The Danes gave us Hygge to make our lives that little bit more cosy. The Swedes balanced it all out with the concept of lagom (everything in the right amount). Now its the Finns’ turn to influence us all with their own very unique take on life with the concept of “sisu”. Sisu describes the typical Finnish trait of rising up to meet life’s challenges, even in the face of the fiercest of adversity. It’s about having guts and determination, stepping outside your comfort zone and giving it everything you’ve got.
On my recent trip to Helsinki, I went in search of sisu based on only a shamefully low level understanding of what it is. And so it was through my tour of saunas and (Baltic) sea swimming that I found not so much sisu, but a fabulously relaxing, rejuvenating and invigorating side of Finnish life.
To those of us outside of Scandinavia, not a lot is known about the Finns. We tend to focus on their bigger, louder Nordic neighbours (I’m look at you Sweden). The Finns have a reputation for being reserved, humble and self-criticising – whether that’s right or wrong. What they are famous for includes (amongst other things) extreme weather conditions, intensely hot saunas, hitting themselves with birch branches and plunging into icy cold seas. Surely, there is sisu in this? Isn’t that in itself rising to the challenges presented by extreme weather and environment?
Take saunas, for instance. Finns love to sauna. It is estimated that there is over 3 million saunas in this country of 5.5 million people. Women used to give birth in them. Sure, child birth is such a walk in the park, why not make it a challenge? The Finns dominated the world sauna championships until it was banned in 2010 for being too extreme. And I’ve never met a Finn who doesn’t love a good sauna.
To investigate it further, I headed to Löyly, Helsinki’s newly constructed public sauna two kilometres south of the city centre, on Helsinki’s waterfront. The architecture of the building is striking. More like a sculpture than a building, it is constructed of heat treated pine, with a venetian-blind effect which gives sauna-goers privacy, while giving them breathtaking views of the water.
It is also home to a very stylish restaurant and terrace bar over three levels. No wonder this is where the beautiful crowd come to schvitz, dip, relax and imbibe.
First, the sauna. The sauna at Löyly is mixed, male and female. So to my relief, swimsuits were compulsory (going nude is the norm for unisex saunas however). Overall, the sauna experience turned out to be an entirely lively and fun one. Everyone got chatting and it turned into quite the social event. The birch branches got the circulation going, the temperature was up there, and the toxins were sweated out.
After I reached my sauna limit, it was straight into the Baltic Sea. So as not to look like a tourist in front of the Finns, I had to forgo my usual ten-minute submerging into the sea routine (which usually involves a lot of gasping and shaking my hands dramatically over the water), and plunge straight in. And it was fresh. Despite the initial shock, it was an incredibly invigorating experience.
Post-dip, we retired to a sun lounger on the private terrace, beer in hand, as is the custom. From here we chilled, took in the sea view and soaked up the rays of the mid-summer sun. Nothing too sisu about it at all.
allas sea pools
Day two took me to the Allas Sea Pools. This recently developed complex is located in the heart of town, beside the Market Square. It consists of three saunas, three pools (one sea pool, and two heated fresh-water pools all built into a floating platform on the sea), a cafe, restaurant, bar and outdoor concert area.
I decided to take my sauna experience to the next level and went along to a sauna yoga session. Sauna yoga was developed by Allas Sea Pool’s wellness director, Tiina Vainio. The main focus of sauna yoga is to relax the body and mind and just be present in the moment, she says.
Sauna yoga is mostly done from the seated position on the benches of the sauna, generally at 55 degrees celsius – warmer than the traditional floor-based hot yoga, but not quite the extremes of a general sauna sesh. The poses work on flexibility and strength, and the session starts and ends with a relaxation.
For the sauna yoga session swimsuits, or shorts and vests, are the go (thank God). Just take a towel to sit on and off you go. I found it to be an incredibly good workout as well as blissfully relaxing at the same time. The heat does make the yoga poses more intense so I found that post-yoga feeling is all the more euphoric as a result.
No sauna yoga session is complete without a post-sauna dip into intensely cold water. Again, no mucking around – I just jumped straight into the sea pool, and physically felt my metabolism rising.
To my absolute delight, I noticed that someone at Allas came up with the genius idea of yoga and wine nights. Why hasn’t someone thought of this sooner?! I could imagine nothing more enjoyable than an outdoor yoga session at twighlight followed by wines on the deck looking out over the city and the sea. Sadly, I was not in town for the day it was scheduled, but believe me, next visit to Helsinki you’ll find me at the Allas sea pool yoga class, wine in hand.
Back to this sisu concept then. It wasn’t until after my sauna and sea pool odyssey across Helsinki that I carried out a little vox pop of my Finnish friends to get a better understanding of what sisu means to them. “Guts” was one answer. “Never giving up” was another. I was also corrected in my assertion that sisu was just another of these Scandinavian concepts to be pushed on us wanna-be Scandis: “It’s not a concept, it’s a value.”
They all referred to Finnish history – the way this relatively tiny nation stood up to Soviet aggression during the second world war, and the way it paid its dues after that war – sisu played a large part. Nowadays, it’s a value called upon the Finnish players in the dying minutes of an international ice hockey game. Yes, it lies in the practice of diving into icy water in the darkest Finnish winter, but it’s so much more.
Overall, my search for sisu was a little ill-founded. I thought I’d be testing my determination via scorching hot saunas and extremity-numbing waters, but what I found was an incredibly rejuvenating, social and stylish way of life. Rather than stepping out of my comfort zone, I found a whole new concept of comfort which has now been annexed onto the Suzanne Delahunty zone of comfort and invigoration. I have to hand it to those Finns, they know how to make the most of their surroundings (and saunas).
Löyly sauna sessions can be booked online. Do book in advance, as it can get busy during evenings. Towels, lockers, shampoo and shower gel are provided. Bring a swimsuit for the mixed sauna. And if sauna isn’t your thing, it is still worth a visit to the restaurant (which does a delish salmon soup) or terrace bar.
Check out the Allas website for its wellness classes. Classes and sauna sessions can be booked online on the Allas website. Take a swimsuit (for the mixed sauna, or nude-up in the single-sex saunas). Take a towel, or you can hire a towel there. Lockers are provided.