Sauna Rituals Around the World: Understanding Cultural Perspectives on Heat Therapy

Timothy Munene Timothy Munene
Sauna Rituals Around the World: Understanding Cultural Perspectives on Heat Therapy

Different cultures globally acknowledge the healing power of the sauna. Heat treatments and their numerous benefits have existed for years in different cultures worldwide. Even though the Finnish sauna experience is most similar to numerous Western sauna experiences, sauna use is common worldwide. Different countries have varying rituals revolving around the sauna experience, as shown below. 

Finland’s Sauna Culture

The sauna culture in Finland is deeply rooted in Finnish culture, which has been practiced since ancient times. You can find saunas in nearly every Finnish home, with some people having saunas in their workplaces and summer cottages. Finnish saunas are heated by electricity or wood, while a heater or stove generates the heat.

The smoke sauna remains the most traditional Finnish sauna. To heat it, you must burn wood and heat rocks until they become red hot. The smoke is then released, making the sauna ready to use. According to Finns, the sauna offers a unique experience, making it the best unit for socialization and relaxation. Finland’s sauna culture is so important that “saunakulttuuri” has been acquired to describe it. The sauna forms a crucial part of the Finnish people’s identity. 

Icelandic Sauna

Iceland boasts a robust outdoor culture encompassing heat therapy from natural pools. Volcanic activity in Iceland naturally heats water pools within the region. Natural hot springs in Iceland, such as the globally recognized Blue Lagoon, are common among the locals and tourists. Iceland spas and Saunas are rare in other parts of the globe. Instead, regions such as North America build saunas that mimic the natural surroundings of Iceland. 

Russian Banya Rituals

Russian banya rituals are some of the most popular worldwide. Also known as the Russian sauna, the banya has existed in Russian culture for centuries, playing a vital role in cultural and social life. Public banyas, which have been part of Russian culture since the 14th century, remain popular to date. They are perceived as places where people can converge to socialize and reinforce their relationships.

Besides socializing, banyas are places where users can enhance their wellness and health. A critical aspect of the Russian banya rituals is the utilization of birch branches, which are used to produce steam and discharge a sweet-scented aroma. The branches are also soaked in water and used to beat the body gently, a practice believed to improve circulation and boost relaxation.

Russian banya rituals also revolve around venik massage, which involves massaging the body using birch branches or venik. This massage is said to have numerous health benefits, such as reducing stress. 

Japanese Sento and Onsen

The Japanese sento and onsen sauna rituals are worth exploring. Sento is a public bathhouse, and onsen is a conventional Japanese hot spring. The Japanese people have enjoyed the onsen cultural experience for centuries, believing onsen water contains healing properties. Many people visit the onsen to rejuvenate and relax.

Geothermal activity facilitates the natural heating of onsen water. The water contains minerals that are believed to have therapeutic benefits. Onsen is a social experience that many people enjoy with their family and friends. On the other hand, sento is an accessible setting where people meet to socialize, bathe, and relax after the hustles and bustles of the day.

Both onsen and sento have unique customs and rituals. For instance, while you can bathe naked in the onsen, you must drape yourself in a small towel when using the sento. You must clean yourself thoroughly before using the sento or onsen. In Japan, sentos and onsens are available in traditional Japanese inns and hotels, while some people have them in their homes. 

Sauna Rituals in Northern America

Sauna rituals in North America are affiliated with Native American traditions and sweat lodges. Sweat lodges are enclosed small structures heated by hot rocks. Water is spilled over the hot rocks to generate steam while users sit in the lodge to cleanse their bodies and sweat. Many people use sweat lodges for spiritual and physical benefits, some considering it a form of prayer.

Many native American tribes use sweat lodges and various rituals associated with these units. For instance, some tribes use specific medicines or herbs to improve their experience, while others use chants or songs.

The sauna culture has become popular in North America among non-Native Americans. Many modern-day residents visit public saunas or construct saunas in their homes to enjoy the health benefits of relaxation and sweating. 

Sauna Rituals in Central America

Central America boasts a rich history of sauna traditions. The Mexican temazcal, a traditional sweat lodge, is the most popular. The native Mexican people have used it for centuries. The temazcal is a dome-shaped small structure made of stone or adobe. It comes with hot rocks at the center to heat it.

The Mexican people use the temazcal to experience spiritual and physical benefits. It is said to help purify the mind and body and promote healing. The practice involves getting inside the temazcal, which users do in total darkness, and sitting silently as the heat and steam escalate. A series of offerings to the spirits, prayers, and chants follow.

Other sauna traditions in Central America include the chuj, commonly practiced by the Maya people of Belize and Guatemala. The chuj is a small enclosed wooden structure heated by burning charcoal or wood. People use it to cleanse and purify their bodies, promoting relaxation and overall well-being. 

Scandinavian Sauna Practices

Sauna rituals have been part of the Nordic culture in different Scandinavian countries including Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, for socializing, relaxation, and cleansing for centuries. In Sweden, for example, saunas are referred to as bastu and are available in public places and homes. The Swedish sauna experience involves alternating between a cold dip in the lake or a shower and the sauna.

Many Swedes go to the sauna naked and beat themselves gently with birch branches, which are believed to enhance circulation and the general sauna experience. Further, löyly, the Finnish term for the steam that emanates after pouring water on hot rocks inside the sauna, is a vital part of Swedish tradition.

Norway boasts a rich sauna tradition, with saunas forming a crucial part of daily life. Saunas in the country are referred to as badstu and are available in public places, cabins, and private homes. The Norwegian and Swedish sauna experiences are similar, but Norwegians include a glass of aquavit or cold beer in their sauna practice. 

Turkish Bath

Also known as the hammam, the Turkish bath has existed since the Ottoman Empire. It was a place where people met to relax and socialize, and it featured three rooms - the hot, warm, and cold rooms. Users enter the hot room, also known as the sıcaklık, a steam room heated by a big central marble slab, referred to as the göbek taşı first.

Users relax in the warm room before entering the cold room, also known as soğukluk, to cool down and relax. The heat and steam inside the hammam were believed to have healing properties that could assist with joint pain and respiratory problems. 

Turkish Hammam

Also known as a Turkish bath, the Turkish hammam is a Middle Eastern ritual. It’s said to be a form of relaxation, cleansing, and public bathing, and it has existed since the Ottoman Empire in the 15th century.

The Roman public bathing approach integrated with the Islamic approach, resulting in the hammam. Usually, a Turkish hammam comes with a room to warm the body and another room where users wash and cleanse their bodies. The hammam also contains another room where users can cool off at lower temperatures. 


Saunas have significantly evolved over time with advancements in technology and design. In the past, these units were used for religious practices, bathing, and medicinal purposes. In the modern age, saunas are used for health benefits, including stress relief and relaxation. It is worth noting that modern sauna traditions have heavily borrowed from the practices of different cultures from ancient days.

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