Sauna icebreakers

Source: Magnus Heinmets

Sauna icebreakers

Written by:

Piret Saar

If you were to ask an Estonian what is the most awesome activity to do while visiting Estonia, "sauna" will probably pop up in the first line or two. While the following can be debated, one perhaps well known characteristic of Estonians is that it takes people a while to warm up to a conversation. This is where the sauna comes in, as there's nothing more social than sitting naked together in a dark wooden cabin and "taking the heat".

"Panen sauna kütte"

Smoke sauna

The smoke sauna tradition is primarily a family custom, practised usually on Saturdays but also before major festivals or family events to relax the body and the mind.

Photo by: Magnus Heinmets

For centuries up to the modern day, sauna has been the local everyday luxury. When visiting friends or family over the weekend, the go-to phrase tends to be "panen sauna kütte" ("I'll heat up the sauna"), meaning that it is going to be a night of cleansing, eating, drinking and catching up. Men and women often go to sauna separately and swimsuits are frowned upon, towels perhaps more tolerated. Estonians are both equally fond of the Finnish sauna and the country's pride and glory - the UNESCO listed smoke sauna tradition. While the experience is similar, the difference lies in the chimney, or the lack of it, to be more precise. Smoke sauna has no chimney, and the smoke from burning wood circulates in the room heating it up beforehand. Typical sauna temperatures range between 70 and 100 degrees Celsius.

Sauna benefits


You can make a whisk from a range of trees, with birch and oak being the most popular in Estonia.

Photo by: Mart Vares

"Leil" is hot steam emerging when water is thrown on heated stones. Finding an equivalent word in English can be a tough task, but it essentially means bathing in hot steam. Leil has many benefits for those in need. It cleanses the skin and increases heart rate. When sitting in the sauna, you might feel as if it is easier to breathe and move. This is the heat doing its magic by expanding your bronchi and relaxing the joints.

Whether you are using a private sauna or a public sauna in a spa, a proper wash precedes the whisking. What's whisking? A gentle beating with branches from the forest, most commonly using birch branches. Wet leaves flying through the heat help mix the layers of air in the room and acts as a gentle massage increasing circulation. Novice "saunaline" ("sauna user") should take it easy, and sit on the lowest steps first. The optimal time one should spend in the sauna should be no longer than 30 minutes. When you feel all heated up, get ready for the fun side of sauna - rolling in the grass, a lake or just letting the steam evaporate on a quiet evening in the nature. The water from the whisk is an equally nature-loving way to rinse yourself off.

Sauna conversations

From hot to cold

Jumping in a lake or a river is a custom that most enjoy in the summer. In the winter, some brave souls take a dip in the icy waters or cover themselves with snow.

Photo by: Mart Vares

Now that you've got all that down, you are more than ready to join Estonians in the sauna. A place where the naked truth is revealed and world is put to right, with conversation topics ranging from weather to philosophy. You might just leave with the memory of an insightful conversation or make friends for life.

Watch a video about how Jules and Christine from Don't Forget To Move tried the traditional Estonian smoke sauna.

Last updated : 15.12.2022

In category: Health & Wellness