Monday, April 22, 2013

Russian Banya

I've decided it is perfectly appropriate to coincide the resurrection of the blog with all you need to know to enjoy a Russian banya. After all, the banya, like saunas and sweat-lodges from many a culture, are linked to an expelling of toxins and bad spirits and a rejuvenation of the mind and body. Also, seems appropriate for spring, no?

I will preface all that I'm telling you here, by saying that I am in no way a banya expert. I have been only 4 times. Once in a rural dacha, in solitude, and thrice in a large public banya in Moscow, which was definitely not solitudinous. (new word!) Most recently, I took Sadie with me for her first time. More on that later.

What to bring:

towel (or 2): one for use in sauna and the other for when you are all done and showered. You could also probably just rent one from the banya, and not have to lug it with you there and back.

robe: for lounging pre- and post-sauna, or to wear in sauna, as you desire.

sandals/ flip-flops: necessary!

any scrubs/face masks/ moisturizers you like: now is the time to give yourself a pampering!

lip balm: to help keep lips moist and help them not feel like they are bursting into flames.

felt hat: you can probably buy one at the banya. Hair towel works too. You want to cover your head to control your body temperature. This is a must.

snack of oranges, or apple, or honey: perfect energizing food for between trips into the sauna.

clean underwear: for after.

The procedure: (this applies only to the large city banyas, and more specifically to the one in Moscow near 1905 Goda Metro)

First things first: go into the entrance for your gender.

After checking your coat and paying, you are ushered to a lounge area. You casually disrobe and put on either your robe or a towel. Now is when you want to order some tea, and perhaps some white honey, to be eaten straight from the spoon. The tea will steep while you take your first sauna. You are sure to have noticed by now that it is literally no big deal to be nude. If you are still feeling uncomfortable, get over it. No one cares how old, or flabby, or muscular, or perky, or if those are real or not. Well, probably no one.

So, you take your hat, your scrubs and towel and go into what I think of as the "wet room." Here you get a bucket for your stuff, hang up whatever covers you, and shower off before your first sauna. There is an attendant who is in charge of the sauna and they will announce when it is time to enter the sauna.

I like to bring my towel in to the sauna with me to sit on. Keep your flip-flops on. Make sure you have your hat on. This is probably another time you would get scolded by a babushka for not wearing adequate head gear. Find a spot. Stay lower on your first time, progressing higher in the sauna each round.

When you hear "glasnost" close your eyes. Or, when you see the super-talented sauna-woman start slinging water about, close your eyes. Next the super sauna woman will stoke the fire with water. Oh, yea, now it's starting to feel warm. If you see women raising their hands, it's to check the heat. Try it. You will see why you don't sit up high for your first round.

Then the super sauna woman will circulate the heat by swinging a towel, bringing the heat down. Let it rest on your shoulders and take away your stress. (you know, of moving, and home leave, and moving, and did I mention moving???)

She will then do the most blessed part. She will sprinkle you again with her ladles of water (close your eyes!) and issue a blessing for you to have a good sauna (or whatever you think she might be saying- here is when it helps to not understand the language. For example, she could be saying, "may your sauna bring you health, beauty and vitality" or "saunas make you pretty and young!") The appropriate reply is "spasiba."

She might stir the heat again before she leaves you all to sit and sweat away your evil toxins.

And sweat you will. It will flow, at first a trickle, then like a sponge being gently squeezed, painless, free-flowing water. This is my favorite part. Sweet mint and eucalyptus scented air, thick with steam. The weight and lightness dance about my skin, my mind. I feel a release- from pressures, from everything.

After some minutes the ladies up highest will begin their migration out; stay as long as you like, but do be sure to leave before you feel dizzy.

Here's an important detail: don't leave the sauna door ajar.

When you've had enough, you exit the sauna and briefly rinse in the shower before going for a swim in the pool. Don't dip your toe in, do hold your ta-tas as you enter, and then go for it. Now that's a sensation!

You can dry off a little, go back to the lounge area and sip some tea and chat with your girlfriends while you wait for the next go round. At this point, you are all bonded in a special way. The small booth of the banya lounge acts as a kind of confessional and there is an understanding that what's uttered in that small space is probably best left there.

After your second round, you might like to go to the shower with your scrubs and exfoliate. The traditional scrub is made of coffee grounds, which looks pretty interesting, though I've never tried it.

After your third round, you might do a face mask and have a snack.

If you were wanting to be beaten with the birch branches, you will probably do that during your third round or so.  What!? You don't want to be beaten with birch branches?! Sure you do. At least once. Your body becomes more acclimated to the heat with each session in the sauna. You sweat more easily and can handle the higher, hotter levels. The birch beating improves circulation, and increases the heat directly above the skin. Feels.... interesting. At the banya I go to, you hire the person who beats you (she is very talented!) and pay for the branches and beating separately. I think you can also do it yourself, but since I don't speak Russian, I couldn't verify for you. You can ask for those things at the desk and they will arrange it for you, letting the dried branches soak in hot water while you take your first few saunas.

If you decide to do the beating, you'll probably want to take a quick jump into the tall wooden barrel holding water that is so cold I actually don't know how they make it that cold. And deep. Now that has a slight suffocating effect, but also creates a strange tingling sensation upon exiting.

I like to lie on the top of the sauna during the third or fourth round. I think it makes me less dizzy than sitting up.

Last time I was there I saw many women doing the downward dog. I don't know why.

Once you've done as much as you wanted, you can shower off and get dressed, pay your bill, and go about your day. It takes me about 2.5 hours to do a good banya experience, and another hour or more to stop at a restaurant on the way home and eat a lot of food. Banya makes you HUNGRY!

I went over last weekend and noticed there were several girls there with their moms and grandmas. How nice is that? Sadie already had a hat and likes hot baths, so I thought her initiation was due. We invited friends (another mom and daughter) and enjoyed the banya all together. Sadie had a great time, especially swimming in the pool and the scent of the sauna air, and using special scrubs. Oh, and they really loved snacking on jelly beans and honey!

Sadie & I ready for the sauna!

Of course, when Travis and Thomas heard how great and uniquely Russian the banya is, they decided to go as well. They also had a blast. They went during the week when it wasn't crowded at all. They report that the procedure is pretty much the same, but that the men's section is more convivial, with plenty of rousting about and jesting. The men come and go freely from the sauna, with someone occasionally stoking the fire, and they each have their branches to beat themselves or each other with. They also don't sit near the bottom at all, but head straight up to the platform and stay there for quite a while.

Several of the men spoke English and were pleased and surprised to learn it was the boys' first time at the banya.

Probably it is not the last, for any of us. And Helen? Well, she likes to say, "when I am a big girl like Sadie I will go to the banya!" I hope so, baby girl.


  1. С лёгким паром!

    And I'm so glad you're blogging again!

  2. Sounds awesome. I am impressed that you ventured out to one. I speak Russian and they intimidate me! But maybe I'll follow your lead and try the banyas here. I'm also happy to read your blog again. Keep it up!

  3. Thanks for your account! That's certainly an interesting sauna experience. The birch beating might sound strange, but I do agree that it does make sense to improve your overall circulation. Getting into saunas more often is certainly recommended, given the numerous health benefits. Not to mention how relaxing it can be despite the heat.

    iHealth Saunas

  4. Hi there! I had a question for you and was wondering if you could email me back to discuss?

    Thanks and have a great day!


    ariannapierce2 (at) gmail (dot) com


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