You're going to want to read this article naked, so please, before you go any further, disrobe completely. That's right, socks too. Now grab a towel, claim a spot on your favorite cedar bench and get ready to learn about the pride of Finland and the sweet relief of nude bodies everywhere: the sauna.
If you've never experienced a sauna firsthand, then the photo to the right pretty much sums it up. These hot, dry environments open up your pores, relax your limbs and unleash a cleansing wash of perspiration all over your body. Much like Native American sweat lodges, there's also a mental or even spiritual side to a sauna's soothing qualities.
Thus, saunas appeal to the health-conscious rationalist and the new age dreamer alike -- as well as to the average Finn who just wants to clean off before a swim. According to sauna expert and author Mikkel Aaland, it's customary to have a sauna (in addition to a shower) before entering a swimming pool in Finland.
What separates the sauna from many other steam baths (such as the tiled steam rooms often found in spas) is the type of heat. Steam rooms feature a moist heat, and tend to operate at temperatures of around 104 degrees Fahrenheit (40 degrees Celsius). To heat it up any further, you have to add more steam (a steam room's heat source), which can quickly create a scalding environment. Moist heat also feels hotter because the moisture-rich air prevents your sweat from evaporating and cooling your body.
Saunas, however, use dry heat. With less moisture in the atmosphere, you can safely sweat it out in these hot boxes at temperatures of about 176 degrees Fahrenheit (80 degrees Celsius). Particularly devoted sauna worshipers often brave even hotter conditions.
In the pages ahead, we'll explore the mechanics, culture, history and health benefits of the sauna.