Introduction to the Sauna

Any introduction to the sauna would have to mention its long history of use around the world (see below), but first…

What is a sauna?

A sauna is an enclosed area—usually a small room built of wood—which is heated in order to produce body heating of the person inside it. Inside the sauna room is at least one bench to sit or lie on. You’ve probably seen a traditional sauna at the local gym, health club or community center. Learn how to take a sauna.

It’s been known for thousands of years that body heating has highly beneficial effects. As the body warms up, circulation is enhanced, and you begin to sweat.

By enhancing circulation, heating the tissues, and promoting sweating, saunas produce relaxation and numerous health benefits. Most folks don't realize how wide the full range of sauna benefits are.

Types of saunas

A true ‘sauna’, as the word is used by the Finns, from whom the word “sauna” (pronounced sow’-na) comes, is a dry heat sauna.

Finnish saunas are traditionally heated by hot stones. The stones themselves are heated by being placed on a fire or electrical source inside the sauna. These hot stones then give off a soft heat, more penetrating than the vapor used in a steam bath. (More on Finnish saunas coming soon.)

A Russian or Turkish steam bath, on the other hand, is different. A steam bath uses heated water vapor—moisture to heat the body. Moist heat has its own unique benefits. See dry sauna vs. steam room. Steam baths are sometimes referred to as “wet saunas”.

Most of us have seen scenes of bathers in public steam baths in movies depicting the Ancient Greeks, Romans or Turks, all of whom have long histories of steam bathing. I know that it was through the movies that I had my introduction to the sauna (wet sauna, that is)!

The newest sauna is the infrared sauna

Infrared saunas, also called far infrared saunas (or fir saunas for short), are also dry heat saunas. The difference between them and the Finnish-style sauna is how the sauna room is heated.

Infrared saunas are heated by infrared heaters. Infrared heaters send out heat waves in a specific energy range—the far infrared wave range—which is known to have wonderful therapeutic benefits.

But there’s something else: infrared heaters produce body heating and sweating at a much lower air temperature than Finnish saunas. So for many people it’s much more comfortable to sit in an infrared sauna.

Is it safe? Well, consider this: your own palms give off heat in the far infrared wave range! Also, premature babies are heated by gentle fir heat in the incubators.

Introduction to the sauna : Who uses the sauna?

Well, I had no idea when I started reading about sauna history how many different cultures have histories of using the dry heat sauna or steam bath! Old, old historical accounts mention body heating practices in: South America, North America and the Arctic; Scandinavia (of course); Eastern Europe; Ancient Rome and Ancient Greece; Northern Africa; Japan; India and Tibet. Here’s part of the story…

A look back through time - history of the sauna:

Stone Age. It is believed that the first saunas were holes dug into the earth. Heated rocks were placed in the holes, then water was poured over them. Animal skins were used to cover the holes and retain the steam and humidity.

5000 - 3000 B.C. Finland. Saunas are used for bathing, for childbirth, as places where a person could refresh and rejuvenate their spirits, clear their minds, and some ceremonies. Introduction of the sauna to Finland itself occurs by people who migrated from an area northwest of present day Tibet.

2000 B.C. Mayans use sweat houses for therapy and ritual.

1700 B.C. Crete: Numerous saunas appear along the Mediterranean and the world’s first bathtub appears in the palace of King Minos

1000 B.C. China. Palm healing is in evidence—a type of healing in which one person lays their palm(s) in a healing act onto the sick person. Palms naturally radiate infrared rays.

1000 B.C. Native American sweat lodges, holes dug in the ground covered with a cloth, are in use in North and South America and documented with the European invasion of the Western Hemisphere.

568 BC The ancient medical text, the Ayurveda, written in Sanskrit, prescribes the sweat bath as a health measure.

500 BC, the Greek physician Parmenides states that if only he had the means to create fever, he could cure all illness.

450 B.C. The historian Herodutus, records that the Greeks have been using steam for some time to induce sweating as a form of bathing and to help maintain health.

600 – 900 A.D. Tibet. The first recorded wooden saunas.

1237 Batu-Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan, witnesses Russians in the winter jumping out of wooden huts, red and hot, into cold water. His aides explain to him that the secret of Russian strength is in this "exercise."

1496 German painter Albrecht Durer produces the illustration “The Women’s Bath.” It shows a scene of women in a traditional sauna washing themselves.

1567 Mexico. A history text describes Indians takin sauna baths in temescallis—low buildings large enough to fit 10 at a time.

1638 America. The Finnish-style sauna is in use in North America, brought here by the Finns. Native saunas have already long been in use by the Inuit and Native American Indian groups.

1893. USA. Dr. Kellogg introduces his electric light bath (using light bulbs as the heat source) at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. The heat from the light bulbs radiates much of their energy in the far infrared range.

1890s. Austria. Dr. Winternz brings Kellogg’s invention to Europe, where he manufactures and sells 1000 units, including to royalty and athletic clubs.

1920’s Germany. Whole body infrared therapy comes into use by physicians in an independently developed form.

1959 NASA uses saunas to study the effects of re-entry heat on the human body.

1965 Japan. Dr. Tadashi Ishikowa, a member of the Research and Development Department of Fuji Medical, receives a patent on the zirconia ceramic infrared heater.

1965 – 1979 Japan. Medical practitioners in Japan use infrared thermal systems for healing.

1979 Japan. Infrared heaters are released for public use.

1981 – today. USA. Infrared technology becomes further refined and is sold in the United States. Refinements include modularity, new heater materials, non-toxic adhesives, large size selection, and reduction in price.

1980’s – Today Germany. Klinik St. Georg creates a successful cancer treatment protocol that includes hyperthermia (infrared) treatment.

Today, there is one sauna for every two to three Finns and sauna design is a revered art in Finland.

Okay, so maybe that’s more history than you needed for your introduction to the sauna…! Move on from Introduction to the Sauna to the FIR Sauna itself.