The Russian Banya

The Russian “Banya” Can Make You Feel Reborn

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The Russian Banya has for many years been an important aspect of Russian culture. Essentially, a banya is the Russian version of a conventional steam or sauna room, even though the term might also be used to refer to a bathhouse. Keep reading to find out how the banya can make you feel reborn and why it has increasingly become popular over the years.

What is a Russian Banya?

The Russian banya is a type of steam sauna that’s heated on the stove. It’s an old tradition that has been around for many centuries. Technically, steam bathing is great for good health and relaxation and a great place to spend time with colleagues, family, or friends. It’s pretty popular among the Russians.

Key Takeaways – The Russian Banya

  • The Russian banya is very similar to a steam bath
  • Banyas have for many years been associated with relaxation, good health, and a perfect way to socialize which bypasses the normal boundaries, by creating an atmosphere of friendship and openness.
  • As a great symbol of hospitality, guests are offered a great banya experience.
  • Veniks are besons that are made of dried herb or tree branches
  • “White Banyas” were banyas with stone stoves that had chimneys
  • Modern banyas include an entrance room, a washing room, and a steam room.

History of the Russian banya

The word banya was first mentioned in the “Primary Chronicle” commonly known as “Tale of Bygone Years” and covers the origins of the Slavs from biblical times until it was written.

The Early Slavs utilized the house stoves as banyas. The stoves were about 1.5 meters deep and approximately 0.5 meters wide, usually large enough to properly accommodate several family members. After they had finished cooking, the Slavs then cleaned the inside of these stoves and then lined the stoves with straw and hay before they got in and continue to enjoy the warmth. A water bucket was then placed in the stove and the people inside sprinkled water in the stove’s ceiling, thus creating steam.

As the years passed, people started building multi-purpose banyas. Initially, these didn’t have any chimney and large stones were heated to generate warmth. After the desired heat is reached, doors and windows are opened to allow the smoke out before the banya is ready for us. This was referred to as a “black banya” because of the high amount of soot and smoke, which remained on the ceiling and walls.

Eventually, stone stoves with exhaust pipes were invented; this helped prevent the smoke from filling the inside. This type of bathing was known as the “white banya”.

During winter, people would come out of the banya and immediately get into the snow to cool them down before getting back inside the banya. The banyas were built on the riverbanks so that the bathers could easily get into the water to cool down.

While the Russian banya are considered to be tough to withstand, in the real sense, the temperatures are lower than in the Finnish Sauna and is maintained at between 60° to 90°, with the humidity maintained at between 50% and 90%, making it similar to the western steam room. The additional aspect of getting lashed with the venik (tree or herb branches), creates the impression that the Russian banyas are strenuous.

Using a Russian banya

A Russian banya has steam or hot room, an entrance room, and a washing room.

A visitor starts by taking a hot shower and then completely drying their skin before entering the hot room. People use a felt hat to prevent the hair and head from overheating. After about 10 minutes, and once your body is warm, you can use cold water to cool off and then get back into the steam room. Visitors repeat this a few times until they are well relaxed. On the third visit to the hot room, visitors use the venik to lash themselves in the chest, back, legs and arms or ask another person to lash them.

Hot herbal tea and snacks are usually served in an entrance room where visitors can relax with their friends between visits to the steam room.

Using The Venik

The venik is a besom made of herb or tree branches. The most commonly used veniks are made from pine, nettle, eucalyptus, oak, juniper, and birch. Incase a venik is made out of dried branches; it’s then placed in some water at the beginning of the session for between 10 and 15 minutes. Once ready, a venik is then used to lash the body, massage it and release essential oils. Water that’s left from soaking a venik is used to rinse the skin and hair.

Russian Banya Etiquette

Today, Russian banyas are divided into women and men areas. Swimwear isn’t used and all visitors get naked and wrap themselves with towels.

It’s customary for visitors to exchange lashings with other guests or friends unless there’s a professional banya worker who does that.

Cultural Significance

Banyas are very important to the Slavic culture that many people had built their own banyas next to their houses. Villages or whole families bathed together, children, women, and men in the same area. Visitors or guests were offered the banya as a hospitality symbol. Weekends, especially Saturdays were bathing days and many families heated the banyas at least once a week.

Today, many Russians still visit a banya at least once a week. Also, the ritual is very popular with politicians, businessmen, and celebrities who often interact and socialize in the Russian banyas. Most public banyas, like the popular Sandouny, offer lavish feasts and private rooms to their visitors, making the banya visit a very special experience.

As mentioned earlier, the Russian banyas have for many years been associated with a good way to socialize, relax and maintain good health that creates an atmosphere of friendship and openness.

References

Leonov, T. (n.d.). The significance of the Russian ‘banya’. BBCpage. https://www.bbc.com/travel/article/20200803-russias-beloved-healing-ritual

Smale, W. (2015, March 23). The Russian massage that’s not for the faint-hearted. BBC News. https://www.bbc.com/news/business-31921778

Staff, R. (2020, February 17). Russians in cold sweat with mobile saunas for rent. U.S. https://www.reuters.com/article/russia-sauna/russians-in-cold-sweat-with-mobile-saunas-for-rent-idUSL8N2AH1UJ

 

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