OK, this is a big question, and we can’t answer it fully right now. We’re too busy building the website itself. You’ll have to come back later for more information. Or join ASBA to receive the latest updates.
But as a sweat bathing association, we still need to give you a basic definition. The definition is actually very complex, as you’ll see below, but here’s a few points to consider:
“Sweat bathing” is a generic term used to describe forms of bathing that use hot air, including hot water vapour. This includes many of the things mentioned below. ASBA is called “the Australian Sweat Bathing Association” because we support a wide range of activities, not just sauna.
“Sauna” is a contested term, but normally refers to the traditional Finnish wooden room or cabin, which contains a heater (either wood fire, gas, or electric) upon which stones are piled. During the bathing session, water is poured into the rocks to create steam (löyly in Finnish), which sauna most enthusiasts regard as the best part of the bathing ritual. The steam feels like deep, relaxing velvet. Typical temperatures in a sauna are 70-90 celsius, sometimes ranging up to 110C, and very occasionally beyond. The temperature does not rise when water is applied to the rocks; instead, heat is conducted to your body more effectively because of the increased humidity. Your body also gets covered in condensation, which some people mistake for sweat.
“Banya” is the Russian word for bath, and is the equivalent of the Finnish sauna. The deep historical origins of sauna are unclear, but there are several ancient variations across northern Europe. The Russian banya, while not as well known as the Finnish sauna, is culturally important almost to the same extent as sauna in Finland. Finns can probably claim the crown because sauna is in their national mythology (the Kalevala), and they even keep national statistics on the number of saunas, but Russians are just as proud of the Banya. This has been beautifully documented in Bryon MacWilliams’ recent book, With Light Steam. Indeed, Mikkel Aaland, in his classic book Sweat, also emphasises the cultural importance of banya and the extent to which it is beloved by the people. So although ASBA speaks mainly of “sauna”, we acknowledge all related traditions and welcome their representation in our midst. That’s why we’re a sweat bathing association.
Some saunas can also be “dry saunas”. This is common in many public saunas, especially in Australia, where it is forbidden to throw water on the rocks (this is usually because it will break the heater, which means it isn’t a great heater). Dry saunas are perfectly fine, and make you feel pretty much as good afterwards.
“Infrared sauna” is a relatively new technology that seems to gaining increasing attention as a health activity. Traditional sauna enthusiasts (including the International Sauna Association) typically do not regard infrared saunas as saunas, often calling them “infrared cabins” instead. Because they use microwave heat, infrared saunas typically operate in a much lower temperature range than traditional saunas, generally in a range from 40-55 celsius. They usually make you begin to sweat quicker than the much hotter radiant-heat sauna, although they lack many of the sensory and social dimensions the make traditional sauna so beloved. But whether or not you want to call it a sauna, the infrared options certainly makes you sweat – and it makes you feel good too. For this reasons, and because ASBA is a sweat bathing association, we accept and welcome infrared as a species of sauna. However, what we don’t like at ASBA are spurious health claims, or uninformed opinions that infrared sauna is somehow “better” than traditional types of sauna. In some cases, for some people, infrared will be the preferred option, sometimes for health reasons (e.g. it appears to be a bit lighter on the heart), sometimes for preference reasons. In the same way, many other people will enjoy traditional sauna. **It is important to note that there are currently no proper medical or psychological studies that compare traditional and infrared sauna. This is a pressing area of sauna research.**
“Steam rooms” are another thing altogether. These wet spaces pump hot steam into the room via a steam-head in the wall, creating a luxurious waft of cloud to relax in. ASBA loves steam rooms just as much as saunas, and we promote their expansion in our goals. Steam rooms are a particularly exciting option because they can be easier to install at home than a sauna – almost any shower can be converted into a steam room for a relatively inexpensive price. ASBA plans to include detailed information about home steam and sauna options – if you are interested, then become a Foundation Member!
“Sweat lodge” describes something similar to sauna in terms of basic technology, but with quite different cultural character. Traditionally associated with the native peoples of the American continent (though occurring in several other parts of the world as well), sweat lodges involve heating a small tent or earthen mound, sometimes including the use of stones for water vapour, but not always, and probably not often. Although there are a range of anthropological accounts, there is little in the way of detailed historical evidence about these ancient sweat bathing practices, which makes it difficult to make any precise statements. Sweat lodge traditions are also carried on by many contemporary practitioners in America and around the world, often rendered through the lens of neopagan or shamanic beliefs, and often involving significant cost.
“Hot springs” are wonderful, but it’s not clear whether they count as “sweat bathing”. Some people would say they don’t, because they use water not air, and are different things from saunas – but (a) humans can still sweat underwater, and (b) steams rooms might also come into question because they to use water as the main heat conductor. So where’s the line? At ASBA, we don’t care a whole lot about the line at the point in out history. It is conceivable in future that a proper taxonomy will need to be created (and the creation of this taxonomy is actually urgent right now for academic research into sauna), but for the general advancement of ASBA’s goals, it doesn’t matter. Let’s #spreadthegoodheat, however we can.
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