The tradition of Banya in Russia has been around since the medieval times. Today, many still view Banya as a panacea, where sweating and health are synonymous. The essence of the Russian Banya is steam. Producing the right steam is crucial as Russians make a distinction between the light and dry steam or the thick and wet one. This is essentially what differentiates the Sauna from the Banya: the latter has wet, moist steam, while the former is based on hot, dry steam. I could not visit Russia without doing Banya as least once.
My host dad decided to take me to his favorite Banya in Listvyanka right next to Lake Baikal. We made a few stops to pick up a few items for our trip.
As it turns out, the bundle of branches and leaves are called Venik/Veniki (bath broom). A bath broom is typically made with the branches and leaves of a tree or shrub which secretes aromatic oils. The branches and leaves are then dried and tied around a wooden handle. The broom is used to massage a bather’s skin and generate heat. They help to ease muscle and joint pain after exercise and physical activity, clear skin rash, accelerate the healing of wounds and bruises, and have an overall calming effect on the body. Its main effect is the expansion of the bronchi to the steam in saunas, thus promoting discharge of phlegm and aiding lung function. I am not sure if all this is true, but one thing I can say is that I did feel much better after my time in the Banya. My skin felt clean and my overall experience did leave me in a zen-like state afterwards. The place where we were also aided in generating a feeling of relaxation.
The Banya itself was actually very relaxing and tranquil and had a very unique smell that just made everything come together. Also, there was tea made for us before we arrived so that only made me feel more welcomed.
This Banya was made up of 5 small rooms. The first room is just the entrance where there is a toilet if needed. The second room is the dinning room, sort of. It is also where you can undress and get comfortable. The third room is the wash room where you rinse off and prepare buckets of cold water. The fourth room is the Parilka which is lined with benches and houses a large stove with smoldering stones radiating heat, surrounded by large buckets of water and a giant ladle. A bather takes a ladle full of hot water and pours it directly onto the stones, immediately filling the room with hot, dense steam. The last room was similar to the first except with no bathroom and just led outside overlooking Lake Baikal.
Russians believe this process not only removes toxins but also cleanses the mind, relieving stress. I am not too sure about the toxins but it definitely relieved me of any stress I had at the time and helped with clearing my mind. Studying a new language everyday and being immersed in a new culture can be a bit overwhelming and exhausting. My trip to Banya was certainly refreshing.
Not everyone likes to eat while they are doing Banya but it was my first time and I was up for anything. The longer you can stay in the Banya, the better. Usually, once you’ve built up a good sweat, you head to the wash room to dump cold water on yourself or whoever is with you. The hot and cold contrast is a crucial element of a real Banya, and then it is back into the steam room. This process is repeated five to six times on each visit. Half way through the bath, the “flogging” starts. Using dried branches of Beryoza (white birch) or oak tree, previously soaked in hot water, the bathers lash their bodies repeatedly all over, until the skin turns a rosy glow. This process is repeated three times or more, using different branches. The objective of the lashing is to promote good circulation.
The Shapka (Cap) that I am wearing is to help protect my head from overheating. Not everyone wears them, but I found it interesting and decided to wear it for half my time in the Banya. For Russians, to fully experience the Banya you must be able to spare around two hours. After which, you’ll emerge scrubbed, polished, purged and totally relaxed. Russians view their visits to a Banya as both preventive and healing. For them it’s key to continued good health, especially with regards to circulatory and respiratory illnesses. Many Russians believe that the Banya is particularly important for preventive maintenance of good health and balance in the body.
My trip to the Banya was so great that I have gone back several times. Also, by engaging in this experience it has given me another subject in which to engage Russians in conversation. This is something that many Russians enjoy and being able to communicate my experience to them helps me to build rapport with whomever I am speaking to. I hope to visit the Banya a few more times before my time is up here and I would recommend this experience to everyone.
Until next time!