We were lucky enough to attend a screening of Smoke Sauna Sisterhood with the director, Anna Hints, this week. The film follows a group of Estonian women who regularly meet in the woods to share intimate emotions within a traditional Estonian smoke sauna cabin.
We can heartily recommend the film and in celebration of its release wanted to share some insight about the culture of sauna in Estonia, a very proud country with a long history of traditional sauna bathing. Culturally it shares much with the sauna tradition of its bigger neighbour, Finland, but Estonia has its own unique sauna customs and preferences which we will look at below.
Estonia: A Little Background
The most northerly of the three Baltic States (with Latvia sharing a border to the south and Lithuania the most southerly), Estonia was for years part of the Soviet Union and many people still think of it as some far flung Eastern European state struggling with the aftermath of Communism. The reality is that since independence in 1991 the country has flourished and today is one of the continent's most prosperous nations, even outperforming the likes of France, Italy and Spain!
Far from being some developing nation with crumbling infrastructure Estonia is a very beautiful, highly developed country with a diverse economy. They have more in common with the Finns and other Nordic countries than they do the Slavs of neighbouring Russia which is evident in the architecture across Estonia's major settlements. The skyline of capital Tallinn is far more reminiscent of Helsinki or Stockholm than it is St Petersburg, for example.
With the above in mind Estonians tend not to consider themselves "Eastern Europeans" and with Tallinn just a 2 hour ferry journey from the Finnish capital, it's perhaps not surprising just how many cultural traditions are shared between Estonia and Finland, not least of them, the tradition of sauna!
Estonian Sauna Tradition
Much of the way in which Estonians use and enjoy saunas is shared with Finland and Finnish sauna tradition. The most popular and commonly used saunas are either wood fired or electric, with steam generated by pouring water onto the hot stove's sauna stones. Advances in technology have allowed for more specialist sauna stoves which enhance the traditional sauna experience. The Estonian sauna heater manufacturer HUUM are a great example of being able to have a contemporary style sauna without sacrificing on tradition.
Whilst traditional sauna bathing that is similar to the Finnish style remains the most popular sauna tradition in the country, Estonia does actually have its own unique sauna tradition as well. The smoke sauna tradition of Vōromaa is included on the UNESCO List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. This effectively recognises its cultural significance within the country and seeks to protect it.
What Is a Traditional Smoke Sauna?
Like it sounds, a sauna cabin is filled with smoke, but this process takes a long time, with up to eight hours of heating required before use. This is one of the primary reasons their popularity has declined in recent years, with more modern electric saunas ready to use within minutes. In fact some saunas today can be pre-heated using an app on your phone for ultimate convenience. This isn't something you'll get with a smoke sauna!
The smoke sauna has no chimney and is usually heated to between 65° and 85° before finally the room is ventilated, allowing the smoke to dissipate and sauna bathers can enter. Just like in traditional wood burning saunas there are heated stones to add steam to the room when water is added and the air obviously has a strong smoky aroma. This is said to be a more soothing experience than having a dry heat sauna at a similar temperature.
Following the session in the smoke sauna bathers would traditionally jump into a cold lake outside. Obviously the sauna's location will dictate whether that is possible but most saunas are likely to be in the vicinity of somewhere to immediately cool off, such is the strength of this tradition.
Again, like traditional sauna sessions, it is common to repeat the process of sitting inside the hot sauna and then cooling down (whether immersing yourself in a cold lake, plunge pool or just taking a cold shower). The process can be repeated many times, helping the body to adjust to the extremes it's being exposed to.
Further Estonian Sauna Tradition
Birch leaves are bundled together to make viht, which are usually about an arm's length long and tied together with string. The closest English translation is whisk, and these whisks are used in the sauna to hit the skin, usually from the feet upwards. It is supposed to promote blood circulation and also help with exfoliation of the skin whilst surrounded by the hot steam.
An additional benefit is the pleasant aroma the birch wood leaves in the sauna and is it not uncommon for leaves to go flying around the room, ending up scattered across the floor. Naturally bathers would always be expected to clean up after themselves in such circumstances!
There are also further rituals that will differ from region to region. The experience is often quite spiritual, focused on thankfulness and connection, so some bathers may also enjoy massages or body wraps as part of the experience.
Then it's important to wash thoroughly, as the smoke sauna will have left you coated in soot! This washing still forms part of the overall experience, and cleansing yourself of the thick black dirt acts as a metaphor for the whole rejuvenating experience.
Estonian Sauna in the UK
Smoke saunas aren't common here in the UK but the tradition of Estonian sauna is evident in just how much it has influenced popular modern sauna cabins available today, such as our Wildhut luxury outdoor saunas. The Finns may be best known for their sauna culture, but the Estonians have contributed just as much to this worldwide phenomenon.