Sauna & Avantouinti – the ultimate invigorating experience
Is ice swimming the secret to vitality or just downright crazy? Follow the journey of a sauna enthusiast as she travels to Tampere, Finland to decide for herself.
You close your eyes and inhale the smell of the forest. Water spits and sizzles as it hits hot rock. You wait in anticipation for the next wave of heat. It engulfs you. Perspiration wells from every pore of your body. You are warmed to the core. You emerge with a deep sense of peace and well-being and later experience a perfect, restful sleep.
The body and soul warming practice of sauna is one of my favourite rituals. Originating in Finland and the surrounding Baltic region, sauna is now enjoyed by millions of people around the world who appreciate its relaxing, cleansing and healing powers.
While I’ve enjoyed many a wonderful sauna I long felt as though I was missing something; as if I hadn’t yet experienced the very best a sauna could offer. I was yearning to do it like the Finns – in a traditional wood-fired sauna, by a lake, in the snow. I was craving the ultimate sauna experience and deep inside I suspected it could only be achieved by combining sauna with avantouinti (literally, swimming in a hole in the ice).
The only problem was that I don't like the cold. It takes a lot of willpower and positive self-talk just to step out of the house on a frosty morning - so why would I want to interrupt the bliss of a sauna with the jarring of immersion in ice? Try as I did to dismiss the idea, the practice of bringing together the extremes, the opposing elements of fire and ice, intrigued me. And so, in pursuit of the ultimate sauna experience, I decided to travel to Tampere in Finland to find out.
Will my body cope?
In the week leading up to my Finland trip I became somewhat anxious. A Finnish sauna reaches temperatures of 80-110°C (170-230°F). Steaming yourself at this temperature and then plunging into an icy lake where it’s, well, freezing must be a terrible shock to the body. Will it hurt? What if I jump in, go into shock and can’t get out of the lake? What if I hit the water and have a heart attack? It was time to do some research.
Sauna is safe for most people (when used correctly) and its benefits are well documented. It is often credited with reducing chronic pain, preventing and alleviating the common cold, clearing toxins from the body, reducing stress and improving endurance, among a myriad of health claims.
Throw in avantouinti and the stated health benefits increase significantly. It improves circulation, reduces cholesterol, lowers blood pressure, improves antioxidant capabilities, alleviates rheumatoid arthritis and a host of other pain conditions. Most who advocate ice-swimming believe it significantly improves their immune system, increases their energy levels, strengthens their heart and ultimately increases their lifespan.
Ice-swimming at Rauhaniemen kansankyl...
But is it safe? Rapidly exposing your body to such extreme temperatures does bring risks. Sudden immersion in cold water can trigger a rapid increase in both heart rate and blood pressure. This significantly strains the heart, but, for a healthy person with no underlying heart disease or hypertension, is unlikely to cause any problem. In extreme cases, however, immersion in very cold water could result in cardiac arrest. There is also a possibility that cold shock may cause hyperventilation, with attendant impaired swimming ability. The risks are real but, for a fit and healthy person, taking a few well thought out precautions, the danger is usually low.
I am young(ish), fit, healthy. What was I worried about? The entire Finnish population can’t be wrong. I boarded the plane to Finland.
A national pastime?
As a warm up (excuse the pun) I first visited Rajaportin sauna, the oldest still-functioning public sauna in all of Finland. A beautiful historic sauna with a huge woodstove, this is an intimate and truly traditional experience. The usual process in sauna is to alternate periods of heat and cool. Where I come from this means exiting the sauna and taking a cool shower. In Finland it means simply wandering out into the -15°C air. Whilst sitting outside in my towel I struck up a conversation with some locals. To my utter surprise they had lived in Tampere all their lives and had never been ice swimming: “only crazy people do that”. I panicked. I’m not the crazy, extreme kind. I was under the illusion that it was a national pastime.
As it turns out only around 2% of the Finnish population are true avantouinti aficionados – the kind who swim in ice regularly – though the number which indulge in a quick dip with their sauna may be much higher. And recent times have seen an escalation in the popularity of ice swimming both in Finland and other parts of the world.
It was time to find out what all the fuss is about.
The ultimate in invigoration
I approached the sauna by foot and surveyed the hole in the ice. I was wearing 3 layers on my bottom half, including ski pants, and 6 layers on my top, including a down jacket. There were snowflakes on my eyelashes and the drinking water I was carrying had frozen in the bottle. The scene was one of pure serenity. I watched as a series of near naked people walked calmly to the water’s edge, soundlessly descended the stairs into the water and emerged up another set of stairs. Within half an hour I had joined them.
You emerge from the ice cold water feeling alive and ready to take on the world. The air dries you instantly. You sit and admire the pure white landscape. Warmth radiates from within. You feel alive, warm and at peace. Pure bliss. You let it permeate you. And when you are ready you go inside to do it all again.
The feeling which sauna and avantouinti gives you is truly indescribable. There could be nothing more refreshing or invigorating. But these words seem lame and lacking. A cool drink on a warm day is refreshing; a cold shower on a winter’s morning is invigorating; an ice swim after a sauna is simply off the scale.
The process releases natural endorphins giving you a buzz like no other. You feel alive and ready to take on the world. It could be the ultimate natural high.
I repeated the sauna - avantouinti cycle again and again until it started getting dark. I left the sauna again clothed in my many layers with a wonderful feeling of immense wellbeing that lasted for hours.
Now I understand. I have found my ultimate sauna experience and I want to do it again and again. I have no doubt that regularly practicing sauna and avantouinti gives you vitality and improves your quality of life. I wish it were possible to practice it regularly in my part of the world. But then, perhaps it is fair that sauna and avantouinti are reserved for the Scandanavians – the natural high it offers is the perfect antidote to a sunless winter.
Parting words of advice. Sauna and avantouinti are not without risks. Consult your doctor first especially if you have any medical condition. Heart and blood circulation problems are usually contra-indicators. Learn and abide by sauna and avantouinti precautions and ettiquette. Never engage in sauna and avantouinti alone. Listen to your body and recognise your limits.
About Tampere. Tampere is located 170 km north of Helsinki in Finland. Situated on a narrow isthmus between two lakes, it is the perfect place to try ice-swimming as well as a range of other winter and summer sports. Both Kaupinojan sauna and Rauhaniemen kansankylpylä are excellent locations for ice-swimming. Rajaportin sauna is another sauna experience not to be missed. Tampere is serviced by Tampere-Pirkkala airport and has excellent train links with other towns and cities in Finland.