Holistic Travel: The Science of Sweat

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Holistic Travel: The Science of Sweat

“This is not a competition,” Maaria instructed as we entered the sauna. “It’s all about listening to your body.”

It was the first week of February and snow flurries were falling outside of our glass-encased sauna sitting along the shore of frozen Lake Päijänne, the second largest lake in Finland. Maaria Alén, a sauna “healer,” was with us for the night explaining how to take part in this element of Finnish culture that has been around for thousands of years as a way to soothe the mind and body.

Based on Finnish folk tradition, the sauna and its steam are seen as a way to connect with nature and rid the body of toxins, used both at the beginning and end of a life cycle. Women gave birth in saunas and bodies were washed here before burial. For Maaria, sauna culture is just as much about the spiritual and cultural benefits as it is the physical.

sauna courtesy of Visit FinlandHarri Tarvainen.jpg
Image: courtesy of Visit FinlandHarri Tarvainen

“There’s an old Finnish proverb that goes: ‘If sauna, liquor and tar don’t heal your condition, it’s fatal,’” she says as we take a seat and dip our feet in the homemade foot baths filled with branches of juniper, spruce and yarrow flowers, a combination designed to help relieve cramps and improve relaxation.

As one of only three whiskers left in the country, Maaria is bringing back this traditional type of sauna treatment that blends aromatherapy and massage in a form of curative bathing. On her drive that evening to the saunas at Lehmonkärki, a resort in the Lahti region of Finland, about an hour outside of Helsinki, she made detours in forests along the way to collect leaves and branches of juniper, pine, birch and spruce to craft the “whisks,” which are used to move hot air above the person being treated. This movement adds an aromatherapy effect during the sauna session, in addition to providing different health benefits from light massage, such as muscle relaxation, stress relief and lymph circulation.

Whisking courtesy of Visit FinlandHarri TarvainenRuka Saunatour.jpg
Image: courtesy of Visit FinlandHarri TarvainenRuka Saunatour

“In Finnish folk tradition, rowan is a holy tree for ladies, so I often use that for air whisking, while for men, I use maple leaves to move the air,” she explains. “There are physical things with the plants, but there are also energetic meanings and chemical elements you can’t see.”

Research from the University of Eastern Finland has shown that frequent sauna sessions may lead to lower mortality rates due to cardiovascular disease and stroke. Research regarding whisking is still underway, but sauna healers like Maaria say that 15 minutes of whisking may be as beneficial as 45 minutes of massage.

Saunas have been used for thousands of years in Finland for relaxation—as well as ridding the body of spirits—but this type of treatment has only taken off more recently in western civilization. The same goes for Roman baths. Now a standard at luxe spas across the globe, this steam-centered experience has been used as a place for deep spiritual cleansing—as well as socializing with the upper echelons of society—for centuries in spots like Istanbul.

Sauna courtesy of Visit FinlandElina Sirparanta.jpg
Image: courtesy of Visit FinlandElina Sirparanta

In New York City, you’ll find a modern version of this ancient bathing tradition. The five-year-old AIRE Ancient Baths in TriBeCa is housed in a building dating back to 1883. Six signature baths cover all the bases—from saltwater pools to hot baths and cold plunges—while the aromatherapy-infused steam room is filled with the scent of eucalyptus, known for clearing up respiratory problems. While this spot still has a social element, it centers much more around the therapeutic, with the combination of steam and baths aiding everything from breathing capacity to joint movement, muscular tension and mental relaxation. The cavelike walls, lantern-lit rooms and exposed brick also add to the mental getaway feel, seeming far away from the bustling city despite being in the center of it.

Last week in the Italian Dolomites, I had a bath of another type where hay was just as important an element as heat. The hay bath tradition began with farmers over a century ago during haymaking season, when they would sleep in their hay on the mountaintops at an altitude of 8,000 feet, claiming to feel refreshed the following day and ready to continue working. The initial treatment required being covered neck up in actual hay at temperatures of 104 to 140 degrees for up to 20 minutes (and ended with a well-deserved glass of wine), designed for the sweat and heat to help the Dolomite hay’s essential oils seep into your skin.

My less rustic version at the three-generation, family run Ciasa Salares was modeled after this alpine tradition but performed on a water bed in the comfort of the hotel’s spa. I was lathered in calming calendula and chamomile cream made from local ingredients and wrapped in sheets for 10 minutes as the steam did its work detoxifying and moisturizing my skin. Of course this was the winter version, but you can still opt for the traditional hay-filled bath on the mountaintop come summer, mixing ingredients like straw blossoms and juniper that’ll leave you feeling just as recharged and restored as the farmers.

Lane Nieset is a freelance travel writer based out of Miami, Florida.