/Jan Seepter

How did I become the sauna master

Sauna in the Soviet times

As in lots of families in Estonia, we had a certain day during the week – Saturday when we had a sauna, whenever it was possible. Since we did not have a sauna, we went to our grandpa’s and grandma’s who were owners of a sauna, or visited public saunas. In my home town, Tartu, with its 100,000 population, there were five such communal sauna establishments.

When I was 17, one August evening my aunt’s husband gave me a bundle of birch twigs and showed how to whisk – the proper sauna treatment. It is from him that I got my basic knowledge from, as well as the understanding that slapping your skin with birch twigs is more like a massage and not the vociferous, at times even heroic whipping I had seen in movies and often in communal saunas. Having received a basic training in whisking, I started polishing my skills on friends. During my very first sauna night, I accidently managed to do everything “right” (as it emerged later, after years of practice) and my friend and I experienced such a show of lights and such a sauna trip that has kept me disseminating and promoting sauna experiences to this day. However, over the years the thrills of sauna have made a way deeper into my psyche and “special effects” are no longer the most important outcome.

During my studies in the university I became familiar with the students’ tradition of sauna with its main emphasis on drinking beer. I hid deep into underground with my sauna practices and organised sauna rituals only for a few select friends.

It was also during the university that I became interested in why and how sauna procedures work. I was assured of what I had experienced from practice: that all effects of the sauna – relaxation, removal of residues, training of body’s defence mechanisms as well as potential sauna trips – are based on human physiology and psyche. Based on the reactions of our body and senses to the heating of the body and rapid alternation of the hot and cold environments. Through this, the benefits of sauna are accessible to all, irrespective of their origin or the climate zone in which they live. Sauna bathing practices with their variations are known to have existed all over the world: besides the habitats of Fenno-Ugric tribes also in Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome, Japan, and Turkey. Moreover, American Indians as well as the inhabitants of Central American high civilisations had their own sauna practices.

After the university, friends and colleagues started to invite me – to further the academic network of communication – to introduce the living sauna tradition of Estonia. This is how my “underground” sauna practices found a way to the international arena where the sauna communities were mainly comprised of doctor’s students and professors from almost every corner of Europe. Later, when I worked at the Viljandi Culture Academy, I became interested in sauna heritage. I was surprised to discover that old folk traditions were extremely practical and complemented by a dose of the world view of bygone times and some spice from the then way of life. The mood in which people went to sauna and stayed in sauna was a central factor in sauna practices. The whole sauna procedure, oneself, family, other sauna goers, sauna spirits, ancestors were appreciated. Focus was on the outcomes of sauna procedures, healing. Exploration of the sauna heritage has opened the doors of the magical side of the sauna to me. And behind this door is the world like Alice’s in the rabbit hole. With its own characters and associations of which a majority still needs to be discovered. Even now, after almost 30 years of conscious sauna practice.

Of recent, I have been introducing the effects and traditions of sauna within the framework of in-service training provided by the Viljandi Culture Academy of the University of Tartu and performing sauna rituals at Tartu Barge Yard as well as in saunas in Estonia but also in Latvia and Finland. There are people all over the world who are interested in sauna procedures and sauna magic. And they have been satisfied or very satisfied with the relaxation, stress relief and, in many cases, alleviation of back and joint pains as well as spiritual experience – irrespective of the nationality or race of the sauna goer.

Satisfied sauna visitors keep me occupied with organising sauna rituals and away from my acquired speciality and applied research into the impacts of different policies of state whose results end up gathering dust on the infinite shelves of ministries.