Russian Sauna (Banya) Traditions
Russian Sauna (Banya) Traditions
No matter if you started visiting sauna recently or have been a loyal fan of it for years, you probably know that sauna traditions, such as we know today, derive from practices dozens of centuries ago. Even though they seem to appear in various cultures at the same time, people adapted the customs to their own environments and needs. Such were Russians who developed their own bathing culture which is deeply rooted in their Russian identity, remaining a particularly popular tradition until today. How much do you know about Russian sauna, also known as banya, and its traditions?
There is a number of aspects that can be covered when talking about banya. Particularly high temperature inside the small room, lashing yourself with oak or birch twigs, jumping into the snow after heating to the maximum are only several things by which Russian sauna can be described. We will cover the most important of them in this article – from the history of banya to the practical advice of how to have the best experience at banya. Chances are, you will find it hard to resist!
Banya: An Ancient Russian Tradition
The very word banya means as it is easy to guess, a bathhouse. Even though any kind of sauna or bath is called banya in Russia (or some Slavic speaking countries, too) these days, the very word originates either from Greek or Latin. Majority of linguists believe that it can be of Greek origin and means “cleansing one‘s body with the help of steam“. Others claim it could derive from the Latin word balneum which carries a similar idea of relief: “something that makes pain and sadness go away“.
Despite the linguistic origin, banyas have been known in Russia and its lands long before Russia had even been mentioned in the 9th century. Hot bathing has ancient roots in the Russian tradition. For example, the great Greek historian Herodotus first mentioned the custom and cleansing oneself with the help of hot steam in Russian lands. He was describing some customs of Scythians, an ancient Eurasian tribe which lived in current Southern Siberia. Herodotus carefully defined their custom to have a tent specifically for a purpose to create and maintain the heat there. According to him, Scythians poured water on hot stones to cause heavy steaming. Banya has well established into Russian culture and has been mentioned a number of times through various historical works.
It is well known that Russian emperor Peter the Great was particularly fond of banyas. It was under his order that St. Petersburg‘s citizens were allowed to build their own saunas without paying taxes for them. He also encouraged building public banyas which people could attend on certain days of the week. That already differentiated Russia from other European countries at that time as hot baths and steaming was considered a privilege of the rich only.
Today, banya still is very popular in Russia and is often included in family gatherings, bachelor parties or other kinds of social meetings.
What Is Peculiar About Russian Banya?
The main part of banya is called parilka in Russian. parilka is a small steamed room which maintains all the heat. Before going to parilka, banya‘s visitors have to remove their clothes and wash properly – there are rooms for that, too. Note that in Russian tradition men and women go to banya separately. Men usually go first as they usually can take stronger heat, and women follow. It is quite often for them to have a separate section at the banya, too.
The temperature at banya is quite extreme – usually, it reaches around 70 °C – 80 °C. Russians have designed special hats to protect their heads from the heat. You might have seen some of them on funny YouTube videos about Russian traditions – their shape and style vary from militaristic with Russian army symbols, to bears or decorated with animation characters. These hats are usually made out of felt which is a good insulator and protects the head from overheating. Wearing hat makes banya experience much better as without it head tends to heat much faster than the rest of the body, especially when lying and standing. It then becomes much harder to stand the heat without protecting the head.
Lashing in Parilka Where Nobody Gets Hurt
One of the things that set Russian banya apart from the other sauna experiences in the world, is their custom to use special brooms for lashing. This tradition which was also mentioned by Herodotus has been cultivated for ages. The broom or vennik in Russian is a bunch of birch or oak twigs that are used for lashing one‘s body in the room of the heat: perilka. That is done after you have spent some time in perilka and your body has relaxed. Before using, vennik is soaked into hot water and held there for around 10-15 to become softer. Banya specialists claim that it is the best to be lashed in the horizontal lying position. According to them, blood circulation becomes even and all the parts of the body are properly nurtured.
Contrary to what you might think, nobody whips anyone till blood appears. Even though it might have been a case a thousand years ago (people were much rougher, right), it‘s nowhere even close to it these days. Lashing with vennik is usually done by your friend or partner with whom you came to banya. However, if you are alone, it is very common and acceptable to ask other people who are with you at perilka to do some lashing for you. Keep in mind that vennik is considered to be a tool for massage. If you feel painful or uncomfortable during lashing, you should ask to stop or to slow down. There is no need to suffer pain as it‘s definitely not the purpose of vennik!
Bathing in Snow after Extreme Heat
Another thing popular in Russian banya tradition is bathing in the snow after the entire parilka ritual. As you can understand, the temperature difference for a body is quite extreme – from around 70 °C in parilka to -10 °C or even more in less than a minute. If there is no snow, you can jump into cold water pool or at least take a cold shower. However, snow is considered to be the best as its temperature is much lower than any liquid water.
The whole banya procedure is repeated several times and can last from a half to several hours. During the break, it is common (and advised) to drink herbal teas or water in order to maintain the proper balance of liquids and not to experience dehydration which can happen because of excessive sweating. The social aspect is important, too – during the breaks of heating or cooling down, the visitors of banya usually discuss political and social issues, and get to know each other better. Banya as a place for meetings has been used for centuries and included the highest ranking people in the country, such as emperors.
Why Should You Try Russian Banya?
Russian banya is highly popular not because of its cleaning effect but also because of its positive impact on health. It has been known for centuries that banya is a healthy activity. Excessive heat and alteration between hot and cold stimulate heart work and blood circulation which detoxify the body and its otherwise hard to reach parts like teeth or bones. Going to banya tones the entire body and strengthens the immune system, not to mention that it reliefs physical pain, reduces stress, can help with asthma symptoms and make the skin look healthier.
On the other hand, it is very important to go to banya only when you feel good, i.e. you don‘t feel any diseases like cold or fever. Banya is particularly not recommended for people who have had a heart attack as well as for those who suffer from vascular diseases or unbalanced blood pressure. You should not be drinking alcohol as it can result not only in certain diseases but also in sudden death.
With thousands of years of tradition, Russian banya is definitely something worth trying – at least once. Having its own customs as birch twig lashing or bathing in snow, Russian banya can be a unique experience even for those who are used to sauna. Russian banya just like other types of sauna can have a positive impact on health as long as it is used properly by a healthy person and all the precautions are considered carefully.