Fire and Ice: Tracing the Traditions of the Sauna

Age-old and universally enjoyed, the perpetuation of the sauna as a bathing tradition reveals an ancient human infatuation with heat and health. In her new book, Thermal, Lindsey Bro visits more than 50 around the world

Strip, sit, sweat. The sizzle of water poured over hot stones. The persistent press of heat on your skin. Mercury gliding upwards; sand trickling down the hourglass. And then, sweet relief: a bracing shower, a bucket of icy water, or a dip and dive into fresh, untouched snow.

The rituals of saunas are ancient and world-spanning. The Finns might have a monopoly on the word, but from Japanese onsens to Turkish hammams, and Russian banyas to Mexican temazcals, formalised bathing cultures exist in many communities and across most continents. No sooner had our ancestors mastered fire, then they were finding ways to capture its warmth and immerse themselves in it. Be it to cleanse, to heal or - increasingly today - to relax, the basics of this ritualised style of bathing are the same. Heat yourself up and then cool yourself down, and, somewhere in between, you might find yourself transformed. As author Lindsey Bro puts it in her new book, Thermal, "To sweat is common, to sauna is sacred".

"I have always been fascinated by the forces that connect us," says Bro. "Why, throughout time and space, are we so drawn to warm places? Why is it so universally human?"

Visiting over 50 saunas, hot springs and spiritually special bathing places around the world for the project, the author, who is also behind Instagram account @cabinlove, sought to celebrate the common connection between various styles of sauna across the globe, exploring why these ancient practices continue to resonate in modern life. A collaboration between Bro and photographers from around the world, Thermal captures the diverse beauty of the practice, encompassing snow-capped Swedish huts beside Turkish hammams.

"We seek out bathing rituals because they feel good," she says. "They foster a sense of connection and meaning. We're different people from when we step into a sauna, a spring or a bath, and when we step out. Whether it's spiritually, emotionally, physically or symbolically, these spaces are where life happens. They're where we are tested in the fires, where we leave stories behind, and where we create anew."

Read more stories about rituals in our latest issue.

The Lowdown

Thermal, out now in the US, is available from for £24.45.

Photo credits: Ali Hartwig, Scarcity and Creativity Studio at the Oslo School of Architecture and Design, Julian DeSchutter, Cedar and Stone Sauna, Jeremy Koreski, Synne Aasland, Mike Pham, Stine Christiansen

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