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What is a sauna?

A sauna is an enclosed room which pumps dry heat around you to boost your circulation, relax your muscles and soothe your mind.

Saunas are generally associated with mountainous regions; think of a small wooden cabin in the middle of the snow. Saunas offer a more extreme, dry heat than steam rooms, and the heat comes from very hot rocks placed in the room. Often wood-panelled, saunas are a bit like ovens but less sinister! You can usually regulate the temperature by pouring water over the hot rocks using a big ladle that will be provided.

Traditionally, you would complete your sauna experience by running out and rolling in snow. But there's really no need for that when there are perfectly good showers and pools available in a spa!

Why is a sauna good for you?

All heat treatments offer health and relaxation benefits and a sauna is particularly good for your skin and muscles. Once your skin has sweated out its toxins and your muscles have warmed and relaxed, you'll feel much better in yourself too. Many people believe that having a regular sauna helps them to fight off infection as well, as the boost in circulation helps to keep your immune system in good order. It can also help you sweat out a cold, and clear out your airways so you can breathe more easily.

Before you go

Some spas recommend that you avoid facials or waxing after any heat treatment as it may leave your skin feeling very tender. The dry heat of a sauna may do this, but only really if you stay in it a long time.

If you're going to a sauna it's worth finding out beforehand what you're expected to wear; some spas offer single-sex facilities and you're encouraged or welcome to be naked; in others you'll be expected to wear a swimming costume; some spas will provide towels for you to wear.

Precautions

You should avoid having a sauna if you:

  • are, or think you might be, pregnant
  • have a history of heart or respiratory problems
  • have problems with your circulation
  • have diabetes or an infection
  • have any other medical condition, or are receiving treatment of any kind
  • have had any alcohol
  • have a fever.

Young children and older people are advised to avoid saunas as well.

Drink plenty of water; you'll sweat a lot, and at the same time as you're sweating out toxins you'll also be losing fluid. Drink plenty of water to avoid being dehydrated; this will make sure you really flush your system.

Watch the time! Fifteen minutes is the maximum time advised for some saunas; in others (a laconium, for example) you can stay for as long as an hour. If you don't drink water or listen to your body when it says it wants a bit of cool air, you could be in difficulties. Only stay as long as you are comfortable.

Different kinds of sauna

Though the basic concept is the same, saunas do vary, largely according to what area of the world they are in. There are lots of different kinds. Here are a few of the best known:

Bio sauna

A bio sauna is a cross between a regular sauna, a tepidarium and a multi-sensory room. Wet and dry heat distribute herbal aromas to the sauna, and the whole experience is made even more relaxing by gently-changing coloured fibreoptic-lights.

Caldarium

A caldarium would have been one of the hottest in a Roman baths. Heated by the Romans' cunning and original under-floor heating system, the caldarium was a steam room, that featured a hot plunge pool. Often found in the same room as a laconium.

Finnish / Swedish sauna

A Finnish sauna has an automatic water spray onto the heated coals. Similar to a Swedish sauna, Scandinavians advise that you follow this hot sauna with a quick plunge into a pool of cold water, or a roll in the snow if necessary - this stimulates your circulation, energises your spirit and brings your body temperature down all in one go... you can imagine it would. In Scandinavia, it is quite common for a normal household to have their own sauna and to use it with family and friends.

Laconium

A laconium gives a gentler heat than most saunas and is designed to gradually raise your body temperature. It can be more soothing than other saunas, and leaves you feeling pleasantly sleepy. But it still makes you sweat! It's a good one to start with as it's very mild and gets you "into the swing" of sauna-ing! You can stay in longer than other saunas but it's balmy rather than hot.

Rock sauna: a type of Finnish sauna whose walls are rock rather than wood; this varies the type of heat you experience.

Tepidarium

A tepidarium is a warm seating area where you can snooze or relax between treatments. They are a useful step up to, and step down from, more intense treatments. (They beat Arctic showers every time.)

Tyrolean sauna: A wood-lined cabin, this sauna was established in the Tyrol region of Austria; you are advised to follow the heat treatment with an ice shower.

Courtesy of the Good Spa Guide

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