Löyly - what gives a sauna its’ spirit?
Saunas have been synonymous with Finnish culture for centuries. These spaces where people partake in dry or wet heat sessions are more than just places of physical relaxation; they are time capsules for an age-old practice deeply woven into the fabric of Finnish tradition. Finnish actor Jasper Pääkkönen says that “sauna is actually an average Finn’s version of going to the church.” Central to this experience is the concept of "löyly". Pääkkönen states that “each and every sauna has its own distinct löyly”. But what does löyly truly represent in Finish sauna culture, and how does it bridge the ancient with the contemporary?
Google Translate will tell you that "löyly" translates to “steam” – but löyly means so much more. Derived from the Proto-Finno-Ugric term “lewle”, which means "spirit" or "soul", löyly is intimately connected to ancient spiritual beliefs. For Finns, the act of throwing water on heated sauna stones and the billows of steam that follow are more than a mere physical phenomenon. It's an awakening, a release of the sauna's spirit which envelops you, penetrates deep into your muscles, and touches your soul.
The Quest for the Ideal Löyly
The "perfect steam" or the "ideal löyly" is akin to a Holy Grail for sauna enthusiasts. It embodies the optimal balance of heat and humidity — not scalding, not suffocating, but a harmonious warmth that relaxes both body and mind . Achieving this requires more than just a technical understanding of how a sauna works; it demands being deeply in sync with your body and the atmosphere of the sauna to achieve an almost spiritual sense of when to add water to the stones and how much.
Herbal Infusions in Finnish Saunas: Crafting the Ideal Löyly
In the quest to achieve the perfect löyly, every aspect of the sauna experience is considered. The type of wood used, the construction of the sauna, and the heat source are foundational. Finer touches can elevate the sauna session into a transcendent experience, like herbal infusions.
In Finland, the tradition of infusing water with natural herbs and aromatics predates modern spa trends. For centuries, Finns have believed in harnessing nature's gifts not just for physical well-being, but also for spiritual and emotional healing.
The concept is simple yet profoundly effective: herbs or tea bags filled with chosen aromatics are soaked in a water bucket. This water, now infused with the essence of the herbs, is then ladled onto the hot sauna stones, releasing a fragrant steam that fills the room.
Here’s how it elevates the quest for the ideal löyly:
Aromatherapy: The sense of smell is powerful, deeply connected to our emotions and memories. When the aroma from the herbs fills the sauna, it enhances relaxation, mental clarity, and emotional balance.
Respiratory Benefits: Certain herbs, like eucalyptus and mint, are known to open up the respiratory passages, making each breath in the sauna feel purifying and rejuvenating.
Enhanced Skin Benefits: Some herbs, like chamomile or lavender, can be beneficial for the skin, offering soothing and anti-inflammatory properties when their steamy essence envelops the body.
Spiritual Connection: For Finns, connecting with nature is spiritual. Using natural elements like herbs in the sauna ritual strengthens this bond, making the löyly feel even more grounding and soulful.
While the choice of herbs is vast, some traditionally popular ones include:
Birch Leaves: Birch is an iconic tree in Finland. Its leaves are often used to make 'vihta' or 'vasta', bundles used to gently hit against the skin for increased circulation. The same leaves, when infused in water, add a fresh, forest-like aroma to the löyly.
Pine and Spruce: These bring a resinous, deep forest aroma, invoking feelings of being amidst Finnish woods.
Mint and Eucalyptus: Both are invigorating and refreshing, perfect for opening up the airways.
Lavender: Known for its calming properties, it ensures a deeply relaxing sauna session.
Chamomile: A herb known for soothing both the skin and the mind.
Löyly’s Deep Spiritual Roots in Animism and Finnish Folklore
To truly grasp the depths of the concept of löyly, one must delve into Finnish animism, an ancient belief system that sees spirits in all things, animate or inanimate. Finnish folklore is rich with tales of spirits residing in forests, waters, and even in the stones of the sauna. In this worldview, the sauna becomes a sacred space, a meeting point for various elemental entities .
Löyly is therefore a communion with these spirits. When water meets the heated stones, what rises isn't just steam; it's the very life force or spirit of the sauna. This belief is further echoed in old Finnish traditions which see the löyly as the "sweat of Väinämöinen", one of the creator gods of ancient Finnic mythology .
The Essence of an Authentic Finnish Sauna
The heart of the Finnish sauna experience is its 'kiuas', or the stove/heater. While modern times have seen the advent of electric heaters, many Finns concur that wood-burning stoves offer the most authentic experience. Preparing for a sauna session, from making firewood to carrying water, is not just a prelude to relaxation, but an integral part of the relaxation itself.
For the Finnish, a sauna session isn't merely about cleansing the body – it's a deeply spiritual experience. A space of egalitarianism, where hierarchies melt away in the heat, where the body and spirit rejuvenate, and where the age-old traditions seamlessly blend with contemporary practices.
Löyly is more than just steam; it's the life force of the sauna. It represents the very essence of the Finnish sauna experience. It's a dance of elements, a spiritual journey, and a testament to Finland's rich history. Whether you’ve been a sauna-user for life or you’re new to this tradition, the soulful steam of the sauna promises a deep connection to nature, to ancient traditions, and to oneself.
- Condé Nast Traveler, How It Feels To Visit A Traditional Nordic Sauna (YouTube.com, 2023).
- Emma O-Kelly, Sauna: The Power of Deep Heat (Welbeck Balance ,2023), 53.
- Bron Taylor, Jeffrey Kaplan, and Laura Hobgood-Oster, Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature (A&C Black, 2005), 1486.
- John Abercromby, Magic Songs of the West Finns: The Pre and Proto Historic Finns (Library of Alexandria, 2020)