This article is about the saunavasta (sauna whisk) tradition. See also the Different types of sauna whisks post.
A popular tradition in Finnish sauna culture is to beat the sh*t out of your friend with birch branches called sauna whisks, or saunavihta (Western Finland) or saunavasta (Eastern Finland) in Finnish. In addition to relieving your aggressions, your friend gets a thorough deep clean and his blood circulation improves. Everybody wins.
As said, Finnish whisks are almost always made out of birch tree branches, but oak and juniper whisks are also available. I have also seen eucalyptus and linden whisks and even ones made of plastic or silicone.
You can find fresh burch whisks at traditional marketplaces in Finland. Dried whisks are available at grocery stores, for example.
Websites like etsy.com help those who live outside of Finland. Amazon has them as well but the cost seems to be quite high. Etsy.com becomes cheaper if you can order many whisks at a time and can wait a bit longer. I’d say that the cost per whisk when ordering online comes to about $10-15 a piece including shipping if you order about six to ten whisks at a tome. Look for different sellers as the shippjng costs seem to vary. Amazon charges between $25-35. In Finland, you should be prepared to pay about 5-8 euros a piece.
You can always make one yourself too and I might cover the instructions in a separate blog post later. Notice, however that you are not allowed to take branches from living trees in forests unless you own the forest, of course.
Preparation of whisks
The fresh whisks are ready to go as such. The dried whisk is first sunk into either cold water (takes up to an hour) or hot water (20 mins). If I have time, I often sink the whisk upside down in a bucket (the handle part first) and then turn it around after 20-30 mins and and leave it for another half an hour. The cold water option is always better if you have time: the leaves won’t get loose as easy then.
The Russian Venik Treatment
There are two major ways of the whisk use: the Russian way (venik massage) abd the Finnish way (massacre).
In Russian venik massage you would lay down on the sauna bench and your trusted friend would then quite gently and rhythmically apply the whisk on your body. Cute.
The Finnish Saunavasta Rite
In the Finnish saunavasta massacre, the sauna whisk is first appropriately heated up over the stove. Take the whisk from the water bucket and hold the dripping whisk about 10 inches above the stove and pour water on the stove. Rotate the whisk to thoroughly warm it. When you touch the leaves and it burns, it is good to go.
Notes for Karens: you should actually carefully touch the whisk after removing it from above the stove. If it feels too hot, it probably is too hot. You may also burn your fingers while preparing the whisk or while testing if it’s too hot. It’s a bit like hot coffee. It is hot and the lid says it might be hot. Let this act as the cautionary note. Sauna whisks may get hot and hot stoves are certainly hot.
Ask your friend to turn his or her back towards you and whack or slap her back with the whisk. As far as the proper sauna lingo goes, “bend over” goes down with varying results.
While whisking your friend, there is no need to use excess force. However, it is also quite important not to leave the hot whisk on the back. I’d say about 100 slaps per minute is probably pretty good tempo.
Then you take turns and depending on how you treated your friend, you might get a revenge. Then you both whack your feet and chest and yell in a masculine way.
I saw a documentary from Germany where they insisted that two people cannot use the same whisk for hygienic reasons. Finns believe that the heat kills the bacteria but maybe the hygiene standards have changed over the centuries. Let’s agree that Germans know better and stubborn Finns are just daredevils.
Re-using the whisks and the water
The (birch) whisks emit nice aroma. You can pour the water where the whisk is prepared and kept on the stove. Watch out that you don’t pour lose leaves on the hot rocks though.
The water will eventually get gooey but you can store it in bottles or containers and freeze them for later use: just melt the blocks in löyly water.
I always thought you could use the sauna whisk for one time only but nowadays I just leave the whisk to dry in a hot sauna and have been able to restore it in cold water for multiple uses even weeks after.