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I admit that I was mildly terrified when my friend recommended that we go to the banya outside of his uncle’s house. I’m terrible with the heat, but I was lucky enough to have a good friend happy to explain the ins-and-outs of the Russian banya, one of the most unique experiences to have while you’re visiting Russia.
What is a banya and why should you visit a banya in Russia?
A banya (ба́ня) is a Russian bathhouse with a sauna that can be heated with wood or electric heat. The benches are typically made of wood with layers depending on how much heat you’re ready to take.
Outside, you’ll find a cold tap and/or a cold pool to dip into after you go inside the sauna part. It is a very traditional way that Russians warm up during the miserably cold winters. Many Russians see it as rejuvenating and invigorating.
Banya is widely considered to be a Russian tradition, so much so that it plays a pivotal role in several famous Soviet cinema movies, including The Irony of Fate (Enjoy Your Bath). When I asked my Russian friend about something that we had to do while in Russia, this was at the top of his list. It’s also a great way to connect with friendly Russians as the banya is a great time to chat with friends as well as strangers.
Even if you’re not the biggest fan of spas or saunas, there are a lot of traditions that come along with the banya. Most importantly, Russia in winter…is cold. The banya is a great way to warm your body up for the rest of day as well as relax (in my opinion).
You can find public banyas all over various Russian cities as well as in some major international cities (such as New York City), however many people have their own private banya. I experienced a private banya myself.
What do you wear in the banya and what happens in the banya!?
You don’t wear anything as it’s typical that you only go with friends of the same sex. If you’re somewhere with a private banya, it’s perfectly acceptable to go to the banya with your significant other. You might be given a sheet for some modesty as you sit between rounds.
Before you go inside, be sure to eat beforehand as you don’t want to pass out inside and to take a shower without soap before hand. Try to avoid getting your hair wet before you go inside.
You need someone who knows what they’re doing when it comes to setting up the banya. The banya can be heated to nearly 200 degrees Fahrenheit (93 degrees Celsius). Admittably, we went into the banya as it warmed up–and I was shocked at the degree of the humidity inside: up to 60%. Outside of the banya is cold water and it’s typical to throw a little cold water onto the hot rocks to create steam to make it easier to breathe in the air.
Once you’re inside of the banya, it’s polite to put a towel below where you’re sitting as the wood will be hot and it prevents your sweat from dripping everywhere. Although Russian banyas may have multiple steps, it’s good to remember the higher you go…the hotter it will get.
You know that it’s working as you might see sweat dripping off you. At this point, strangers might start hitting you with twigs as part of being friendly. If you’re new to banya, this is very confusing. (More about Russian banya accessories below…)
You’ll know when you’re ready to get outside of the banya. (To be fair, I lasted only about 8 minutes.) You need to be careful about how long you stay in the banya as some people make it into a contest into who can last the longest. You don’t want to faint, so you need to be mindful about your time inside.
Afterwards, you’ll want to rinse yourself with cold water as it works magic for your skin. We ended up using a ladle as the cold water was just too shockingly cold. Some people even jump naked into the snow afterwards to cool down! I struggled a bit with this part as the water that I used was freezing cold, but it really worked magic in terms of removing dead skin.
Afterwards, wrap yourself in your sheet (or a blanket)–and sip on some tea as you cool down. Once you’re ready, go for another round. I was told that most people do about three rounds. Basically, do a couple rounds of the banya until you feel just exhausted.
My overall banya experience…
I thought the banya would be romantic as it was just the two of us alone, but at least to me, it was pretty far from it. It was closer to a comedy with both Jacob and I sweating bullets and laughing at the same time. Simply, you sometimes need to embrace cultural experiences and go for it. After the banya, I was amazed at how amazingly smooth my skin was and how glowing my skin was.
The banya acessories
The venik is bundle of birch or oak tree twigs that has been neatly tied together. The twigs are often made from oak or birch. Depending on the type of tree, there are different benefits from the source material. Specifically, oak is said to have anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory properties to help with oily skin. Birch, a popular tree in Russia, is said to help with skin healing as well as breathing.
Moving the twigs against you (or a new friend) will add to the air flow that will help your body warm up more rapidly. It’s said that it also improves blood circulation although many people find it relaxing and helpful for relieving joint/muscle pain.
The felt hat
The felt hat is a traditional accessory as it serves an important role: to prevent your body temperature from getting too warm by insulating your head from the head. I found it silly, but adorable to wear.
I was first very put off at the idea of drinking a warm beverage after taking going into the banya. Although a beer sounds cool, it will dehydrate you. Tea is the traditional banya beverage in Russia and it’s nice to have a bit of caffeine after the tiring effect of the banya.
[learn_more caption=”Read more about our time in Russia” state=”open”]
- One day in Sergiev Posad
- How to get a Russian visa as an American
- How to learn the Cyrillic alphabet [/learn_more]