No More Performative Peacocking in Public Saunas, Please!

Even the Finns have said farewell to competitive heat-bathing. So let's check our egos at the door.

July 6, 2022 7:25 am
A Finnish man reads a newspaper in a sauna.
This fella might be here a while. But that doesn't mean you have to be.
Photo by Bruno PEROUSSE/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Twelve years ago, a Finn and a Russian entered a sauna. Six minutes later, they were both forcibly removed. The Finn was taken to the hospital and the Russian was declared dead.

This was the very last of the World Sauna Championships, an event that was held annually in a municipality 86 miles northeast of Helsinki from 1999 to 2010. After the tragedy, the operators swore that they would never host another tournament again. They’ve made good on their word.

If it seems shocking that any competition was allowed to reach that point — both men hunched over in a hut approaching 230°F, as 16 ounces of water were poured into a stove every 30 seconds — keep in mind that saunas are more ubiquitous in that part of the world than pools in American suburbia. Finland has a population of just over five million people. It also has two million saunas. The locals have seen just about everything.

But even the region’s most badass bathers must’ve felt a a jolt of reckoning when each challenger collapsed and emerged seconds later with skin peeling off in heaps. In many ways, Finnish sauna culture is a pastime; Finns take business meetings in the nude, roll around in the snow or jump in icy lakes after a session and sometimes cap the afternoon by self-flagellating with birch branches (a bizarre practice meant to encourage circulation).

But the culture isn’t meant to be that extreme. The country lives by a general credo: once you feel hot enough, leave.

The now-defunct World Sauna Championships, on display here in 2009.
AFP via Getty Images

I’ve become a regular at my sauna these past few months. It’s modest compared to some of the grand Scandinavian facilities, which can easily fit an entire soccer team; the max at my local is a cramped six. There’s the customary two-level seating, a basket of rocks hovering over the stove in the corner and (lucky us) a view of the Empire State Building across the river through the foggy window of the glass door.

While I’m yet to see anyone enter this sauna draped in a Russian flag, there’s an unmistakable thirst for competition in the sticky air. Some regulars like to peacock their way around the prison playground, upping the temperature wherever possible — they’ll pour water from their Nalgenes straight onto the rocks, or dash essential oils from a vial in their pocket (both contribute to the hyper-humid sensation that the Finns call löyly). They’ll also fiddle with the machine from the outside (though it doesn’t really get hotter than 180°F) and personally get up to turn the small 15-minute hourglass over (so the whole room knows they’re putting in another shift).

As someone who’s publicly obsessed with longevity, and admires any form of commitment to a health routine, I appreciate the passion. But I also get the feeling that they’re going about it all wrong. It goes beyond the poor etiquette (e.g. the whole sauna should be in agreement before you decide to whip up a Roman chamomile cocktail on the rocks). I fear that the laser-focus some of my gym neighbors bring to our sauna is interrupting the custom’s noble, reflective purpose.

By and large, Finns are pros. They regularly “ice swim,” for chrissakes. Tread lightly before trying to be a hero at Crunch Fitness.
Corbis via Getty Images

The entire other portion of the gym, with its squat racks, exercise bikes and climbing walls — that’s a suitable realm for teeth-gnashing and goal-setting. Why bring that energy into a sauna? Isn’t every other minute of the day in our gamified Gmail culture stressful enough? Can’t a really hot room just remain a really hot room? A place to drop your shoulders, unclench your jaw and check your phones/egos at the door?

If you must know: a few years ago, sports scientists declared time in a sauna comparable to completing a “short, moderate workout.” The heart rate does go up, and physical strain does occur. But that shouldn’t be perceived as ammo to justify going even harder. Instead, try embracing that simply sitting on a hot bench in some dad’s Home Depot dream project is going to up your cardiovascular health and coax sweat from your pores. That’s a gift in itself.

Most tutorials on sauna etiquette focus on faux-pas committed for clueless or gross reasons (people who leave the door open for too long while entering or exiting, people cut their toenails in there). That’s all embarrassing fare. But just as important, should you ever choose to start attending one nearby, is that you feel comfortable to sauna as you see fit. That’s to say: once you feel hot enough, leave.

You can’t really control the actions of your sauna’s weekend warriors. But they can control you. There’s nothing worse than sitting down with four or five hardos, putting in your allotted time, then desperately waiting, minutes on end, for one of them to leave. I’ll let brighter minds plunder the psychological minefield at play there — all I know is that multiple times I’ve found myself staring at a door, my body telling me I’m done. And yet, I’ve found myself unable to get up, for fear of “what it says” about my will.

That’s insane. I hope both sides of the coin — the World Sauna wannabes, and those, like me, with too much real estate for sale in their brains — can reach a happy medium. The sauna is a place for being, not doing. You know what the prize was for that fateful tournament 12 years ago? The official quote, as relayed to the Associated Press: “Some small things.” And that, really, is all that awaits on the other side of a vengeful sauna session. Some small things.

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