The joy of Russian banya

In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “Re-springing Your Step.”

With today’s prompt, the WordPress editors invite us to tell about the last experience we had that left us feeling fresh, energised, and rejuvenated. This sounds to me like a briefing to write about Russian banya!

What is Russian banya and what is so fantastic about it?

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After a good banya, nothing better than going naked in the snow. Here in front of my wooden hut at the Baikal lake, in February 2013. I put on a swimming suit just for the photo…

Like a sauna, but better

Most of you will know what a sauna is and probably have been in a sauna already. You know, this little wooden cabin filled with very hot air. What is specific about the Russian banya version is that the air is not just hot but also humid. Air suction and movements create steam that feels boiling hot.

Most datchas (countryside houses), have a banya in the garden. In the city, you can rent banyas with your friends but my favourite way is to visit a public banya and mingle with the locals. In Moscow, Bani na Presne is where I have my habits – I love it because it has a real, traditional steam room, as well as because none speaks English and I have never met other foreigners there.

The 3 key elements of banya: company, veniki and cold water

Having been initiated to sauna by Finns and Russians, I feel so frustrated whenever visiting one in Western Europe, as Westerners tend to see saunas as ‘zen’ relaxation areas – saunas are typically decorated with little light bulbs that replicate a starry sky, and it is not uncommon that it is forbidden to talk.

In the East, going to banya is a social activity. A perfect place to catch up with friends – in this sense, it is very similar to a hammam in Turkey (maybe I’ll write about my favourite Istanbul hammam sometime soon). But in case you wonder, yes we are naked in banya (but we do not mix genders; if we do so, in a private banya, we would typically wear swimming gear).

Veniki: here comes the fun. Veniki are brooms made of tree leaves (oak or birch – each to his own taste) that are used to whip all over the body. You can whip yourself, whip each other, or ask the banya’s lady to whip you. What is great about whipping with veniki is that it creates more steam, more burning air, and that feels so good. It is also believed to improve circulation and to exfoliate, and it smells lovely.

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Getting ready for banya, with birch veniki in my hand. I also wear a sauna hat to protect the head from the extreme temperatures.

 

After several minutes flagellation, the air is very, very hot and only the hardcore amongst us – usually some vigorous babushkas – can bear it. At this moment, it is fine to leave the steam room and rush for a delicious bath of cold water.

Most public banyas have a pool of cold water in which you can relax. Alternatively, you can splash yourself with a bucket of cold water. Most deliciously, in the countryside in winter time, you can simply go out and roll yourself in the snow. I am dying for an opportunity to jump into the icy waters of a frozen lake where a hole has been dug, but unfortunately I haven’t had the occasion to do so.

What matters at this stage is to let the body cool down, to relax, and to hydrate yourself (drinking tea), until the body feels ready to repeat the process.

C лёгким паром!

After leaving the banya, it is customary to congratulate each other for the light steam we just had: с лёгким паром!

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