infrared thing. Less electricity. You are creating the heat in your body in an entirely different way.

Harvia is a public company based in Finland. 25% of their business is in the space of steam rooms and infrared cabins. They are in a better place to define the meaning of sauna vs.

Risto: “I am getting old, so it’s important for me to choose good saunas.”

Our mutual friend, Mikkel Aaland: “In America, 90% of the saunas are bad, and the other 10% are worse.”

Before World War II, there were 350 public saunas in Helsinki. Today there are a few. The urban sauna revival in Finland is . The Cultural Sauna in Helsinki is built on the tradition of older public saunas. Uusi sauna is new. Operated by Kimmo. Aarla. The original Helsinki public sauna 1927.

Why is wood fired sauna preferred?

You can have a good electrical sauna, but you need many stones. Electric saunas produce positive ions. When you put water on the hot iron, there is coming lots of positive ions, which are making you tired. Professer Graeffe wrote a study in 1974 about positive ions. When water is hitting hot iron.

The best stove is a smoke sauna. No iron at all.

Electrical toasters. Swedish company Tylo was destroying this market. Very quick heating. You are heating air, not mass. Slowly they were using more stones.

Beauty companies are selling masks that create negative ions through water. The masks are “making you 20 years younger.”

Do you get tired when you sauna?

Bad ventilation!

The first law of Loyly: your feet are above the stones. And the height of your ceiling is such that you can use vihta (whisks).

Saunas are built too low. There must be enough air to help with circulation.

A big crack along the bottom of the door. 10cm or 5″

Architects are not following the rules and standards for good sauna building standards.

The Finnish Sauna Society

Founded in 1937, from people looking to build sauna for friends. Financing was obtained by the government as two weeks out of the year the saunas are available for use by other people. 4,500 members. One of the largest societies in the World. All private people. Membership can be applied for. No rules for membership, except you must know two members who have been members for at least 5 years.

40,000 visitors per year. Members can bring up to two guests per session, except Fridays are visitors only.

George Bush Senior was there. The previous US Ambassador, Bruce Oreck 6 years the ambassador of Finland, is a real sauna lover. He hates the US sauna. He especially loves the smoke sauna. Everywhere he goes he talks about sauna. Though both have ear rings, it is best not to mix up the body guard and the ambassador.

4 smoke saunas. Each one different from the other.

2 wood fired saunas. Single heat.

1 electrical sauna. The idea is that this is for handicapped people.

People are coming to Finnish Sauna Society for the smoke saunas.

The allure of the smoke sauna

The stones are heated directly by fire underneath, until the stones are red hot. The fire is then allowed to burn out from the fire chamber below, and all ash and coals are removed. The sauna hot room is then washed, cleaning the benches from 75-90 degrees c. #3 is the cherished savusauna, getting hotter than 120 degrees c.

6:30 am., the stoves are lit. At around 11:30 am the fires end. 1 pm saunas open. Until 9pm or 10pm.

1,000 kilos of stones. Thermally insulated. The sauna stoves are below. There is a lot of heat capacity in these saunas. The stones have to be hot enough in order to burn off all the hydrocarbons. The heating is stopped when the rocks are hot enough, 650 degrees c.

To heat a smoke sauna is something you have to learn. In terms of construction and operation. A smoke sauna can burn down. If there is a lot of carbon on the walls, and air can pass, it can easily become reddish. If air passes, hydrogen and oxygen mix, creates a chemical reaction: an explosion. A sauna wall can ignite a fair distance away from the stove. No reddish carbon on the wood walls.

Are there any smoke saunas in the United States? UL standardization is making it quite difficult to build smoke saunas.

Saunas around the world

Japan – sauna is very popular. Germany: there are over 10,000 public saunas. Mongolia, Japan, China has a very old type of smoke sauna, in a cave. “Mongolian hot flame sauna.” A very good sauna. They are burning stones inside this cave. Wet sand on the floor. The walls are very thick. Plenty of heat capacity. You are getting very good loyly.

Russia is the biggest country for sauna. 7-10 million saunas. Comparable to the Finnish sauna. The original Russian Banya is very near to the Finnish sauna. There are many very nice public saunas in St. Petersburg. Many Russian Banyas in Russia are controlled by the Russian mafia.

In Japan, sauna has been related to prostitution. Same in China.

Australia: Sauna is very popular. There are many Finnish immigrants in Australia. Sydney and Melbourne, where there were 350,000 Finnish immigrants, moving.

Canada has a reasonable sauna culture. There is a different culture than in the United States.

The first Loyly is always important

Risto’s favorite part of a sauna session: It is common in Finland to have a nap after sauna. Less common now, but still very traditional. Dating back to when Risto was a small child, he would take a 20 minute nap after sauna.

I have not seen any good mobile sauna. Most are bad. They are too low. Your feet are freezing. The Finnish Sauna Society has commissioned a mobile sauna. It his a high structure. We want to make a very good sauna.

Almost Heaven barrel sauna is not good. (sorry!).

Sit in Nature after sauna. It has to be quite quiet. The loyly is good and you have good company. I am having sauna quite a bit with my wife. Luckily she likes sauna.

Research work regarding sauna health benefits

Dr. Jari Laukkanen’s work: “If you go to sauna often enough, and taking sauna hot enough, you are decreasing risk of Alzheimers. Most plausible reason: our veins are more flexible. They think that Alzheimer is coming because your veins in your head are getting stiffer and stiffer. Sauna keeps your veins in flexible position. Results are showing clearly that sauna is helping men. 2,300 men. You cannot find a control group in Finland to test sauna benefits vs. a control group.

Residual benefits of sauna: you are joking more, relaxing more. This clearly has a benefit.

2010 Sauna Congress in Japan: a Japanese researcher has been showing images of the human heart and his work. 1-3 months in his hospital, patients who have had heart attacks are having sauna 90 minutes per day. After this treatment, they are showing normal hearts.

There are several other people who are doing similar things (sauna studies). A guy in Austria. A Russian lady has been doing much of the same research. All these results are in the same direction. This sauna going is healthy. If you are going too often or too hot, that’s not good either.

Logic and reasoning as it relates to “sauna health benefits.” Different from Infrared cabins.

Yes, softer veins is a physical benefit. Cold water: the temperature variation. Is this contributing to sauna health benefits. Sitting outside, ensuring you are completely cooled down, this is also a health benefit.

Financing for sauna studies: it is difficult to secure funding.

Sauna congress in US. Finnish Embassy and North America Sauna Association. New York or Washington, DC. Finnish Embassy.

The traditional sauna culture is important. People don’t have enough time. 2 1/2 hours is the minimum. Young people have to be online all the time. We are looking to have Finnish sauna added to UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list.

Many important people within ISA. We are sauna lovers. We are doing this kind of work all over the World.

Risto Elomaa, President, International Sauna Association, outside the Finnish Sauna Society in Helsinki

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4 thoughts on “Risto Elomaa discusses sauna culture around the World, as we get ready for a session at the Finnish Sauna Society, Helsinki, Finland.”

  1. Hi Mike:

    That’s a tricky question. Regarding Mikkel’s line “in the United States, 90% of the saunas are bad, and the other 10% are worse” refer to, in my interpretation, saunas in the public domain. ie, dead beat health club and hotel saunas.

    Why so bad?

    1. Really poor ventilation. Saunas being built next to a pool, so we get chlorine infusion with every breath.
    2. No fresh air cool down space (“fire exit only! Alarm will sound if opened“).
    3. Poor efforts at creating thermal mass using stupid volcanic rocks or some fragmentation of not enough rocks.
    4. Really bad, China made 1/8” thick tin heaters which mean, after having to replace the heater after a few months, the hotel or health club accountant requisitions a budget line item to pay for a sign above the stove saying:
    5. “this is a dry sauna, do not throw water on the rocks.”

    Yet, let me say this. One of the key reasons why I was able to take 50 saunas in 12 days is that the heat that I have experienced in the US for 30 years, since my last visit to Finland, is VERY similar to the great heat I was able to experience in Finland. Moreover, with a great sauna experience, as we know, the cool down is as important as the heat up. Most every sauna I took in Finland has a focus on a “water element” either cold plunge in the Baltic, or in one of the 185,000 fresh clean cold lakes, or if in a non natural water element area, decent showers, usually set to the coldest position by the previous user.

    But, it all starts with the stove.

    A kick ass wood burning sauna stove provides similar heat, no matter what continent the sauna benches are sitting on. A good beer tastes equally good, no matter what continents ice glass we are drinking from.

    And sticking with the beer analogy, let’s think about this: Imagine a day back when, say 1970s sometime, when the best beer in the World was being produced in, say, Germany and Belgium and England. Then imagine an independent handful of Young Americans, while hitch hiking around independently in Germany, Belgium, and England, so impressed with the quality of the beer in these countries, that after returning to the US, they independently said to themselves “I can make good beer in the US!”

    Then, they learned (with great respect to traditions and the craft) how great beer was made in Germany, Belgium, and England, and in some cases brought over some of the fermentation gear, or just sourced it locally, DIY, but started brewing beer with integrity and passion and focus on quality and authenticity.

    What do we have today?

    Great beer is being made in US.

    And the great news is also: great saunas are being made in the US, too.

    They are kicking our ass in Finland, and they should. 3.3 million saunas and 5.5 million people, they better be. But with a chalk line and skill saw, we can create a little more air intake below our hot room doors. And we can nudge up our lower bench to try to get our feet even with the sauna rocks. Yet most importantly, we are using a really good sauna stove, so when we pilgrimage to Finland, we are met with that familiar great heat and loyly, which will allow us to say “aaaah” with familiarity across the two continents.

  2. Hei Glenn.

    What was your Finland 12-day-sauna-trip itinerary? What cities and which saunas.

    4 saunas a day… That is USKOMATONTA!

    Very interesting transcription of Risto’s discussions on sauna.

    BTW, I love my Almost Heaven barrel sauna and the product fits a nice niche market. The 9kW Harvia, all stainless steel kiuas (heater) is maybe overkill, but worth the extra löyly.

  3. Hi Frank:

    Finland 12 day itinerary here:

    Almost Heaven Barrel Sauna:
    It’s funny in that the first one I experienced happened to be in the Harvia World Headquarters showroom in Finland! Three cheers to their ability to offer sauna to more masses via Costco drop ship distribution.

    9KW Harvia:
    Yes, the overkill is often the “hack” for electro sauna optimization (and Lampomassa). Well done!

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