May 29, 2009

Russian sauna “Banya”: a peculiar side of Russian steam bathing and why Russians love it

Many Americans think that Russians are either masochists or sadists. Others think so too, except for the rare cultures of Korea, Finland and some parts of Western and Eastern Europe, like Bulgaria and Serbia, that have either similar bathing facilities and customs, or have adopted the “Russian” style of bathing decades ago.

Non-Russians always had a wrong idea about the Russian steam and sauna rooms. They think that Russians are a bunch of sadists and masochists, otherwise – how would you explain the wood (tree) branches Russian sauna’s patrons use to first heat up to the point when you can smell the wood evaporations and then use the heated branches to slap and beat all of a body up and down, top and bottom? And what amazes the non-Russians is the fact that Russians actually do enjoy the experience and they beg for more.

In Russia, ‘banya’ (sauna), from long time ago, was a place not to just come to relax and detox, but it was a place to cure – if you are sick with a cold, your Russian parents bring a child to banya. If you are missing your period – a Russian female comes to banya to help the blood flows. If you are with a very bad hangover – you come to banya to steam out the rest of the alcohol out of the system and clear the pores. A combination of extremely hot steams and tea, often served at a banya, help to clear body cells and sober up. That’s the magic some people do not grasp, but once exposed, want more.

Banya buildings can be quite large with a number of different bathing areas or simple wooden cabins, and can be quite small, as just a small cottage wood house, usually built by Russians on a territory of their summer houses, dachas. Some of the most traditional banyas can be seen in Russian villages with a true and most authentic experience of steaming up and then cooling at a local cold lake or pond in the summer, or by jumping all naked in winter.

Russian banyas usually have three rooms: a steam room, a washing room, and an entrance room. The entrance room, called a predbannik, or pre-bath, has pegs to hang clothing upon and benches to rest on. The washing room has a hot water tap, which uses water heated by the steam room stove, and a vessel or tap for cold water to mix water of a comfortable temperature for washing. The heater has three compartments: a fire box that is fed from the entrance room, the rock chamber, which has a small hole to throw the water into and a water tank at the top. The top of the water tank is usually closed to prevent vapor from infiltrating the banya, and water to be thrown on the rocks should be taken from the tank as this will make better steam than if cold water were used.

Most Russians believe the wood-burning stove is a better banya heater. Water from a bucket by the stove is poured over the heated rocks in the stove. There are wooden benches across the room from the stove. People enter the steam room when the stove is hot, but before water is poured on the rocks. Getting a good sweat on before using water is preferred to using steam right away, as the sweat is thought to protect and condition the skin from the steam.

While in a steam room, people often hit themselves or others with bunches of dried branches and leaves from white birch or other suitable trees in order to improve the circulation.

In summer, fresh branches are used. They have a short useful life and smell of cut grass. In winter, branches that have been dried and then moistened in hot water are used. It is important that the bushes have leaves, so they don't hurt when used.

While Russian banya (steam baths /sauna rooms) is still a mystery to the Americans, in Europe, during the 19th century, Russia and its steam baths were greeted with romance and intrigue. Europeans were amazed with the bathing habits of the Russians.

France and Germany were the most interested parties in the Russian banya. French people tended to be on a weaker (steam-tolerating) side and have not adopted Russian steam baths much, whereas Germans, on the other hand, embraced Russian banyas.

When Russians troops occupied Germany, the Russian soldiers, of course, could not live without having their beloved banyas, so they built them in short time. The first public banya was opened in Berlin in 1818. The King of Prussia said after visiting this bath: "The Russian people are supposed to be strong and healthy, and for that reason, I am sure that the dampbad (referring to banya) is of benefit."

The concept of a Russian bath spread quickly. Soon after Berlin opened the first banya, the rumors of “magic” medical power of banya spread out, and within ten years Russian baths appeared in more than twenty German cities, as well as in Lyon (France), Paris, Vienna, and Prague.

In America, the first Russian banyas appeared after the large immigration wave in 1930. First places opened in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco -wherever a high concentration of relocated Russian peasants existed.

Most often, Turkish baths like to host Russian baths, and often you can find similarities in Turkish bath traditions to the those of Russian banyas. Hence, Russian banya traditions have invaded America, and they are here to stay, as the Russian immigration grew threefold since the first one in the 30s.

There are a few Russian banyas I found in the American cities I lived in. So, if you happen to visit Los Angeles, you can find the closest replica to Russian banya at:

Voda Spa
Address: 7700 Santa Monica BlvdWest Hollywood, CA 90046. Phone: 323-654-4411.

If you happen to be in New York, Spa 88 is the most beloved among the Russians:

Spa 88
Address: 88 Fulton StNew York, NY 10038. Phone: 212-766-8600.

And if you are like me, residing in D.C., visit Spa World, opened 24 hours, which is Korean spa, but very close to Russian banya, minus the wood branches.
Address: 13830-A10 Braddock Road, Centreville, VA 20121. Phone: 703-815-8959.
If you know of any Russian-alike bathing facilities, I'd love to hear from you!

No comments: