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Sweat dreams

By Adam Mullett

"It is impossible to describe the ambience of the smoke sauna… it is like trying to describe the feeling when you learn how to ride a bike, or you learn how to swim or even when you make love," says one sauna enthusiast.

You can't argue with someone who says something like that. In fact, why would you want to?
In winter, saunas are an institution in the Baltic States. People use them to do business, relax and lose weight among other things. It seems like there are endless reasons to go to a sauna, least of all to forget about the blistering cold of the Baltic winter.
Escaping the cold was the reasons that saunas were originally invented in Finland. Since the fifth century, Finns have sweated in wooden houses in temperatures up to 90 degrees Celsius.

There are various types of saunas that have been invented and each has its own benefits and drawbacks.
The original sauna, which is still considered the best, is the smoke sauna. The smoke sauna is heated by lighting a fire under rocks in the centre of the room until it reaches the desired temperature. There is no chimney in a smoke sauna, which is how it gets its name – before bathers can enter, the smoke has to clear and the room must be cleaned. While most modern saunas are dry and very hot, the smoke sauna is relatively humid and has a temperature of around 60 degrees.

The difference between a smoke sauna and a heat-storage sauna is that a a heat-storage model uses a stove and a chimney. This is used to regulate the temperature and to keep the bathing compartment smoke free. Before bathing, the sauna is warm, but once the lid on the stove is lifted, the temperature can rise dramatically.
A continuous fire stove, instead of stored heat, is a recent invention and has various advantages and drawbacks. The heatstones are placed upon a continuous fire – as opposed to a heat storage or smoke sauna, where the fire is stopped before bathing. Its advantantage is that it doesn't take long to heat, but it requires constant attention while bathing and could be a fire hazard.

Infrared saunas are the newest addition to the sauna team and use infrared radiation
to stimulate perspiration. Some people say that this isn't a real sauna because it doesn't feel hot. However, experts say that the same benefits are produced as traditional saunas.
Mobile saunas are another new invention to hit the streets. Large trucks with saunas in the back are now available for the heat-deprived. Estonian enthusiasts have already built a small fleet of these saunas-on-wheels. Latvians have likewise managed to throw a few of the strange devices together.

The brains behind the mobile sauna think they could be more than just a hot room for sweating. Canadian-Latvian Karlis Kalnins, creator of the Ponij Pirts mobile sauna, said the room could even be thought of as a path to cultural integration.
"One thing that's interesting about all the cultures that are here - these northern cultures – [is that] they all get cold and everybody needs to get warm and get clean. What a perfect opportunity for cultural integration," Kalnins said.

The reason to go for most people however is to relax and enjoy good health.
"To have people sit, get naked and sweat together and become clean, both physically, and I suppose, spiritually and physiologically," he added.

On top of being purely relaxing, bathing in a sauna has many health benefits.
Weight loss is possible when using the sauna. From a 20 minute sauna session, your heart rate can increase by 75 percent, which is about the same as going for a brisk walk.

Your skin will also be healthier and smoother, because the heat will bring blood vessels to the surface of your skin, and deliver more nutrients than usual. Your skin won't just look better - it will be cleaner too. 30 percent of body waste is passed through the skin. Sweating opens pores and flushes impurities from the body.
Fever is usually perceived as a problem, but it is one of your body's ways of healing itself. When you bathe in the sauna, you induce an artificial fever and your body produces more disease-fighting white blood cells and antibodies.
The other major benefits of a sauna are stimulating respiration and relieving arthritis and joint pain.

Its not a good idea to over-do it of course as there can be negative effects on your health. The most obvious effect is dehydration and loss of salts. Balts in the sauna with you say drinking alcohol instead of water is a good idea, but doctors tend to disagree. The combination of alcohol and high heat for extended periods of time could lead to a bout of heat stroke. Drink water.

A favorite sauna exercise among cold weather enthusiasts is ice diving, where you sit in a sauna until you can't take it anymore, then run naked to a icy lake and jump in, submerging your head under the frigid water. Participants repeat this process a number of times until they are happy and feel cleansed. When a lake isn't within reach, rolling naked in the snow is almost as good.
While less common in the Baltic States, Scandinavians are known to have business meetings in the sauna. It is seen as a place of bonding where two men can whip each other with a bunch of Eucalyptus leaves while cutting a multi-million dollar deal.

If you do want to experience some real Baltic culture, get on down to a sauna, drop your pants and jump right in.