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“Steam of Life”: A Portrait of the Finnish Sauna

Posted on 22 August 2011 by Sara Schaub

Chances are that you have an idea in your head of what sauna bathing is and what sauna bathing isn’t. If you are American, you may paint the picture something like this: a sauna is a place you go to feel good physically and mentally, and if it is a public facility, you enter with a quick “how do ya do”, then the rest of the time is spent not looking at anyone else in the room, trying to keep your towel on the naughty bits. It is probably not the first place where you’d consider going for social interaction, much less bringing along your friends and family.

If, however, you are Finnish you would most likely have a completely different perspective.

Steam of Life

The documentary “Steam of Life” is a Finnish-produced effort recently released in America that illustrates a decidedly different side of sauna. Joonas Berghall and Mika Hotakainen have created a poignant look at the role sauna bathing plays in the lives of Finnish men, young and old. While women also regularly engage in this ritual, the movie chiefly features short conversations and narrations by a variety of husbands, fathers, brothers, sons, and buddies as they experience the cleansing and rejuvenating effects of sauna bathing.

“Steam of Life” opens immediately with a group of four shiny, sweaty, naked men sitting in a sauna talking about their families, children, hopes and dreams, failures and disappointments, and in short, life. One young man tells of the birth of his son and the moment he was placed in his arms. After a short pause, “Now one dream has come true and maybe, God will give us a little princess later.”

The sauna is what provides the forum for these cathartic experiences, a place where it is understood that inhibitions can be shed along with the clothes. Nakedness is the great equalizer, leaving no regard for social class, age, occupation or life story. Two coworkers sit in a trailer fitted with a wood-burning stove, passing a bottle of liquor between them. One talks of childhood trauma and the other of the loss of a daughter. Tears flow. No doubt at least a small burden has been lifted as they leave the sauna and enter their regular lives once again.

A muscled and tattooed man sits alone in his backyard sauna, narrating the story of his criminal past, epiphanies and redemption, and eventual return from prison. Embarking on a new life, he looks out the sauna window at his three young sons. In the next scene the father washes his sons, splashing water on each, with the bond of love very evident. He concludes, “I’ve always had empty pockets. Now I have a family and empty pockets.” But this man is rich indeed.

While “Steam of Life” shares an intimate portrait of sauna bathing in Finnish culture, the thought passes that Americans are somehow missing out on the full experience. However, with the rising popularity of home bathing environments that feature sauna rooms the whole family can use, and public facilities that offer communal experiences, sauna bathing is slowly but surely being understood and appreciated in a new light. While sauna can be a wonderful solitary experience, incredibly good for body and soul, it can also be a special atmosphere for sharing our lives with each other.

1 Comments For This Post

  1. Lynn Says:

    Great read…

    How enjyoable and enlightening this experience is.

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