A few weeks ago I was approached by the fine people of the Helsinki Freedom Campaign to work with them on a project to promote Helsinki and specifically focus on freedom as an issue. I took the opportunity mainly because my only visit to Finland a few years ago was so fun and impressive that I was excited to be writing about one of the happiest places on earth again. I don’t just love about things to see and do, I love freedom because it’s at the heart of life in Finland and Helsinki in particular. It is a very egalitarian society with a strong emphasis on quality of life; something sorely lacking here in the US. The biggest aspect is that, as a visitor, no matter how briefly you are there, you yourself are immediately initiated into this unique lifestyle, as perhaps best illustrated by the greatest gift the Finns gave to the world will, sauna.
The importance of the sauna
While many cultures around the world have types of saunas, Finns take great pride in claiming that they have one of the oldest and continuously active sauna cultures in the world. The Finnish sauna began more than 2,000 years ago and was little more than a humble earthwork into which a pile of stones was inserted for bathing. Because that is exactly what sauna is ultimately – a way to get clean. Water thrown on the hot stones gives off steam that makes bathers sweat. Before leaving the sauna, it is still common today to either douse yourself with water or to have a permanent tub installed in the sauna. This natural process of sweat bathing followed by cleansing is not only very healthy. It’s an incredibly important aspect of Finnish society.
There is an old Finnish saying that Finns live and die in the sauna. At first I smiled and thought it was just a fine example of flowery language, but it’s literally true. Of course there are rules for attending a sauna, but they are more guidelines than rules, and not once have I been punished for not knowing better. This is because the sauna is essentially about personal freedom.
How the sauna changed my life
One of the rules is that sauna-goers should be naked, which my fellow Americans still unconsciously shake. Social mores in Finland are different, however, and when I was talking to someone in Helsinki, I began to understand why these concerns about being naked don’t exist in Finland. He said that if you go to the sauna several times a week and see all kinds of people naked, Finns usually don’t suffer from the same body image problems that the rest of the world cannot escape. “I just understood that everyone looked different and that was fine,” he continued – a refreshingly open and healthy demeanor. This was a revolutionary concept for me.
Like so many other people, I’ve dealt with body image issues my whole life – I still do, if we’re honest. I never accepted that I was enough, that I didn’t have to be “better” whatever that means. I sat there without a piece of clothing and started the long process of self acceptance and learning that I can be as great as I am. This concept has been so liberating for me that I don’t have the right words to properly share its impact. Freedom is subjective, freedom has many definitions and connotations, but for me I have never felt as free and alive as in a warm sauna in Helsinki.
Finland and Helsinki in particular will always have a part of my heart reserved and I can’t wait to return to not only relive that definition of freedom, but also to discover new shades of the word.