The Russian Banya!


Going to the Banya (Sauna) is a well-aged Russian custom. Even during the medieval times it was seen as a universally popular and national past-time. To not bathe in a banya at least three times a week was practically taken as sheer evidence of foreign origins.
Most villagers in Russia had a bathhouse (also known as a sauna in today’s world) and every noble household had its own steam house as well. Another important even called a communal bath was held at many towns and villages where men and women sat steaming themselves, beating one another with veniks (bundled twigs) and rolling around together in the snow. Peter the Great attempted to stamp out the banya as a relic of medieval Russia and encouraged the building of Western bathrooms in the palaces and mansions of St. Petersburg. Despite heavy taxes placed on the traditional Russian Sauna, noblemen continued to prefer the elder, well aged Russian bath and by the end of the eighteenth century, nearly every palace in St. Petersburg had one.
Going to the bathhouse often was, and is regarded as a way of getting rid of many illnesses. It was called the “people’s first doctor” (vodka was the second, raw garlic the third). There were also a variety of magical beliefs associated with it in folklore. To go to the banya was to give both your body and your soul a good cleaning and it was the custom to perform this purge as a part of important rituals. The bathhouse was the place for the ritual pre-marriage bathe as well as for the delivery of babies. It was warm and clean and private, in a series of bathing rituals that lasted forty days, it purified the mother from the bleeding of birth.

The banya’s role in prenuptial rituals was also to ensure the woman’s purity: the bride was washed in the banya by her maids on the eve of her wedding. It was a custom in some places for the bride and the groom to go to the bath house before their wedding night. These were not just peasant rituals however; they were shared by the provincial nobility and even by the court in the final decades of the seventeenth century. This intermingling of pagan bathing rites with Christian rituals was equally pronounced as the “Clean Monday”. On these holy days it was customary for the Russian family to clean the house, washing all the floors, clearing out the cupboards, purging the establishment of any rotten or unholy foods, and then, when this was all done, to visit the bath house and clean the body.

During the next few hundred years that led into the modern times, almost all of the old rituals and traditions have died out. However, one thing remains true: banya is as popular as ever. With the fall of the Soviet Union and the proof of health benefits of steam bathing, the banya steadily and continually makes its way into the Western Culture and is a highly desirable form of a sauna.

Banya Tips

If you can, grab a venik and prepare it by soaking in a bucket of hot water for at least 10-20 minutes. Utilize a towel to sit on in the steam room. If you have a sauna hat, and we advise that you do, wear it as you enter the steam room for the first round. Good manners require that you quickly close the sauna door behind you. The first round is just a warm-up, so don’t push yourself just yet. You may choose a higher bench if you desire a hotter experience or a lower level bench for a more moderate temperature. Sit or lay on the bench as desired as comfortable. Please be sure to leave steam room as soon as feeling of heat becomes slightly uncomfortable and cool off by preferably taking a dip into the cold plunge, by taking a shower, swimming, or by just sitting down in normal room temperature. Allow at least 5-10 minutes of resting time.

Enter again. You are now ready for the venik. It is highly recommended that anyone bathing at Banya brings an acquaintance for purposes such as the venik massage etcetera. The venik technique can become rather sophisticated, in its simplest form it is just a rhythmic and gentle waggling. After soaking, the leafs and branches become soft and provides the most pleasant tingling sensation for your massage. The venik massage is not for everyone, many prefer their sauna stay without it. Sweating alone is by all means still affective in its own way. Please do not hesitate to push it a bit but when you feel that conditions are too hot to tolerate, go out and take a cold shower (A garden hose is used most of the times). In Winter take a dive in the snow! Ice-cold water comes as a bit of a shock to the body. To experience the Russian bath to the fullest, consider enduring it. Allow a cold plunge in duration of 10 to 60 seconds.  The fantastic tingling sensation of your skin will make indicative that you have done it all. Allow 5-10 minutes after exiting cold conditions before re-entering the hot conditions of the sauna.

Relax and then repeat the hot-cold cycle as many times as comfortable. Bathers usually do five to six rounds, but acknowledging how you feel physically is absolutely essential to alleviate all risk of unfortunate happenings caused by your stay.

Since sweating may continue even for a little while after finishing bath, allow enough time for cooling off prior to redressing into clean clothing. Also, try avoiding cold conditions since the body is in a more “sensitive” state after the bath than normal.

Many common errors include:

• Do not drink alcohol prior to or while bathing. Alcohol and heat have a cumulative effect, greatly increasing the load on the heart.

• Cold drinks slow down the sweating. Drink hot tea instead. (The key is to sweat as much as possible)
• Do not over eat prior to bathing. Heat makes the blood rush from internal organs to the skin and for proper digestion the very contrary of this is needed
• Exercise caution if your health is not at its best.
• Please be sensible while throwing water on the stones inside the stove. Too much water may actually work against desired conditions.
• Try to lie while in a steam room. If you stand or sit, the difference in temperature between your head and feet may be quite dramatic and may cause overheating to your head or cause feet to feel too cold: this may result in dehydration or a common cold.


What is a “venik”?
An essential part of Russian bath is the Venik – a leafy, fragrant bundle of  birch or oak tree twigs. Venik massage in Russian bath plays a significant role in your sauna stay. It improves blood circulation, intensifies skins capillary activities and metabolism. Venik leaves release phytoncides – a biologically active substance that kills or depresses the growth and development of pathogens. Essential oils released by the Venik also help to improve metabolism and prevent premature aging of the skin.
Venik massage (Platza techniques)

The Venik has to be properly prepared before use. It must be soaked for a minimum of 20 minutes in warm water, followed by 10 minutes in hot water until the leafs become soft. A good Venik should last you several lashing sessions, but the loss of many leafs and twigs indicates the need for a new one. There are several Venik massage techniques. These include: waggling, compression, stroking, lashing, rubbing and stretching. Our recommended approach would be to carry out these techniques one after another to discover the technique most desirable.

Waggling: lightly flutter the Venik just above the body, gently touching the skin with the tips of leaves. This creates an air flow that warms up the body and prepares it for more intense procedures.

Stroking: gently press the Venik against the body in a long wavy motion, draw the Venik from neck to toes and back to the neck, repeat. The Venik’s handle should always be ahead of the bundle while in motion.

Compression: raise Venik up where the temperature is higher, shake for a moment to gather the heat, firmly press the Venik against the waist, shoulders, feet or knees for 2-3 seconds. While pressing, you may use your second hand to make contact tighter. This is particularly helpful against muscle and joint pains.

Stroking may then be alternated with lashing – simultaneous light hits while sliding along the body with the Venik.

You may now begin combining compression with lashing – elevate Venik to allow soaking up of heat, lash the body two or three times and then press against the body for 2-3 seconds.

After your second round in the steam room, short lashing may be followed by rubbing. Hold the Venik by the handle in one hand and press it against the body with a palm of your other hand. Then rub the body while making steady strokes and circular movements. Keep the Venik tightly pressed against the skin throughout this entire process.

For a good finish, consider placing two Veniks on the waist and while pressing them onto the body, slide the Veniks apart, one to the head and the other to the feet.

Venik types

The most common types of Venik are made from birch or oak. The Birch Venik helps with muscle and joint pains. It cleans the skin, accelerates healing of wounds and scratches, have we mentioned that it smells wonderful? Its special virtue is that it widens small bronchi, this helps with removal of phlegm and improves ventilation of lungs. You’ll notice just how much more effortless breathing will be right after your stay. Birch leaves have essential oils, tanning substances and vitamins C and A. It is a great idea to wash one’s head with the infusion of the Venik, since it strengthens hair and destroys dandruff.

Oak Venik is most suitable for people with oily skin. It makes the skin smooth and resilient and creates strong anti-inflammatory impact. The smell of the Oak Venik creates a sedative effect and removes stress. Its leaves have a lot of tanning substances. Oak extract is used as a therapeutic agent for some skin problems and when an individual may experience excessive sweating of feet.

Other types of Venik are made from eucalyptus, the lime tree, fir tree and even nettle.

The rest? Just relax and enjoy it all

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