Long before there was a Russia, there was a steam bathing phenomenon called banya. Ancient Slavic people learned that pouring cold water over hot stones produces steam that warms and cleanses the body. Today, we know the ritual has countless health benefits for blood circulation, the immunity system and weight loss. This essential custom is as popular a national pastime in Russia as baseball is in America.
While in Tula, Russia, our hosts treat us to a conventional banya with the three basic tenets: the sauna, which includes both a dry and wet sauna experience, a cold pool and a room for drinking tea. Men and women always bathe separately in public. However, the one we went to in Tula also bore a suggestive vertical brass pole and a studio piano in the men’s part. Hmmm.
In any event, the detoxification begins in the bathhouse or sauna. Hats are often worn to increase sweat production, which cleanses pores. The hat is made of sheep’s wool, flax or cotton. I don’t have one, so I simply wrap my head in a hair towel. Regular banya-goers also bring felt cushions with them to sit on, but cotton sheets or long towels work just as well. Sheets are also used to wrap up in during the tea session. It’s optimal to bathe naked, but, being the proverbial puritan, I wear a bathing suit.
First, we sit in the sauna in excessively dry heat until I can feel the membranes in my nose and eyes shriveling up. At roughly 180-190 degrees Fahrenheit, this activity can be uncomfortable and dangerous for people with cardiovascular problems. 15-year-old Masha doesn’t mind and sits on a higher bench for a hotter experience.
Next, we dash from the sauna and cannon-ball into a refreshing pool. At 75-degrees Fahrenheit, the exhilarating dip is not the typical cold shock I was expecting. Ideally, the colder the water the better the experience. Hardier Russians have been known to endure a plunge in the snow for 60 seconds. The dunk is followed by ten minutes of gossip between the four of us over tea and peeled oranges in the tea room.
We repeat this cycle twice until the best part: the Venik massage. This time, Masha douses the rocks on the stove with water from a wooden bucket to turn the dry sauna into a wet sauna (Parilka). When steam permeates the room, Svetlana, our masseuse provides a unique massage. She lifts the Venik, a bundle of leafs and birch, oak or eucalyptus leaves and twigs and softly pelts me from head to toe. I rotate my body so she can do the same on both sides – including the face. My capillaries never had it so good!
Svetlana uses different techniques for different parts of the body. Near the neck and the toes she presses the Venik against the body in a long wavy motion. Around my face she lightly flutters the Venik allowing only the tips of leaves to touch my nose, lips and forehead. Around my knees and shoulders, she presses the Venik firmly for 2-3 seconds. The sweet torture ends in 5-10 minutes, not nearly long enough. After all, a banya a day keeps the doctor away.