Finnish culture is synonymous with sauna culture. Its estimated that there are 2.5 million saunas in Finland. Finland’s population is just over 5 million. That means there is 1 sauna for every 2 people! The meaning of Löyly is important to understand as you learn about Finnish sauna culture.
It’s like Canada with hockey.
A Brief History of Sauna use in Finland
Finnish sauna culture has been around for thousands of years. The earliest estimates of sauna use in Finland date back to 7000 BC! Many sources say that these saunas started, or at least were at one point, dug into the side of slopes like a man-made cave.
“Hot wooden saunas in which naked bathers beat themselves with branches and finally pour cold water over themselves”.Nestor the Chronicler, 1112
The sauna isn’t just a place that’s in the corner of a gym locker room, like in America. It’s a spiritual place, like a church. The sauna has been a place where women give birth, people are laid to rest, bachelorette parties are hosted, and used as a place to heal from sickness.
Everyone is equal in the sauna. Whether you are a politician, business woman, or athlete, it doesn’t matter. You are sitting naked in intense heat.
Löyly means the steam coming from the sauna heater, at a rudimentary level. When you pour water over the sauna to create steam, that is löyly. It makes the sauna humid and feel hotter. This enables a deeper sweat and more relaxation.
Löyly has a spiritual meaning in Finnish sauna culture. It’s considered a life force.
There is no direct translation in English. The closest translations is the steam that comes from pouring water over the heater. It means spirit of life, or life force, at a deeper level.
Pouring water over the kiaus envelops the room in steam as the water evaporates. This makes the room hotter and more relaxing. It’s believed that löyly can cure disease, relax your body, unclogs your pores, and bring people together.
Common phrases are “how was the löyly?” Or “that was great löyly.”
Pouring water over the kiaus, a sauna stove or heater, envelops the room in steam as the water evaporates. This makes the room hotter.
Most American saunas use an electric kiaus. Electric heaters are great, easy to use, and efficient.
Finnish culture often uses a wood burning stoves. It creates a much better ambiance with the smell of wood burning and watching the fire. It’s like the experience you get sitting by a fire with close friends. It is the more authentic and original way of heating a sauna.
You can also have higher temperature wood burning sauna in America because the regulations of electric heated saunas only go up to 194 degrees.
Some words of caution
Be cautious when pouring water over the sauna heater. It is important to check with the others in the sauna to make sure it is ok for them.
You also should stand back as you pour the water over the heater because the steam can burn your skin.
Lastly, most saunas have a bucket and a laddle. This measures our how much water to pour on the heaters. If you don’t have one, pour the water slowly. You don’t want to drench the sauna stones in water.
I wrote more about public sauna etiquette here.