Naked on a bench

I was maybe nine years old when the drawing arrived and saw it for the first time. It hung in my grandfathers living room just behind his lazy boy chair. A black and white line drawing of about a dozen people sitting in a small wooden room. Their bodies were thin. Some were round. some young. some old. They were sitting on benches next to each other. There was a wood stove and next to it there was a bucket of water and a ladle in it. One woman had a bunch of birch branches in her hand ready to swat her neighbor. Another had sweat dripping from their face. Everyone was naked. 

At nine years old, this picture fascinated and made me uncomfortable. It fascinated me because My great parents, Helga Maria Wirkkala and Leander Kentala, came over from Finland In the late 1800s. And, this was a Finnish sauna. It made me feel vulnerable seeing people sit naked in a room together, bathing. Revealing each others physical flaws. When in the United States, we are taught to cover them up.

Finland is one of my favorite countries. It is known as land of a thousand lakes. There is a lakeside cottage with a sauna for almost every family in Finland. Sauna culture is part of their identity. So last month, I guided a group of people to experience just that. We spent five days in the wilderness at a lakeside cottage where we hiked and canoed, hunted for local mushrooms and berries, cooked sausages over an open fire. We did what Finns love most. We take a sauna and jump in a cold lake.

After a hike one day at our cottage, I went downstairs to take a sauna. As I start to undress, feeling a little modest thinking about that vulnerability when I was nine years old, looking at that picture on my grandfathers wall. My inhibitions slip away as I open the door to the sauna. There’s a glow of golden pine lining the walls. Its modern design and rustic decor is beautiful. In the center of the room is a stove with hot rocks piled high.

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I take the ladle from the bucket of water and pour it over the rocks. This brings the heat. I sat back and wait for the steam to arrive. Loyly, the Finnish word for steam that comes off the rocks. It is heat that comes around like a jet engine and smacks you in the face. 

Anna opens the door and walks in to the sauna. Soon Maria, Samantha and Amanda join us. Its’ starting to look just like the illustration at my Grandfather’s house. Imagine yourself sitting naked in a room with everyone. It may feel a little awkward at first, but, soon you get used to it and becomes normal. We begin to accept each other and ourselves. There is no judgement. I grab the ladle and add more water to the rocks. The heat gets more intense. Beads of sweat start to drip down the sides of our face. After about ten minutes, I walk out of the sauna to cool down.

There is another word in FInland that defines the Finnish character, It is called Sisu. It means determination or perseverance, endurance. There are several moments in and out of a sauna that determines your sisu. I step out the back door of the cottage. There are steps that lead down to the edge of the lake where there is a pier and a ladder. It's about 55 degrees outside but, I am certain the lake is colder – as I've experienced before.  I look around briefly if anyone can see me. It is sisu that pushes me forward. I grab the edge of the ladder and allow water to wrap around my toe, ankle, hips and waist, chest and shoulders. My breath is taken away by the chill. And, I wonder In this moment, if i let go of the ladder, how long it might take for me to turn into a popsicle and sink to the bottom of the lake.

But, I have a game I play. I count to ten to test my sisu. I let go of the ladder, tell myself in a calming voice to just relax and allow the ice cold water to seep deep into my skin and bones. One one thousand, two one thousand  – it’s cold– three one thousand – mind over matter lesley just relax lesley, its not cold – four one thousand five one thousand six seven eight nine ten…

I grab the ladder and leap out as if it were fire. I hope to do better next time. If you stop for a moment and feel what is happening – its nothing like I have felt before. I let the rush of adrenaline run through my body. Feel the tingling of needles dance on my skin. And, allow the endorphins to rise to the top. And, then I smile and laugh like a child. Finns call this bliss.

Finland is rated as number five on the world happiness index. The world happiness index reports on the performance of a hundred and fifty-five countries surrounding social and economic factors that influence happiness. For reference, the US is number 14 and declining. But there is one thing the World Happiness report doesn’t factor in. And that is bliss. This is where I believe Finland is number one. 

I return to the sauna. Join the others. And, repeat.

· Where did we sauna? Hawkhill Villas, Nuuksio National Park, Finland (+358 40 024 0831); Löyly, Helsinki (+358 9 61286550); Kotiharjun Sauna Oy, Helsinki (+358 9 7531535)