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Sauna Culture: The Basic “S” Words: Suomi, Sauna, Sisu

light steam graphic

Guest post series continues, thanks to Barbara who shares with us her view on sauna culture and Finland.  Enter Barbara:

Sauna is probably the best known Finnish word in the world.

Certainly more well-known than Suomi, the Finnish word for Finland. Even during the 2014 winter Olympics, an event in which the Finns excel, some commentators did not know why Finnish hockey players had Suomi on their uniforms.

The word sauna is in the English Dictionary, probably a first for the language, but few recognize the word as a Finnish word even though they may know its meaning. Sauna, a bath in steam (löyly) from water thrown on heated stones, has become a world-wide pleasure, but for Finns and Finnish Americans it is much more than a bath. Sauna is a way of life and a shared ritual.

Even if science someday were to disprove the firm belief among Finns that just as sauna cleanses the outside it cleanses the inside by a heat-generated release of toxins, improves the complexion by perspiration, increases the heart rate and boosts circulation, and improves immune response, the sauna would remain an essential part of life. Finns resonate to the myriad sensations of sauna: the aroma and beauty of the wooden structure, the distinctive smell of a wood fire and its smoke (savu), the hiss and steam of the water as it hits the hot rocks carefully chosen for their purpose, and the utter relaxation as your muscles begin to soften. The sensation of a unity of body and soul in the quiet inhabiting peace you feel as you give yourself to the heat and steam, are a kind of rebirth. Even on the coldest and darkest nights, when you ran shivering through the snow to the outdoor sauna, you emerge from a proper sauna rejuvenated, able to roll or stroll in the snow and to face life with joy and new energy.

The very elemental nature of the sauna, its wood, water, fire and stone, reflects a very Finnish aesthetic of function, simplicity, and naturalism.

A connection to nature in all its forms is part of the DNA of a Finn and many, as do I, have roots in the Sami, the indigenous people of the North. Sami crossed the Arctic in pursuit of a livelihood based on reindeer where people are the exception. Their way of life and identity as Sami mattered more than citizenship of a particular nation, which was subject to change. A migrating people, the Sami were knowing subjects of the forces of nature. They did not seek to own or dominate the land; they shared it with the rest of creation. They made a special effort to leave no trace of themselves behind as they moved across the landscape. Nature was nurture: all that man needed to survive was found in and on the earth Man and nature are partners in the cosmic give and take that Sauna practice is intertwined with and emblematic of Finnish history and values.

Survival in a hostile environment requires Sisu, a distinctively Finnish word.

Sisu describes a national trait of a people who chose the Far North as home and lived hard lives for thousands of years through long winter in the dark and extreme cold. Sisu, derived from a word, sisus, (inside, intestine), is far more than what we might call “guts.” A person with Sisu has an inner strength coupled with an awe-inspiring persistence to overcome whatever obstacle life presents. This fortitude with stamina is rightly admired when it manifests as perseverance and is truly to be feared when it becomes obstinacy.

Finns are viewed generally as honest and modest, and sauna may play a part in developing those values.

As a country, Finland places at or close to the top of the list of the world’s least corrupt countries by Transparency International, a group which rates such things. As a people, Finns are loathe to brag about themselves, (and, as some might say, to complement others!). Perhaps this modesty is a result of centuries of communal bathing. Sitting and sweating side by side on a sauna bench without designer clothes or a Rolex, we all tend to look alike: naked and vulnerable. And, if we appear to differ, the shared experience makes us feel as one as well as equal.

When Finns moved to a new location, a sauna was generally the first structure to be built. It was a place to prepare food, bathe, warm up from prolonged exposure, and sleep while the main house was being made. The sauna continued to serve as a hospital and mortuary when not in service as a bath.

Sauna priority in construction continued as the first Swede Finns migrated to the America in the 1630’s.  It is said that the Finnish method of log construction became the model for the iconic American log cabin. Much of the great migration to North America occurred before Finnish Independence from Tsarist Russia in 1917, an opportunity created by the Russian Revolution and World War I; Despite this late start for a modern nation and the devastation of World War II when Finland survived brutal attacks by the Russians and the Germans suffering a great loss of life and land. Finland emerged after the war determined to succeed as an independent nation.

Today, a successful nation of over 5 million people, Finland has prospered.

With a collective view that its people were its most important resource and that its first task was to recognize the human value of each citizen it built institutions that meet its basic needs of housing, health care and education and a better standard of living for all. Providing a free and equal education for all was the key to being able to build a new nation It called upon every citizen to contribute their best for a better future and they responded. The well-housed, educated, and healthy people worked hard at nation building and have created a robust economy that respects and preserves the value of its natural resources and environment by conserving and replanting.

In 2010, Newsweek declared Finland the best country in the world.

It based its conclusion on five criteria: health, economic dynamism, education, political environment and quality of life. As a person of Finnish heritage, I cannot not say that Finland is the best in the world. That would be bragging, so I will leave it to others. “Despite the long winter, Finland is a pretty great place to be – the In hard times and good times, we all benefit from Sauna Power.

Give Finnish sauna a try.

Celebrate 150 years of Finnish Immigration to America.  Join FinnFestUSA on May 24 and August 7-10, 2014 and look for more events on the web The first Finnish sauna built by the original settlers is still standing Cokato in Wright County, a testament to solid construction practices and the good stewardship of the Cokato community. The sauna and other historic buildings will be open for viewing on Saturday, May 24, 2014 as Cokato begins a months’- long celebration of the 150th anniversary of Finnish Settlement in North America

The greatest wave of immigration from Finland to North America began in 1864 in Minnesota and continued through the 1920’s. Finland and Finnish America continue a close cultural connection with travel and migration between both countries. The first Finnish immigrants to America have left their mark in many ways. The signature event, FinnFestUSA 2014 Minneapolis will be celebrated at the downtown Hyatt in Minneapolis from August 7-10. It is a great opportunity to learn more about things Finnish, including sauna, food, design, arts and crafts, music, and dance.

Literature, history, genealogy, science and politics.

Visit Facebook and our websites, FinnFEstUSA 2014 and Cokato Finnish Historical Society at for more information.


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1 thought on “Sauna Culture: The Basic “S” Words: Suomi, Sauna, Sisu”

  1. I always knew Sisu is something important in Finnish culture and that it relates to sauna in some way, yet I never tried to figure it out as I thought you needed to be a Finn to understand it.

    Standing outside in the cold rain between rounds or jumping into Lake Superior with ice floating around. Riding out a generous blast of Loyly on the sauna bench. Embracing nature.


    Barbara shared with me how the youth of today could benefit from Sisu. Tenacity, perseverance, stepping out of one’s comfort zone. Empowering our youth vs. enabling them. I am all over this, and it can start on the sauna bench.

    At our cabin, I see how both my sons walk differently coming up from the dock after a cold plunge. Proud. Confident. Stronger inside.


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