‘We pronounce it SAH-wna as that’s how it’s said in Finland, and that’s where we fell in love with the real deal,’ says Jake Newport, who runs Finnmark Sauna with his brother Max. They only revert to the English pronunciation to describe a ‘hot, dry box that’s sweaty and badly ventilated’, he jokes. For Jake, that iteration, usually found at gyms or health clubs, is a ‘poorly appropriated piece of another country’s culture’.
Inspired by his experience while traveling in Finland for his old job, Jake convinced his brother Max – who was then working as a hi-fi designer – that they should set up a company to sell authentic Finnish saunas in the UK. Based in their front room, and backed by a credit-card loan, they built up a network of Finnish suppliers for equipment and materials, but people kept asking if they did installations, too. ‘My brother Max is an incredibly practical guy,’ says Jake. ‘So we started installing the saunas as well, and grew the company from there.’
Five years after launch, the brothers have been proved right in their hunch that British people would appreciate the Finnish sauna experience. Finnmark’s online sales of saunas for private homes have sky-rocketed during the pandemic. The firm also undertakes commercial installations and sells to the trade.
Born in the sauna
Saunas have always played a central role in Finnish culture, where they date back 10,000 years. Jake says the Finns joke that they are ‘born in the sauna and die in the sauna’. Women used to give birth in the clean, sterile spaces and the sauna was where rural communities would prepare the bodies of their dead relatives for burial.
Finns still use saunas for collective cleansing rituals – such as the bridal sauna before a wedding, or at events like Christmas – as well as for family and community bonding time, where they tend to happen over the course of an evening, alternated with dips in cold water. It’s very different from the 10-minute hit after a workout that’s traditionally how the British do it.
It’s the more leisurely experience that’s proving popular with Jake’s clients, as well as his own family. ‘One of the first saunas we built was for my parents and my brother,’ he says. ‘I regularly go back and we all go to the sauna together. It’s a time where we relax with no phones and have a nice chat over the course of several hours.’
Finnmark’s prices start at about £7,500 ($10,500) for an outdoor sauna-cabin kit, though custom builds stretch far in excess of that. Many of its clients live in remote locations such as northern Scotland or Cornwall, near the sea, a lake or a river, so the sauna experience can be combined with nature. It’s a trend that’s mirrored in North America, especially at the higher-end of the market. In Canada, Backcountry Hut Company produces the System S prefab sauna, a minimalist architectural wonder with prices starting at $32,000.
At the other end of the cash spectrum, for £80 ($110) you can experience a sauna year-round on the beach at Brighton in the UK, where Beach Box combines a sauna with a dip in the cold English Channel. Finnmark itself is working on a project to build a public floating sauna on Lake Windermere. It can also build plunge pools, as it once did for Russell Brand. His verdict? ‘I haven’t felt this good since I last took drugs.’
Then there’s the question Jake gets asked above all others: to have the true experience, do you need to get naked? ‘Over here I would wear a towel, but if I go to Finland on business, I’ll be with suppliers and chief executives, and we’ll all be sat naked together and it’s normal,’ he says. ‘I was apprehensive at first, but you get used to it and realize it’s just relaxation and not a big deal.’
All the better for it
‘When you take a sauna, you get this big endorphin rush and you think: I know my body likes this, I know this is good for me,’ says Jake. ‘And you sleep so well that you wake up feeling like you haven’t slept so well since you were a teenager.’
The anecdotal evidence that saunas make us feel good is widespread, but in the past decade there has been an increasing amount of scientific data to back up these claims. A review by Professor Jari Laukkanen, a cardiologist working at the University of Eastern Finland, found that regular saunas are good for the cardiovascular system, reducing the risk of high blood pressure and strokes, as well as neurocognitive diseases such as Alzheimer’s and dementia.
Professor Laukkanen also found that saunas reduced the risk of pulmonary disease and overall mortality risk, while improving conditions such as arthritis, headaches and flu. Other research has shown saunas can reduce stress and improve cognitive performance, especially when combined with a cold plunge. The sauna and cold-plunge combination has also been shown to aid recovery after intense exercise.
Pitch a tent
For those without the cash or space for a permanent sauna, there’s always the tent option. Sauna tents are also a good call on road trips or if you want to hike out to a beautiful spot for some remote sauna time among the elements. Finnish brand Savotta, which specializes in kit for use in extreme environments, makes sauna tents for two or four people. Its aesthetic is very bushcraft, whereas Russian company Morzh makes brightly colored tents that have more of a children’s playhouse vibe to them.
This article was first published in Courier issue 42, August/September 2021. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.