A few weeks ago I was approached by the fine folks at the Helsinki Freedom campaign to work with them on a project to promote Helsinki and to focus specifically on freedom as a topic. I jumped at the opportunity mostly because my one and only visit to Finland a few years ago was so much fun and so impactful that  I was excited to once again write about one of the happiest spots on the planet. More than just write about things to see and do, I love the freedom topic because it’s at the heart of life in Finland and especially Helsinki. It’s a very egalitarian society with a strong emphasis on quality of life; something that is sorely lacking here in the U.S. The greatest aspect is that even as a visitor, no matter how briefly you’re there, you are instantly indoctrinated into this unique lifestyle as perhaps best exemplified in the greatest gift the Finns gave to the world, sauna.

The Importance of Sauna

While many cultures around the world have types of saunas, the Finns take great pride in the claim that they have one of the oldest and continuously active sauna cultures in the world. The Finnish sauna started more than 2,000 years ago and was little more than a modest burrow in the earth in which a pile of stones heated for the bathing process were added. Because, ultimately, that’s what sauna really is – a way to get clean. Water thrown onto the hot stones give off vapor, which makes the bather sweat. Before leaving the sauna, it is still common today to either douse yourself with water, or to have a permanent tub installed inside the sauna. This natural process of sweat bath followed by cleansing isn’t only intensely healthy; it’s an incredibly important aspect of Finnish society.

There’s an old Finnish saying that Finns live and die in the sauna. At first I smiled thinking it was just a nice example of flowery speech, but it’s actually literally true. Naturally there are rules associated with taking a sauna, but they’re more guidelines than rules and not once was I chastised for not knowing any better. That’s because at its core, sauna is all about personal freedom.

How Sauna Changed My Life

Among the rules is that sauna goers should be naked, something that still causes my fellow Americans to unconsciously shiver. Yet the societal mores in Finland are different, and chatting with someone in Helsinki, I began to understand why these concerns about being naked don’t exist in Finland. He said growing up going to sauna several times a week and seeing all different kinds of people naked means that Finns don’t usually suffer from the same body-image issues that the rest of the world can’t seem to escape. “I just understood that everyone looked different and that was ok,” he went on to say – a refreshingly open and healthy attitude. This was a revolutionary concept for me.

Like so many other people, I have dealt with body image problems my entire life – I still do if we’re being honest. I never accepted that I was enough, that I didn’t have to be “better,” whatever that means. Sitting there without a scrap of clothing on, I began the long process of self-acceptance and learning that I can be great just the way I am. That concept has been so freeing for me, I don’t have the words to properly share its impact. Freedom is subjective, freedom has many definitions and connotations but for me I have never felt as free and alive as I did sitting there in a warm sauna in Helsinki.

Finland and Helsinki in particular will always have a part of my heart reserved and I can’t wait to return to experience not only this definition of freedom again, but to discover new shades of the word as well.

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