You may think you know how to sauna, but the ‘sauna’ most of us understand barely scratches the surface. In Latvia, however, they take sauna seriously. Here, it is about so much more than just a physical cleansing or enjoying a social leisure activity.
For Latvians, ‘sauna’ is a deep, spiritual experience that is uniquely personal and special each and every time. This is because they truly believe the hot steam purifies both the body and the soul.
1. How to ‘sauna’ like a Latvian
Latvians refer to their saunas as pirts. And their pirts rituals are more in-depth and complex than relaxing amidst the swirling steam and working up a sweat.
For starters, Latvian pirts are often much smaller than counterparts that tourists may have experienced in the rest of Europe and Scandinavia. They also usually only accommodate a maximum of three people at once, although solo-serving saunas are conventional too.
Latvian saunas are traditionally ‘wet’ saunas, created by pouring water over swelteringly hot stones to produce a dense vapour. According to locals, the ideal temperature is around 86° C. Fear not, however – only the most die-hard followers of the sauna culture actually manage to endure this kind of heat.
You will always have the option to turn the temperature down to a more manageable level, no matter where you experience your first session.
2. Meeting your pirtniek
Often, when you visit a traditional pirts in Latvia, a qualified pirtniek, or sauna master will guide you through the experience. These Pirtnieks have to study at special ‘sauna schools’ for between one and two and a half years to qualify for the privilege of purifying your body and mind. We told you that the locals take sauna seriously.
3. The Latvian sauna ritual
Ready to sizzle? A full experience comprises four separate visits to the sauna. Latvian culture is deeply rooted in nature and they tend to use plants in various ways throughout their rituals.
First, your designated pirtniek serves a steaming cup of herbal tea to help you relax before you disrobe and step into the sauna. They make this soothing tea from 100% natural ingredients like linden blossom and mint.
This initial session is fairly simplistic and revolves around spending time enjoying the heat and the relaxation. During the second session, the sauna master will treat you with their own unique aromatic scrub concoction.
Aromatherapy, the Latvian way
More plant-based therapies follow once you are inside the pirts for your third session. Latvians consider this the most important session of all. Most commonly, the process involves being swatted with switches that have been crafted using the leaves and twigs of various different types of trees, most commonly birch and juniper. Oak is also a favourite choice for men, as is linden for women.
The swatting is said to yield similar results to a powerful aromatherapy massage and helps to stimulate and smooth the skin.
During summer, when the rolling fields are awash with lush greenery, the sauna master will often gather these potent plants, leaves, and twigs just an hour or two ahead of your session. This means that they are at their freshest and most fragrant.
The sauna master will also gather these natural ingredients for drying so that they are still available for use in sauna sessions once the season turns and the greenery slowly wanes.
Following the swatting process, which can last several hours, your sauna master will guide you into the cool, refreshing waters of a tranquil pond. The transition from hot to cold maximises the effects of the swatting, as well as improving the elasticity of the skin.
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The sauna master will often stand inside the pond with you, supporting your body in a horizontal position so that you float weightlessly on the surface. The experience is intensely relaxing and deeply personal.
Following this, the sauna master will transition you from the pond and onto the silky green grass, where he or she will cover you with a blanket. This part of the process ‘grounds’ you – allowing time to renew your connection with nature.
The fourth and final session is optional and is often based on sitting in the sauna for a few hours followed by a skin treatment thereafter. The skin treatment is just as rich in natural, hand-sourced ingredients, including clay, berries, and honey.
4. When to sauna
Prepare to spend a good few hours savouring each session of the Latvian sauna experience, especially if you undertake a traditional Latvian ritual.
Most often, the sauna master will extend the relaxation for up to four hours at a time. Hence the reason why many locals choose to visit the pirts in the early morning.
The beauty of this traditional ritual is that every experience will be completely different from the next. This is because each sauna master will have their own special approach and favoured natural ingredients.
You can rest assured however that each and every ritual will end the same; with you feeling lighter, more relaxed and deeply connected with both yourself and your surroundings.
Have you had the opportunity to savour a traditional Latvian sauna ritual? Tell us about your experience in the comments below…