The Nordic sauna is about getting naked - in your body, and your thoughts, writes Juliette Sivertsen
Naked, alone, thousands of miles from home. A string of sweat pearls emerge on my forearms, dribbling over my blonde arm hairs, pausing for a moment before rolling on to the towel underneath.
I try to fight through the restlessness. Breathing over the endless thoughts, anxieties, the ever-expanding list inside my mind. Eventually I find a rhythm; inhaling the humid air, learning to let go of my emotional treadmill with each exhalation.
There are few things more Finnish than the sauna. For many citizens of the world, the sauna may seem like an indulgent treatment. But to the Finns, it is a necessity. In a country of 5.5 million, there are close to two million saunas throughout Finland. There's even a group dedicated to protecting the sanctity of the traditional sauna culture, The Finnish Sauna Society. Established in 1937, the association has more than 4000 members, all trying to encourage the preservation of this time-honoured custom.
There are two things I needed for this ritual. Cleanliness and nakedness. One must be physically clean of dirt before a true cleansing ritual can take place. And you cannot be truly cleansed, if part of you is still hiding behind even the tiniest piece of fabric.
Once upon a time, the sauna was considered the cleanest place in the house. For that reason, it was frequently used as a birthing unit for women. But the only new life in my private sauna was the one unfolding in my mind; the steam room acting as a powerful tonic for my mental wellbeing, an antidote to my loneliness, a restoration of my spirit.
My prior experience of a sauna stemmed solely from gym and swimming pool memberships, as a place to sweat out those so-called toxins every health magazine tells me thrive inside my body. But the Finnish people know better. The sauna tradition is part of their DNA. The steam room doesn't just heal the body, but also cleanses the mind. A rebirth of body and soul.
The sauna ritual begins with a shower to wash away any residues that may lie on the skin. Proceeding unclothed to the sauna room, best practice is to sit on a small towel on the wooden benches for hygiene reasons.
In many of the Nordic sauna and hot pool practices, any covering - including swimwear - is seen as a barrier to true purification. The previous month I'd been in Iceland, where before entering the hot springs you must shower fully naked in a communal shower area. Only once you are clean are you allowed to put on your bathing costume and enter the thermal waters. My conservative New Zealand roots made me feel prudish, but I thanked my Nordic ancestry for allowing me to break through this vulnerability. In Finland, I had the privacy of my own sauna in my cottage. Habit forces me to drape my arms across my body as I step foot inside, glancing over my shoulder in case of a transparent window.
Outside, the arctic air freezes Finnish Lapland and the aurora glows in the night sky. Inside, the steam room soars to 70 degrees Celsius. It is prudent to begin with 10 to 15 minutes for the first time, gradually increasing the duration as you become more accustomed to the environment.
I told myself after a week of taking a sauna each day, I would have lost some weight and my skin would be radiant from banishing those toxins. I imagined little crying gremlins inside each bead of sweat - all I had to do was endure this Finnish bath for 20 minutes a day.
But five minutes into my first experience, I was struggling to calm my thought processes. The body fighting to stay still, my thoughts like prisoners chained against the walls of my mind desperately seeking escape.
I found myself constantly swapping positions to see if one worked better than the other. Sit rigid with the back upright? Knees up? Cross-legged? Lie down but risk falling asleep or passing out when I stand up? Who would come and find me if I fainted? Cross-legged it was, opening the hip joints, palms facing upright as if to signal an openness to change, a symbolic position of expelling toxicity. A vulnerable pose given my nakedness, but one that seemed appropriate for a rebirth.
I am not afraid of the dark. But I hate it when the night falls. Specifically, I hate being alone at night time. Nights spent in good company can top up my memory bank, but when faced with darkness and solitude, I try hard to distract myself from my own company. I keep my demons at bay by scrolling through social media, texting and messaging friends and family, turning on the TV to stream cheesy American sitcoms with canned laughter, the ones where there's always a precocious pre-teen making some kind of dramatic entrance and worldly statement, wise beyond their years.
In Lapland, far away from all the faces of those who've walked alongside parts of my life, I felt connected to Mother Earth. I felt alive during these polar nights. Dark skies were where the magic took place. Still, a part of me - in the wee hours of the morning, sitting in the sauna alone, a digital detox forced upon me - wrestled with the silence.
Yet by day three of my new bathing ritual, I was already craving the warmth of the sauna and the enforced seclusion. I'd spend the early hours of darkness photographing the green flickers of the northern lights above the hills, before returning to the cocoon of the steam room to warm up. I imagined my mind like the visual light show I'd been capturing on camera. Like the aurora borealis, sometimes my mind would flicker. Sometimes it would dance across the sky with gusto, other moments it was still, quietly fading out to nothingness.
As the days progressed, my time in the sauna lengthened and I could handle hotter temperatures. I would anticipate the hiss of the hot coals as I spooned water over them, enjoying the sudden blanket of intensified heat and humidity.
The sauna became a sacred place to sit, to be, to hold myself, to be held. I learnt to give myself permission each day for this special time, to temporarily halt the continuous rumble of thoughts of my life back home, ideations of what I needed to change and accomplish. I learnt to become an observer of my thoughts, rather than trying to control them. I imagined my mind as the night sky; my wayward thoughts simply shooting stars across the galaxy, my heartbeat like the pulsing glow of the aurora.
In a true Finnish sauna, a birch whisk is a compulsory extra. The bather picks up the bundle of twigs and beats them against their skin for a kind of gentle self-flagellation. It is not a form of punishment, but rather, a way to stimulate blood flow and circulation, to relieve muscle pain and release the aroma of the young birch leaves. The plant's essential oils and vitamins are said to soften the skin and help clear the lungs. I had on no birch whisk in my sauna, but I could imagine how the oils and the grazing of the whisk would be beneficial to the body and mind.
The droplets of perspiration would at times trickle and tickle down my torso, prompting me to scratch away the irritation. The scratch would momentarily break the monotonous intensity of the heat; the sharpness of my lacquered nails offering a contrasting sensation. Over the days, I challenged myself to wait a little longer each time before wiping the sweat from my brow or scratching the itch, to feel alive and conscious of every sensation in my body. The tactility of each and every uncomfortable reaction grounded me in the present.
As a writer, when you are given emotional space to be free, creativity can thrive and ideas cascade. But with that, anxiety can follow, a fear of not getting the words down, a disappointment of forgotten conjunctions thanks to a moment of distraction. In the sauna, I suddenly could think of all the things I wanted to do and to be, but getting up and out of the room to write them down at the moment of conception would have thwarted my goal of learning to be quiet and comfortable in my own company. But I give you permission to be here, I would remind myself. The sauna soon became my safe place, where ideas would flow freely and uncommitted, before nudging each other gently out of the way to make way for a moment of stillness and peace.
Once finished, I would rinse off the gremlin toxins, down multiple glasses of water, before returning to my phone, my laptop and those American sitcoms with the precocious pre-teen and canned laughter, keeping me company until I could fall asleep.