A popular tradition in the Russian culture is the bathhouse or Russian banya (Russian bania). It involves steam, high heat, cold, and an invigorating beating with birch leaves and branches. The locations of the original type banyas are not easily found by foreigners, but placing a visit to a banya on your itinerary is highly recommended.
Many business negotiations in Russia take place in the relaxed atmosphere of the banya. It is a time honored activity and the love that the Russian people have for the banya is well documented.
The banya has not decreased in popularity today for many reasons. Traditionally, the banya was the common way for Russian villagers to cleanse the body, but the banya is also thought to have a powerful physiological effect on the entire organism. Researchers have found that the blood supply to the skin, muscles, and joints are notably improved after a visit to the banya. The body’s metabolism is increased considerably, the number of red blood cells and quantity of hemoglobin increases, the overall oxygen level increases and impurities are purged. The banya assists in eliminating toxins from the body and improves circulation of the blood.
The word banya derives from Latin balneum, which means ‘to chase out pain’. The benefits of banyas and saunas were the subject of ancient philosophers such as Aristotle and Hypocrites.
There are two major types of traditional banyas: The Russian Banya and the Roman Banya. Today many variations of both can be found. In the Roman Banya, the air is hot and dry, while in a Russian Banya hot and moist conditions are found.
The Russian steam banya normally reaches 80 to 100% humidity. The banya is not recommended for those that suffer cardiovascular diseases, hypertension, pulmonary tuberculosis or diseases of the skin or other transmittable diseases.
Russian banyas are gaining popularity in many parts of the world. Many manufacturers of personal home units offer many different styles to choose from that are centered around the traditional banya.
The use of certain herbs in the water of the banya is thought to magnify the effect of the banya experience. Many believe that the banya is particularly important for preventive maintenance of the health and balance of the body. Popular herbs used in the banya may consist of any combination of the leaves of the currant, raspberries, and rosebuds.
The basic procedure in using the banya is centuries old. Visitors are cautioned to remember that bodily response to the banya and time in the steam and the cold is different for each individual.
Prior to a visit to the Banya, it is necessary to wash by warm water. However, dry hair is thought to protect the head from the heat. A recommendation for someone new to the banya experience to keep the head from overheating is to wear a woolen cap on the head, and prior to each banya session, wet this cap with cold water.
It is, of course, necessary to gradually get used to the heat of the banya upon entering. Several minutes are necessary to become acclimated and, initially, the banya patron should remain standing. Banya temperatures are not constant and may vary by as much as fifteen degrees so care should be taken at all stages. After becoming acclimated, the patron my sit or lie down allowing the muscles and the mind to become relaxed.
An integral part of the Russian banya is the birch broom. The leaves of the birch branch add to the experience and, used properly, provide the perfect massage to compliment the effects of the humidity of the banya.
For those new to the banya, the time in the banya should not exceed five to ten minutes. After the heat phase, many take an icy cold shower or immerse themselves in an icy water bath but not placing the head under the cold water. In winter, many hardy banya veterans will leave the banya and immerse themselves in a snow bank.
Especially for newcomers to the banya, it is important to enter the banya or increase the heat and steam gradually. In some banyas, finding a higher seat will allow increasing the heat and steam and a lower seat for somewhat cooler temperatures. Equally important is leaving the heat and steam of the banya gradually. It is best to not hurry to have a cold shower or immerse in cold water and the showers of the newcomers could be limited to room temperature. The newcomer may wish to gradually reduce the temperature of the water in the shower. Similarly, it is best to not drink extremely cold water. To many hardy banya veterans, the gradual temperature change is not necessary.
The cold water provides a desired contrast with the temperature of the steam and produces a quenching effect. Some time relaxing in a waiting room wrapped in a sheet after a cool or cold shower is recommended. Many choose to repeat the steam heat / birching / cooling experience several times and re-enter the banya after about a fifteen minute rest period.
Participating in this uniquely Russian tradition will be an unforgettable part of your introduction to the Russian culture.