Sauna vs Other Thermal Experiences

 

Sauna is but one form of Thermal Experience. Banya’s, Sweat Lodges, IR Cabins, Laconiums, Steam Baths and others fill out the world of Sweat Bathing. And then there are the worlds of water and multi-experience facilities like Hammans. 

These are all also part of Complimentary Medicine which combined with Traditional Medicine is Integrative Medicine.

Like sauna, all of these thermal experiences except IR Cabins are social activities and this was and is today a very key element. Besides the enjoyment aspect this plays a critical role in improved health.

While Finnish sauna is my personal favorite, I also enjoy steam baths, laconiums and bio-saunas. You might have different preferences. (click on the image for a larger view).

ThermalTaxonomy061aNote: Primary Heating Mechanism are all ±20% or even more but give a good idea of the relative contribution of each source.

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Heat: Convective, Radiant and Conductive – What distinguishes sauna from other forms of sweat bathing and what’s made it so popular in Europe is an experience of gentle even convective heat with no noticeable radiant and very little stratification.

Sauna is the only thermal experience where bathers are heated almost exclusively by gentle convective heat. A Banya has a bit of noticeable radiant from the oven. Sweat Cabin’s (Kuuma, Nippa, etc.) have more radiant still and less convection while IR Booths, Laconiums and Tepidariums are primarily radiant (but in the latter two very mass source so very even on all sides). Finally we have steam baths where we’re back to no noticeable radiant while conductive via steam becomes key.

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There’s a reason that there are so many saunas in the world and that they’re clustered down in the lower left corner of primarily convection heat and very low stratification – most people find that the most comfortable and enjoyable thermal experience.

A steam bath is actually quite similar to a sauna. There’s a progression of Finnish Sauna > Bio Sauna > Steam Bath (6 o’clock > 7 > 8 o’clock below) of decreasing temp, increasing humidity so increasing conductive heat and with no noticeable radiant. So the Sweat Bathing taxonomy chart above kind of wraps back around from steam bath to bio sauna.

Similarly, the key difference between a bio-sauna and banya is that in a banya we feel radiant heat from the oven on our side facing the oven. Otherwise these are the same from a general temp and humidity standpoint.

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While I prefer a true sauna, as it is known to Finns in Finland, I still enjoy some of these other similar experiences occasionally. Sticky Toffee Pudding, Banofee Pie and Peach Cobbler are three very different foods but I still love all three. I would never try to sell someone Sticky Toffee Pudding and call it Peach Cobbler though. Note: It has taken some bit of work to figure out what’s what with these, particularly Banya. I think I’m getting there but would appreciate any thoughts on making this more accurate.

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Russian Banya – Banya’s generally sit kind of in the middle between Saunas and IR Cabins in terms of radiant vs convective heat. They look somewhat like saunas but there are some critical differences. There are three different types of Banya; Traditional, Modern and Hot.

The hot room or ‘Parilka’ in Russian Banya’s do not have the löyly that is critical to Finnish sauna. Parilka’s are more constant humidity vs the contrast of dry with bursts of steam in a Finnish Sauna and Parilka’s don’t have the more even convective heat löyly pocket of saunas. While the key goal in a sauna is for there to be no noticeable radiant heat, there can be considerable radiant in a Banya where the very large floor to ceiling oven produces a large though also somewhat even, milder and more comfortable radiant than a smaller oven or stove.

Due to the radiant heat, Banyas may have only two bench levels compared to the three bench levels that are critical for löyly in a sauna so banyas often have more convective stratification but since convection is not as prominent this may not be as noticeable to regular banya users.

Traditional Russian Banya ‘ovens’ (above) are typically much larger and more enclosed than a sauna heater and also function somewhat similarly to a steam generator than the open convective dryer heat of a sauna heater that you throw water on for temporary humidity. The very large stone slab or tile surface that’s producing radiant heat is able to produce a ‘softer’ radiant that is more even on bathers since it is less point-source than a smaller stove and because of the size of the radiant surface the radiant heat dissipates much slower so a moderate amount of radiant produced by the oven can be felt more evenly by bathers.

There is also a smaller electric Modern Banya oven that can look somewhat similar to a sauna heater but differs in several ways including usually having heavy stone slabs for the carcass and an interior water reservoir that constantly drips water on to the stones (and typically on only the lower stones). These may also have a pot of water hanging over the stones that constantly drips water on the upper stones to help maintain the humidity. Many Russians say that these are very inferior to the larger traditional ovens because the radiant heat and steam are more harsh and not as even. Builders will often do floor to ceiling stone slabs on the walls behind these to help provide somewhat more even radiant to sort of emulate a larger traditional Banya oven.

Banya is traditionally lower temp (65°c ± 15°c / 131°f ± 27°f ) + higher and more constant humidity (30-70% RH) than a Sauna. There is also a Hot Banya experience that is quite high temps, about 140°c, and very low to nearly no humidity. And then some Russians will treat their Parilka somewhat like a Sauna with lower humidity and temps around 80-105°c though a major difference is that the oven in these is producing more radiant heat than would a sauna heater. 

Banya includes Parenie thermal massage as an essential element, typically by a masseuse using a venik of birch, oak or eucalyptus. Using a venik is optional and less formal with sauna and often done by the bather themselves or whoever is sitting next to them. While saunas in Finland nearly always include a changing room, I’m told that having three rooms (steam or ‘parilka’, washing or ‘moyka’ and the critical ‘predbannik’ for relaxing) is essential to Banya.

Interestingly Russians will often say that Banya is just like Finnish Sauna while Finns say, rightly, that it is very different. This is likely because someone who is accustomed to no noticeable radiant in a sauna will notice the radiant from the banya oven while someone accustomed to the radiant + convection may not be as likely to notice the absence of radiant.

 

Sweat Lodge or Temazcal– These are common among many Indigenous Americans and seem somewhat similar to a Finnish Smoke Sauna except that typically the stones are heated outside and then carried in to the tent. Sweat lodges are more radiant heat vs the convective heat of a sauna. Sweat Lodges are also a spiritual ritual for many Indigenous Americans.

 

Sweat Cabin – These are heated by heavy steel stoves such as Kuuma, Nippa and others. Many in North America call these a sauna, though they are actually quite different. These are kind of a hybrid of a Sweat Lodge, Banya and IR Cabin. They have radiant heat from a heavy steel stove rather than the convective heat and convective loop of a sauna. These generally do not have the löyly cavity that a sauna has. They will usually have lower ceilings and benches since with the radiant heat there is less benefit to higher as there is for a Sauna with convective heat. In practice bathers will typically use them like a Finnish Sauna by throwing water on the stones to increase humidity. In this they are perhaps similar to a Modern Banya though with harsher and less even radiant heat and less convective heat.

 

IMG 1773 e1526321038380Infrared Cabin / Booth – This is not sauna despite the misappropriation of the name in the U.S. and is a very different experience than sauna despite what marketing people say. Most people who have experienced both usually have a preference, often strong, for sauna. There are two flavors of IR; Far Infrared or FIR and Near Infrared or NIR. Each is a bit different from a comfort/enjoyment standpoint.

Both FIR and NIR include potential health benefits though the lists of benefits differ for NIR, FIR and Sauna. One studied benefit is using FIR for Waon Therapy to improve respiratory function for people with COPD. Other health benefits are being studied so as time goes on we’ll know more. There are some health concerns with IR such as EMF exposure though similar to the benefits these have not yet been studied enough to know if they are real or imagined.

 

Laconium – A Laconium (≈ 60°c, naturally dry) looks similar to a Steam Bath with its stone or tile walls. It functions more like an IR Booth though as the floor and walls (and sometimes ceiling) are heated and radiate this heat to bathers. A Laconium provides a more even and pleasant heat than an IR booth and typically has very low humidity though bathers can throw water on the walls to raise the humidity as they desire.

Thanks to the more even very mass source radiant heat and larger space, laconiums are more social than an IR booth.

A larger home shower can be built as a Laconium/Tepidarium by including hydronic heat in the walls as well as the floor. This can be in addition to a steam generator to use it as a steam bath or caldarium. Care must be used to prevent walls from becoming too hot and with use of too much steam and radiant at the same time.

Tepidarium – A Tepidarium (≈ 37°c (body temp), semi dry) is similar to a Laconium in that bathers are heated by radiant from the stone or tile walls and floor but the ambient temperature is lower and humidity may be slightly higher. Loungers are heated as well and are noticeably warmer, typically 37°c. Today they are often used as a room to lay in after a massage. Bathers typically lay naked though sometimes swaddled in a blanket. 

Caldarium – A Caldarium (≈ 40-50°c, humid – near 100% humidity) is similar to a steam bath with the primary difference being that a caldarium includes radiant heat from the walls and floor.

 

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Steam Bath / Steam Shower – Lower temperature (40°c ± 10°c / 105°f ± 20°f ) and very high humidity of 90-100%. If you think about a humidity continuum from Finnish Sauna to Bio Sauna, a Steam Bath is simply the next step. Rather than the wood walls of a Sauna the walls of a Steam Bath are typically tile or stone. Steam Baths do appear to have a number of health benefits, some overlapping with Sauna. There may be a higher risk of bacterial transmission in a Steam Bath so hygiene of bathers and the facility is critical.

A single larger space with stone/tiled walls, floor and ceiling that includes hydronic heat in the walls, floor and possibly ceiling, a steam generator and shower should be able to function as a shower, steam bath and tepidarium/laconium/caldarium. The tepidarium/laconium/caldarium all utilize radiant heat from the walls and floor but each varies in temp and humidity. A steam bath is high humidity with no radiant heat from the walls. Ideally for a shared space this room should be about 10’ x 8’ x 8’ for a single tepidarium lounger and 10x10x8 for two loungers though as small as 5x5x8 can sort of work. In a longer room the shower(s) are on one end and the loungers the other. Sitting benches can be along the longer wall. Ideally the lounger(s) is not directly next to a wall so that bathers feel even gentle radiant from all around rather than more intense from the left or right.

 

Thermal Suite – A Thermal Suite is an area with two or more thermal experiences found in a home, flat, office or hotel. It’s kind of a mini spa or sauna landscape.

An ideal home thermal suite for me would be a central area with a plunge pool (16°c / 150x300wx120d (5’x10’x4’)) and two to four showers, a 4 to 6 person sauna and a 4 to 6 person steam/tepidarium/laconium/caldarium. The central area should have easy access to outside and ideally some large openable windows/doors to see out, let sun, moon and star light in and provide for fresh air. 

 

Roman Bath – Roman Baths are perhaps the best known of ancient thermal bathing and from where we get Laconium, Tepidarium, Caldarium, Frigidarium and other bits. Roman baths are however likely descendants of Greek bathing activities (and laconium likely from the Greek laconia) which are themselves likely based on more ancient activities. 

Roman Baths often had a more formal proscribed ritual done in a larger multi-room facility. It is believed that a typical ritual was Tepidarium (warm) > Caldarium (hot) > Frigidarium (cold) though some appear to have been built for a specific Caldarium > Tepidarium > Frigidarium. Alternate rituals might have included a second stop in the Frigidarium.  Many also included a Laconium (hotter (60°c ?) and dryer than a Tepidarium).

 

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Victorian Turkish Bath / Roman-Irish Bath – Victoria Turkish Baths and Roman-Irish Baths are descendents of Roman baths and believed originated by Dr. Richard Barter in the mid 19th century. Despite the name, Victorian Turkish Baths are actually somewhat different from Turkish Baths. Generally the best Roman-Irish today is considered to be Friedrichsbad Spa (plan above) in Baden-Baden Germany with their 17-step process. Some interesting info at VictorianTurkishBath.org

 

Hamman / Turkish Bath – These are descendants of Roman Baths from when Rome controlled the Maghreb (Northern Africa) and what is today Turkey. The Roman baths had become very popular among the Muslim populations of these areas and over time were adapted as a cleansing ritual in Islam.

 

Ozone Cabin – Similar to IR Cabins these are not saunas in any way except the misappropriation of the name and are also usually not a thermal experience.

 

Hot Springs, Onsen, Hot Tubs, Salt Baths and Mud Baths are other more liquid forms for thermal experiences. For the ultimate hot springs and mud baths experience spend a week in Bormio Italy. You can hike to mountain huts for lunch during the day and then enjoy a hot spring, mud bath or sauna in the evening before having a wonderful dinner.  The Onsens of Japan (there are three varieties; rotenburo, utaseyu, and konyoku) are something everyone should experience once in their life.

At spa’s in Europe you’ll find numerous other attractions like salt water floating pools. Getting a bit outside of thermal experiences; a Broncharium is a salt inhalation room that’s becoming increasingly popular, Speleotherapy or Spelarium is a salt cave, and Spectaculum is sound and light therapy. Who knew? 🙂