Sweating it out in Nuuksio National Park in Finland, home of sauna culture
ANDREW WHITTON FOR THE SUNDAY TIMES MAGAZINE
David Baddiel’s hot new obsession: ‘I’m naked, sweating and trapped’
What started as a lockdown project has evolved into a love affair. Join our sauna correspondent on his Finnish trial by steam
Iam very recognisable. This is not purely a function of fame. There are many people more famous than me who are less recognisable. It’s because my face is like a Groucho Marx novelty mask: the beard-nose-glasses classic combo makes it easy to map, and therefore notice (which explains why I am also often mistaken for Ben Elton and Mark Watson).
Point being, I get recognised a lot, I am used to it and most of the time I’m perfectly happy with it. Except in the sauna.I have always liked saunas. I am a man who, contrary to the still-persistent-even-into-decrepitude New Lad image, likes all forms of pampering. I’ve never seen a spa that I don’t want to pad into in a fluffy towelling robe. Saunas offer the easiest-access form of pampering, because they don’t require anyone else to touch you, or draw wax out of your ear with a candle, or clink tiny Himalayan bells over your chakras.
They are also readily available. In my long experience touring the UK doing comedy shows, many mid-range Marriott-level Gareth-Cheeseman-conference-holding hotels may not have Instagrammable spas, but they will have a pool and a sauna, so if I’ve arrived in one with four hours to go to the gig, I’ll get down there and grab a seat on the pine benches as soon as possible. However. The problem with Gareth-Cheeseman-conference-holding hotels is they are all full of Gareth Cheesemans (for anyone who doesn’t know, Gareth was a proto-Partridge Steve Coogan character, more of a middle manager than Alan) who have all had the same idea as me. Normally, I’d say it’s about four minutes in before one of them says, “It is you, isn’t it?” Or alternatively, cuts straight to the chase with, “I have to ask you — sorry mate — but is it coming home?”
Which is fine, except at this point I’m naked apart from a pair of trunks, sweating profusely and trapped. And the one thing you don’t want in a sauna — apart from a chip fire — is self-consciousness. So what normally happens is I just exit, hopefully un-pursued by a bare.
This was one reason why I converted a shed attached to my house into a sauna last year. It wasn’t the only reason; it was also a lockdown thing. It was an “if I’m going to be spending all my time in my house maybe I should make my house more of a place I want to spend all my time” thing. (What it was not, perhaps, was a heatwave thing but let’s leave that aside for the moment.)
Obviously, when I say “I converted” what I mean is I paid a company to convert it. In fact I probably wouldn’t have taken the plunge had not the company in question pressed a very particular button in their sales technique. About halfway through my initial conversation with the sales manager, he said, “They are very healthy. Studies have been done, for example, that prove saunas can prevent dementia.”
I have no idea whether he had read anything I’d written, or seen any of my shows, about my late dad Colin and his dementia. This was never something I felt it was necessary to hide. It is, though, something to fear. It is a cruel and terrible disease and thus I am only too keen to outsmart my genetics and not get it.
I checked out what he said. There has been, it turns out, a 20-year study in Finland that concluded that middle-aged men who took saunas four to seven times a week were two-thirds less likely to develop dementia. I signed on the dotted line.
I won’t go into the complex issues that were involved — the hollowing out of the shed area, the redesigning of the tiny space, the extensive rewiring — but it eventually got made. And despite my wife saying, “It’s a midlife crisis, you’ll never use it,” I do. I go in there two or three times a week. I do two fifteen-minute sessions, broken by a long sit/soak in the garden, where I — all right, the sauna company — also built an outdoor shower. Normally I do this at night, so my neighbours are less likely to get a shock looking over the fence as I stumble out of the sauna half-naked and steaming.
I have no idea what effect heating my brain up like this on a regular basis is doing. Most likely, any health benefit is to do with raising the heart rate. Saunas are basically a lazy man’s workout. My not-inextensive reading on Google Scholar suggests that, in cardiovascular terms, a half-hour sauna is equivalent to a brisk walk. But you can do it sitting down in a womb-like comforting heat, without that much chance of being mugged. So it’s a win-win.
I haven’t seen any sign of weight loss: if there’s one thing we all know about saunas it’s that any weight you lose is water, and you put that back on immediately when you come out and gulp down huge glasses of it. Plus some of the other supposed benefits — sleeping better, for example — are not particularly happening for me. But overall, it does make me feel better. It makes me feel as though something has washed through my system. I look forward to being in there. It is calm and quiet and seems, despite being attached to my house, removed from the world. I will never do hot yoga, but the sauna is a type of hot meditation.
All this is why, when I was contacted by the Finnish embassy (who had been tipped off about my sauna enthusiasm by the company that built my one) and invited to join a group on a sauna trip of Finland, I said yes. That, and the large part of me that these days is dominated by my deathbed. By which I mean an image of me on my deathbed ruefully thinking, “Oh, I never did that.”
Finland is the country with the greatest claim of ownership over sauna (pronounced, I should have said earlier, “sowna”) culture. In 1112, Nestor the Chronicler wrote of “hot wooden saunas” in which bathers “beat themselves with branches and finally pour cold water over themselves” but the Finns have been at it, historians think, for thousands of years. Today, the sauna is completely entwined in Finnish life. Everyone in Finland goes to saunas. There are more than two million of them in the country for a population of five and a half million. That’s a lot of spare pine for your buttocks.
After flying into Helsinki, I was whisked off to “the sauna capital of the world”, Tampere in the west of Finland. Tampere, at the time I was there, was hosting the World Sauna Forum. So really, given all this, you’d expect one thing I should be guaranteed on getting, soon, was a sauna. By the time I arrived, they were all booked up. The next day I was driven to the outskirts of the city where I found, next to a lake and a gallery, a very elegantly designed art sauna. That wasn’t functioning yet.
In fact, by the evening of my second day in Finland, the only thing that was causing me to sweat was the possibility that I’d come all this way and wasn’t going to get a sauna. Luckily, unsurprisingly, there were saunas on the roof of the hotel I was staying in. But that night, every cabin was packed with World Sauna Forum attendees. I decided I had no choice and went in. It was very full and they were all very drunk. A man got up and started waving his towel around the stove like a matador. Another man sat down next to me, and said, “All right, David? Fancy a beer?” I thought at first that my Groucho-Marx-mask-face issue had spread as far as Scandinavia, but it turned out to be one of the British owners of the company that had installed my sauna.
Then a woman made me lie on a bench while she demonstrated the leafy whisk. This is not a euphemism. In Finland, different types of dried leaves are bundled into brushes and whisked against the body to open the pores and help the sauna work its sauna magic. In case anyone is wondering, in Finland, sauna bathers are generally not naked. That’s Germany you’re thinking of, where you will be dragged out of the cabin and debagged for wearing a pair of swimming trunks. I have no issue with nudity in saunas, except that sometimes men in them will cross their legs and thus create, peeping out from beneath their thigh, that testicle-fit-to-burst look, which I always find troubling.
Anyway, it was probably a good thing I was wearing trunks at this point, as the woman was brushing me vigorously with some birch leaves while saying that it was an aphrodisiac. Although as I looked up and around at the pink laughing faces of the World Sauna Forum delegates, I wasn’t convinced that even the mystic powers of the sauna whisk were going to work on me in that regard.
By the next morning I was beginning to question the wisdom of my deathbed voice telling me to come on this trip. I thought that again on being told that today I was going to meet some sauna shamans. “I just want to have a quiet sweat somewhere nice — like in my house?” were the words I wanted to say, but I’m a team player and kept shtum. The sauna shamans were named Matti and Juha. They were to be found in a tumbling old house on the banks of an unpronounceable lake. They gave a little briefing about what being a sauna shaman is all about. I caught the words “chanting” and “sauna spirit” and once again “birch leaves”. I sighed, internally.
I went into the sauna and took a place on the highest bench. Matti and Juha came in, both of them now wearing what looked like Edwardian bathing costumes and hobbit hats. (These aren’t hobbit hats, they’re small triangular felt hats designed to keep your head from overheating — but they look like hobbit hats.)
They told me to shut my eyes and then talked through the different types of sweat I would be experiencing, the first one being the “sweat of fatigue”. Other sweats are available. I can’t remember their names. Then, one of them — Matti, I think — began doing that thing where you blow into your fist and wave your fingers to make an owl sound (something I always wanted to be able to do when I was young but couldn’t). This was followed by the clacking of some tiny bells — turns out they can turn up in a sauna — and some chanting and some calling up of the sauna spirits in song. For the finale, they put my feet into cooling bowls of water, stroked me gently with birch whisks and put a crown of leaves on my head. I felt like a sauna Jesus.
So all this may sound like I’m taking the piss. I am and I’m not. At some level, it was hilarious but it was also trance-inducing, perhaps even transcendental. It was certainly different from being in the Marriott with Gareth Cheeseman. Afterwards, I went down to the lake and floated in the water. It was raining and very, very beautiful. I felt serene.
From then on, every sauna got better. One was on Lonna, one of many islands off Helsinki. The sauna there looked out to sea, the same sea in which, in between sweating, I was able to cool myself down from the loyly in blazing sunlight at 9pm. (Loyly? The Finnish word for steam that rises off the coals when you throw water over them.) Another was in a cottage in the Nuuksio National Park. Again, the sauna was fabulous, with a stunning view through its somehow-not-misted-up window, but the real pleasure was running, steaming, out of it and diving straight into another clear, cool lake. This is the joy of sauna, especially in Finland: the proximity of water, of hot and cold immersion.
This contrast was at its most extreme — maybe too extreme — in my last sauna of this trip, in a park called Kuusijarvi, in Vantaa, about 45 minutes outside Helsinki. I’d been holding out for one last sauna experience, the hardcore option: the smoke sauna. Most traditional Finnish saunas have a chimney, but these do not.
When I arrived in Kuusijarvi, it was busy. There were hundreds of Finns going in and out of three dark woodsmoke saunas that were positioned in front of a lake with myriad jetties. I went into the biggest one. Don’t ask me how a smoke sauna works. Inside, the walls are black with soot. I have no idea why it isn’t impossible to breathe.
It’s dark in there, so you’re more aware than ever of the heat. I headed — of course I did, I’m a sauna veteran now — for the top bench. I thought as I went: blimey, this is really hot. Is it meant to be this hot? That very burnt quality these walls have … is that happening to my body? I thought all of these things before a man got up and poured three large saucepans of water onto the stove. And then I wanted to scream: we’re all going to die!
I looked around. Everyone else seemed perfectly fine. Sweaty, but fine. I still don’t understand it. Because it was like sitting in the middle of a raging steam fire.
I ran out and dived into the lake. This was not so much the Zen experience described earlier, but more of a cartoon moment, like when Tom has had his entire fur burnt off by Jerry and rushes to plonk his body in a bucket of water. I stayed in the water for a long time, wondering if my personal heat level might warm up the entire lake and force the Finns out of it.
When finally I emerged, my whole body was covered in red blotches. I spent a while wondering if I needed to go to hospital. I didn’t. My skin calmed down. But I felt that the time had come not to go into a sauna for a while. I felt that right up until that evening when, upon leaving Helsinki, I discovered that Finnair have a sauna in their lounge — of course they do — and went into that. Truth is, I may be an addict. But at least it’s one of the healthier things you could be addicted to.
David Baddiel’s live show Jews Don’t Count is at The Lowry, Manchester, Sept 12-17. Visit davidbaddiel.com. Baddiel travelled as a guest of Finnair, the Embassy of Finland in London, Helsinki Partners and Visit Tampere
Time to sauna? Here are the dos and don’ts
… listen to your body. “Sauna and exercise capacity are quite similar,” says Gabrielle Reason of Community Sauna Baths in Hackney Wick, London. “You get better with time.” Aim to get your heart rate up to medium intensity. Start with five to ten-minute sessions and “let your heartbeat be the guide”. Studies have found that regular saunas can reduce blood pressure and improve cholesterol levels. … wear the hat. It might sound counterintuitive but, as Reason explains, sauna caps “stop too much heat from getting to your body, so you can stay in there longer”…. put water on those hot rocks. “Steam makes it more tolerable,” says Liz Watson of the British Sauna Society…. rehydrate afterwards. “Try nettle, hibiscus and camomile teas,” Watson says. “They’re full of electrolytes.” The Finns use blueberry juice. Otherwise, drink plenty of water.
… ignore medical advice. Stay clear of saunas if you have low blood pressure or have suffered a recent heart attack or stroke. … drink alcohol. Saunas are cardio workouts — and you wouldn’t drink while doing a Parkrun.
… be shy. Reason recommends visiting a sauna at least once a week. As with exercise, the more you do it, the more benefits you’ll feel…. give up too soon. Watson says to try four rounds of “contrast bathing” — going from hot to cold — over two hours. “Cool down in different ways — the sea, an ice plunge, a cold shower, good old fresh air and wind.” The hotter the sauna the better, says Reason. “You should be on the edge of discomfort.”