By Cheryl Rychkova
The Banya -- or Russian sauna as it is usually, and improperly translated -- is as integral to Russian culture as vodka and balilaikas. Most of us Western-types have heard of the banya but don't really understand how or why it works or why Russians place such importance on their weekly trip to a banya.
First, a clarification. The banya is not what a majority of people know as a "sauna" -- that is to say, hot, dry heat in a small, wood-lined room. It's also unrelated to the spa, or hottub. It's rather a combination of the two, plus a few uniquely Russian aspects thrown in.
Russians regard their visits to a banya as key to continued good health and as a remedy to poor health, especially with regard to circulatory and respiratory illnesses. They are very, very serious about the banya. I don't know how it is that Russians living abroad manage to live without them...but to hear them reminice, it's enough to make one want to build one in the back yard. When you finish reading this article, you may want to do just that. Banyas have been a part of Russian culture since medieval times. Almost every village home had -- and still has -- its own banya. These private banyas range from about the size of a large walk-in closet to several rooms. Every small town has a communal banya and the larger cities have many available to the public. It's cheap, too -- about 40 cents (U.S.).
All of this information means little to westerners, however. The larger questions are: Just what is a banya and why are they so important in Russian culture? The best way to explain the answers to both of those questions is to take the reader step-by-step, through the banya experience. In words, anyway! Here we go...
Sometime around 12 noon, the keeper of the banya (this may be the owner of the property or a government worker)loads a huge wood stove directly behind the steam room of the banya, which is a one-story wood structure, approximately 600 square feet. He starts the fire and waits. By four p.m. the fire has grown quite, quite hot, and people start to arrive (Friday is a favorite time for a weekly banya...every day is far too intense). Men and women attend a banya separately, never together, unless it is a family banya. They pay the banya keeper his fee and enter the predbannik -- or dressing room. Here they remove their clothing and hang it on racks or shelves. This room also has a table and in the corner a shower stall,both of which will be used a little while later. Most people come to the same banya week after week for years, so usually everyone knows everyone, especially in a small town. Social greetings are exchanged, and then everyone enters the parilka -- or "steam room."
Inside this room are benches arranged bleacher-style, going up at least three levels. Across from the benches are large stones, radiating with heat, and also large buckets of water and a huge dipper, or ladle. One person takes a ladle full of hot water -- another person minds the door, because they have been known to be blown open by the steam -- and dashes the hot water onto the stones. The room immediately fills with hot steam. The inexperienced run for cover and no one but the truly experienced remain on the upper benches. Everyone feels their pores open instantly, and a week's worth of toxins begin to be sweated out. The truly novice may need to make a quick exit at this point. This is a powerful moment, and Russians believe this process not only removes toxins but also relieves stress. But there's more.
In a bucket of hot water, just ten minutes before, participants placed dried branches from the beriozha (white birch) or oak trees and these branches have softened, their leaves like new again. Amazingly, participants take these branches and beat themselves repeatedly -- all over their bodies until everyone has a rosy glow. They may do this three times or more, with different branches. This is all done in the pursuit of good circulation (so is drinking vodka, though!). Participants are indeed rewarded with at least temporary good circulation.
Now it is time to return to the dressing room...but not for long. For about 20 minutes, people socialize in the dressing room. Some people have tea, or beer -- seldom will you see vodka here (my Russian husband says anyone would be a fool to drink vodka whilst at banya. "It could kill you," he said.)Some people chat, play chess, whatever. Despite published reports that drinking and chess goes on in the steam room, none of this is permitted, and no one would probably want to, anyway! Then, it's time for round two. Everyone returns to the banya and the process is repeated. Most people go through the routine three times, some less, some more.
After the final round, if the banya is in a small town or village, the tradition is to go outside and swim in the lake or river (banyas are frequently built near these, for this purpose) or if it's winter, a roll in the snow. For city dwellers who don't want to risk arrest for indecent exposure, or for the modest -- a cold shower in the dressing room must suffice.
The result of these efforts? For most, the feeling of renewal, the return of a spring in one's step, total relaxation. Most people return home and relax for a couple of hours. Some even go to bed for a while and nap. If this description has inspired you, there are plans to build a banya available on the Internet. Not a bad idea to look into...and the resulting relaxation is well worth it!