Destinations \ Russian Banya
The Banya -- or Russian steam bath is as integral to Russian culture as vodka. You probably have heard about banya many times, but don't really understand how or why it works or why Russians place such importance on their weekly trip to a banya.
First, a clarification. The banya is not what a majority of people know as a "sauna or steam bath". It's also unrelated to the spa, or hot tub. It's rather a combination of the two, plus a few uniquely Russian aspects thrown in such as what produces steam and what accessories used for accelerating steam and softening the skin.
Russians regard their visits to a banya as key to continued good health and as a remedy to poor health, especially with regard to circulatory and respiratory illnesses. They are very, very serious about the banya. They have been a part of Russian culture since medieval times. Almost every village home had -- and still has -- its own banya. These private banyas range from about the size of a large walk-in closet to several rooms. Every small town has a communal banya and the larger cities have many available to the public for small fees.
The larger questions are: Just what is a banya and why are they so important in Russian culture? The best way to explain the answers to both of those questions is to take the reader step-by-step, through the banya experience. In words, anyway! Here we go...
Sometime around noon, the keeper of the banya (this may be the owner of the property or a government worker) loads a huge wood stove directly behind the steam room of the banya, which is a one-story wood structure, approximately 600 square feet. He starts the fire and waits. Few hours later, in the afternoon the fire has grown quite, quite hot, and people start to arrive (Friday is a favorite time for a weekly banya... but every day is far too intense). Men and women attend a banya separately, never together, unless it is a family banya. They pay the banya keeper his fee and enter the "predbannik" (or dressing room). Here they remove their clothing and hang it on racks or shelves. This room also has a table and in the corner a shower stall, both of which will be used a little while later. Most people come to the same banya week after week for years, so usually everyone knows everyone, especially in a small town. Social greetings are exchanged, and then everyone enters the "parilka" (or steam room).
Inside this room are benches arranged bleacher-style, going up at least three levels. Across from the benches are large stones, radiating with heat, and also large buckets of water and a huge dipper, or ladle. One person takes a ladle full of hot water -- another person minds the door, because they have been known to be blown open by the steam -- and dashes the hot water onto the stones. The room immediately fills with hot steam. The inexperienced run for cover and no one but the truly experienced remain on the upper benches. Everyone feels their pores open instantly, and a week's worth of toxins begin to be sweated out. The truly novice may need to make a quick exit at this point. This is a powerful moment, and Russians believe this process not only removes toxins but also relieves stress.
In a bucket of hot water, just ten minutes before, participants placed dried branches from the "beryoza" (white birch) or oak trees or sometimes even pine tree, and these branches have softened, their leaves are like new again. Amazingly, participants take these branches and beat themselves repeatedly -- all over their bodies until everyone has a rosy glow. They may do this three times or more, with different branches. This is all done in the pursuit of good circulation (so is drinking vodka, though!). Participants are indeed rewarded with at least temporary good circulation.
Now it is time to return to the dressing room. Wrapped in white sheets, for about 20 minutes, people socialize in the dressing room. Some people have tea, or beer. Some people chat, play chess, whatever. Then, it's time for round two. Everyone returns to the banya and the process is repeated. Most people go through the routine three times, some less, some more.
After the final round, if the banya is in a small town or village, the tradition is to go outside and swim in the lake or river (banyas are frequently built near these, for this purpose) or if it's winter, a roll in the snow. For city dwellers who don't want to risk arrest for indecent exposure, or for the modest -- a cold pool or shower in the dressing room must suffice.
The result of these efforts is the feeling of renewal and complete relaxation.
Here is how it is described by one of the recent Sokol travelers:
"...we tried out the baths in Moscow and that was a highlight of the trip. Be sure to bring shampoo and various personal care products to take full advantage of the visit. Woman should also bring some kind of hair covering because the dry sauna is not great for the hair. The Russian women there were very helpful in shepherding us through the process. Do you know they slather their bodies in used coffee grounds as an exfoliant procedure? Smells great and looks strange..."
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