What is ‘leil’, and how do you do it?
In a talk delivered at TEDxTallinn, Adam Rang, owner of the British-Estonian business Estonian Saunas, described how his partner and himself are on a mission to introduce the word leil – ‘sauna steam’ in English – to new communities of sauna enthusiasts around the world seeking a more authentic sauna experience.
Adam is striving is to get the word leil into the English lexicon as much as the word sauna is. But what is leil and how do you do it?
What is ‘leil’?
Leil is a sacred word in Estonian.
It is what Estonians call the steam generated by pouring water onto hot rocks in a sauna. There’s no sauna without leil – despite the impression you might get from gym saunas and spa infrared saunas around the world.
The word leil is derived from ‘breath’ or ‘spirit’ in proto-Uralic, the language group that both Estonian and Finnish belong to. It symbolises the very essence of life because the sauna is our traditional place of birth. The sauna experience has long been associated with the concept of rebirth. A well-designed sauna used correctly and with good leil will empower you to feel rejuvenated.
Leil – The steam generated by pouring water onto hot rocks in a sauna.
Similar words once existed in other peoples’ languages, including English. Still, they were lost through time as generations forgot their own communal steam bathing traditions.
The world is now rediscovering what it means to sauna, but, for too many of us, it has become corrupted as a dry, solitary, and painful (often too hot) experience to be endured, devoid of traditions and without steam and sometimes without even stones.
Why is leil (sauna steam) important in sauna?
Hundreds of litres of steam are generated from water thrown onto hot stones within a sauna.
The water mixes with the sauna air and gradually spreads to every corner of the sauna. However, to maintain the temperature and the amount of steam within the sauna, users must keep adding water to the hot rocks.
Doing this is leil, and it moves pretty fast, half a metre a second, thus warming the sauna quickly and bathers bodies rapidly, boosting the benefits that a sauna offers. It is the traditional way that true sauna enthusiasts will use a sauna. (That doesn’t mean you have to, but this is the ancient way of doing it, at least in the Nordics).
Health benefits of leil
Sauna steam can significantly improve your cardiovascular health. A study of older individuals demonstrated that moist heat improved their circulation, especially in extremities (like we have in Northern Europe!) Better circulation can reduce blood pressure and thus lead to a healthier heart.
Also, sauna steam creates a warm moist environment that warms the mucous membranes and encourages deep breathing, similar to the effects of having a hot shower in your home. The results are the same, the congestion from a cold can be broken up and clears your sinuses.
The environment around us today is full of toxins that sit or become trapped on our skin. Sauna steam opens up skin pores, and the warm moist heat rinses away dead skin, dirt and other toxins leaving clearer and maybe more even-toned skin.
Another tool that can help with your skin and congestion that Estonians use, which is a viht.
What is a viht?
Viht (or vihad in plural) is the bundle of branches we use to beat our bodies inside the sauna.
The Estonian word was first recorded around the 13th century (when it was spelt wicht) — although this was when the first records were recorded, so it could even be older than the 13th century, extending way back to Finnic and pagan prehistory of the region.
Viht – A bundle of branches from the forest used gently to beat the body.
In English, like many Estonian words, it is hard to translate, but viht is more commonly described as a whisk. However, most English speakers will have unlikely heard of using a viht (whisk) in a sauna, especially when it encompasses stripping off, sweating in a sauna and then beaten with branches!
Why use a viht?
Beating yourself with a viht was once thought of as the primary method of cleaning the body. And it’s still considered necessary for improving circulation, exfoliating the skin, and relieving muscle pain — similar to having a massage. Viht, like so many sauna benefits, can help the body recover from mild illness or muscle aches and pains.
Perhaps more importantly, though, the viht will fill the air with great natural aromas and raise your temperature during your sauna session. You can also use them to fan the warm air around the room and across the body.
Transforming your sauna with aromatic oils
Using a sauna is enjoyable, to begin with, but it can be made even better when combined with essential oils. To use aromatic oils in a sauna, you need to know how to use them and which are best suited.
Before using the oil, bathers must dilute it in water. Usually, you would add a few drops of aromatic oil to the water bucket in the sauna. When you throw the water over the hot stones, the steam will fill the sauna with a pleasant scent. Diluting the oil in water reduces intense exposure since aromatic oils have strong aromas.
Another tradition that Estonians do is to add a few drops of aromatic oils to a viht so when it is used on the skin; the oils are transferred to the skin’s surface, giving off a pleasant smell in the sauna, removing dirt on the skin, and leave a nice moist and fragrant residue leaving bathers feeling refreshed.
Sauna and aromatherapy are a good combination. Due to the pleasant aroma fragrance in the steam, saunas become an ideal place to create your inner spa sanctuary – a perfect blend of relaxing your body and mind and providing tangible health benefits. Our favourite aromatic oils are eucalyptus, juniper, pine, orange and lemon.
Estonian saunas, leil and viht
Now that you have understood more about Estonians saunas, leil and viht, you are more than equipped to join Estonians and sauna enthusiasts worldwide. A place where the conversation topics range from weather to philosophy to wellbeing to health is discussed. You will leave with memories of insightful conversations and likely make friends for life.
If a sweaty beating of branches is not for you, or steam is not your cuppa, then consider an infrared sauna. Infrared saunas still provide a range of health benefits from muscle joints and congestion to your private sanitary, right in your own home. There are various collections that suit your personality and your home.