Sauna Q&A / Jan Seepter

Which herbs to use in sauna whisks?

02 Aug 2022

I must say that when I was first asked to write about the best herbs used for saunas, it left me baffled… having an affair so close to the topic in question, I might struggle to encapsulate all my knowledge around it. I'll try. Even as a small boy, going to the sauna with my father, my grandpop, we back then used birch. That's why we had a traditional annual outing to the country when the leaves were mature and clinging tightly to the branches but had not yet been feasted to bits by insects. Depending on the spring and weather, it usually happened around or a little time before the Midsummer day in June. We handpicked just the 'right' birch branches with good leaf density but not too fine, coarse, or bristly to get a fluffy and shaped bunch. There should not have been significant insect damage to the leaves, or they could have started to bloom.

To hold the shape, a few stronger branches became the "backbone" in the middle, surrounded by the thinnest branches, the richest in leaves which gave the whisk its density. To wrap it up, the outer layer branches had an "average" coarseness to hold the shape.

Now, the real trick was to find just the right coarseness and density of branches to fill in the thinnest spots that inevitably occurred, so it would be fluffy but solid enough not to fall apart. Next, the leaves had to be removed from the bottom of the whisk so that the branches would hold together nice and densely, and the wreath would sit well in the hand. A lot of practice went into getting the right fluffiness, "just right" tips: even length at the top so that none of the twigs stuck out too much. The bottom end was usually cut straight with an axe. Later, with practice, the cut of the lower end was such that the ends of the twigs would remain as sharp as a block of pencil, which would be a good way of 'puncturing' the nerve endings on the soles of the feet during the whisking massage, as if 'touching' the organs at the other end of the nerve, thus acting as a 'wakening', making the body more receptive to the sauna procedures.

Many years later, the wicked ways of fate turned my affair with the sauna even more profound. I started to use oak and linden in my whisks. I don't remember exactly why or how, but I most probably found relevant references in literature and/or by communicating with other sauna zealots. By abandoning the inveterated pattern of birch being the central mediator of sauna massage linked to family traditions, I opened the door to a closer relationship with herbs and plants. 

Hereby, I can give you some advice on the use of herbs in whisks based on my 34 years of experience as a sauna devotee; here are some of my top tips:

- I use juniper because its spines make it a particularly effective stimulator of subcutaneous circulation. Its juices help to relieve muscular tension and joint problems. And it also acts as a deep cleanser and therefore is an excellent daily stress reliever;

- The combination of yeast and oak restores overall balance and is particularly effective as a body tonic;

- The fragrance of heather is calming;

- Blackcurrant adds a spicy fragrance to the green; 

- Hazel, rosemary, and maple branches in fresh incense according to the sensation that arises from focusing on each sauna ritual separately;

All plants need to protect themselves from attack, which is why herbal essential oils have antibacterial properties.

It is important to remember that each sauna session is unique because all plants are alive, and your interaction with them will be new. In addition, linden and oaks have been a gateway to the unseen world. From this respect for every branch and twig of the plant, we could learn, among other things, from the peoples of nature. Therefore it is nice to be a good gardener when picking herbs, and on the other hand, to be a naturalist: express gratitude to the plants and ask for help to succeed in your journey, be it relaxation, healing, or the need to resolve a difficult situation.

Happy blooming!