The Russian banya is a unique type of bathhouse, characteristic of Eastern culture. It is usually built of wood, similar to the Finnish sauna, but is different. In a Russian bath, the humidity is higher and the temperature lower than in a traditional sauna. The atmosphere created by the steam is generated by pouring water over hot stones. The ritual often includes a massage with vittles – birch branches – followed by cooling down in cold water.
The Russian banya may also be referred to as the ‘Russian bath’, the ‘sauna from the East’ or the ‘Ukrainian banya’.
- History of the Russian banya: From antiquity to the present day
- Structure and design of the Russian banya
- The Russian banya bath process: from heating to steaming
- Accessories for the Russian banya
- Interesting facts about Russian banya
- Health benefits of using the Russian banya
- Tips for building your own Russian banya
- Why try a Russian banya?
History of the Russian banya: From antiquity to the present day
The history of the Russian banya dates back to antiquity. In ancient times, banyas were built on the edge of villages, usually near a river or lake. They were simple log structures, with a small room for steaming, where a wood-fired cooker was placed, and platforms for lying and sitting above it.
The banya played a key role in everyday life – it was where babies were born, cleansing and healing ceremonies were performed and even where the dead were prepared for burial. The banya was believed to have the power to purify not only the body, but also the spirit.
Over time, the technology and methods of banya construction have modernised, but the basic principles and rituals have remained unchanged. Modern Russian banyas may be equipped with modern conveniences such as electric cookers, lighting systems and luxurious finishes, but they still reflect the traditional culture and spirit of the Russian banya.
Structure and design of the Russian banya
A traditional Russian banya consists of three main rooms: an anteroom, a wash room and a steam room.
The hallway, also known as the changing room, is where guests can undress, leave their belongings and prepare to enter the banya. There is often a bench where guests can rest before or after their bath.
The wash room is where the washing and cleaning of the body takes place. There are usually several pools of cold and hot water, as well as a washing area. Depending on individual preference, you can also prepare here to enter the steam room by rubbing your body with honey, sea salt or other natural scrubs.
The steam room, called the parilka, is the heart of the Russian banya. There is a cooker, usually wood-fired, on which stones are placed. When the stones are well heated, water is poured over them, which generates hot and humid steam. In the steam room, there are platforms for sitting and lying down, usually built at different levels so that the intensity of the heat can be adjusted (the higher, the hotter).
The banya buildings are usually made of wood, often pine or lime, which are prized for their thermal insulation and health properties. The interior is simple and functional, with an emphasis on natural materials and comfort.
The Russian banya bath process: from heating to steaming
The process of bathing in a Russian banya is a real ritual that begins with the proper preparation of the steam room. Initially, the cooker is intensively roasted to heat the stones to a high temperature. Once the heat has reached the right level, the door to the steam room is closed to keep the heat and steam inside.
The climate in the Russian banya is considerably more humid compared to the Finnish sauna. The high humidity, reaching up to 80%, creates a dense steam which, despite similar or slightly lower temperatures (around 60-80 degrees Celsius compared to 80-100 in a Finnish sauna), causes more intense sweating. Thanks to the moist steam, the heat penetrates deeper into the skin, increasing the cleansing effect. The time spent in the steam room depends on the individual’s tolerance to heat and humidity, but usually one session lasts between 10 and 20 minutes. It is important not to overdo it and remember that regular rest and rehydration breaks are essential for the safety and effectiveness of the banya bath.
When the room is sufficiently heated, the bathing session can begin. Traditionally, before entering the steam room, the body must be washed in the washer. Then, already in the steam room, the person steams, sitting or lying on the platforms, starting at the lowest levels (where it is less hot) and then gradually moving higher, according to heat tolerance.
A distinctive feature of a Russian bath, or banya, is the use of sauna whisks – bundles of twigs (usually from birch, oak or linden trees) that are previously soaked in hot water. Hitting the body with these whisks improves blood circulation, stimulates skin pores to open, and aids in toxin elimination.
A banya session ends with a body cooldown, which is often done by taking a plunge into cold water (in a pool, river, or snow), closing the skin pores and giving a feeling of refreshment and revival. After bathing, it’s common to rest, enjoying a herbal tea or a traditional Russian drink, kvass.
The entire process can be repeated several times, according to individual preferences and heat tolerance.
Accessories for the Russian banya
To make the experience of bathing in a Russian banya complete, there are a few essential accessories that are worth having on hand:
- Whisks – as mentioned earlier, these are bundles of twigs, usually from birch, oak, or linden trees. They are used to beat the body during a session in the steam room, which helps stimulate circulation and open pores.
- Sauna hats – in a Russian banya, special hats are used that protect the head and hair from the high temperatures. They can be made of various materials, but the most popular ones are made from wool.
- Towels and wraps – towels are used to dry off the body after bathing, during rest, or to wrap around oneself for warmth. Wraps and pareos are similar to towels, but are longer and wider and can be used as lightweight robes.
- Dousing ladle – this is a tool used to pour water onto hot stones in the steam room, creating steam. Ladles are typically made of wood and have long handles to protect the hand from the heat.
- Pool or tub – after a session in the steam room, it is traditional to cool down the body in a pool of cold water. This could be an outdoor pool, a bathing tub, or for the brave, even snow!
All these accessories help to enrich the experience of the Russian banya, making it more comfortable and effective.
Interesting facts about Russian banya
The Russian banya has many unique aspects that make it not only a place to bathe, but also an important part of Russian, Ukrainian and Belarusian culture and history. Below are some highlights:
- Banya and Literature: The banya is often depicted in Russian literature, poetry, and film as a national symbol. It can be found in works such as “Anna Karenina” by Leo Tolstoy and “The Brothers Karamazov” by Fyodor Dostoevsky.
- Banya as a Symbol of Health: In Russian folklore, there are many proverbs and sayings related to the banya. For example, “The banya is the second mother” or “The banya rejuvenates a person” – emphasizing its role in maintaining health and well-being.
- Spirituality: The banya was once seen as a spiritual place where people could cleanse not only their bodies, but also their souls. It was believed that bathing helps to get rid of negative energies and brings renewal.
- Banya as a Gift: In the past, building a banya was often the first project undertaken on new land. It was usually the first structure to be erected on newly purchased ground – even before the house. In some regions of Russia and Ukraine, banyas were even given to young couples as a wedding gift.
- Banya as a Social Place: The banya served not only for washing the body, but was also an important place for social meetings. Discussions, negotiations, and even business transactions took place here. The banya was a place where social and economic differences were blurred, and everyone was equal.
- Banya Day: In the past, in many Russian homes, there was a designated “banya day”, usually Saturday, when the entire family used the bath. This custom was so common that there was even a saying: “Remember the Sabbath day – go to the banya”.
- Newborns and Banya: It used to be believed that the banya was the safest place for childbirth. Cleanliness and warmth helped to provide safe and hygienic conditions for the mother and child. Furthermore, the newborn’s first bath was often taken in the banya.
These traditions and curiosities show how deeply the Russian banya is rooted in Russian culture and how important a role it plays in people’s lives.
Health benefits of using the Russian banya
The Russian banya, like other forms of sauna, has many potential health benefits. Proper use of the banya can provide relief from many ailments and improve overall health. Here are some of the health benefits of using a Russian banya:
- Improving Circulation: Similar to other forms of heat therapy, the Russian banya can enhance blood circulation. High temperature causes dilation of the blood vessels, which increases blood flow to the skin and muscles. This may help reduce pain and joint stiffness, and speed up recovery after physical exertion.
- Detoxification: The process of sweating in the banya helps to eliminate toxins from the body. High temperature and humidity stimulate the sweat glands, accelerating the body’s natural detoxification process.
- Skin Health Improvement: Heat and steam help to open the skin’s pores, facilitating a deeper cleanse. Regular use of the banya can help reduce acne, improve the overall appearance of the skin, and speed up the healing process of minor wounds and bruises.
- Stress Reduction: Using the banya is often perceived as a relaxing experience, which helps to reduce stress and improve mood. Heat and humidity help to relax muscles, which can provide relief from tension and muscle aches.
- Supporting the Immune System: Regular use of the banya can also positively affect the immune system. Heat can help combat infections and speed up the healing process.
Remember, however, that the use of the banya, like any other therapy, should be tailored to your individual needs and your body’s capabilities. It is always a good idea to consult your doctor or specialist before starting regular visits to the banya, especially if you have any health contraindications.
Tips for building your own Russian banya
Planning and building your own Russian banya is quite a complicated process that requires the right approach and consideration of many factors. Here are some practical tips to help you with this task:
- Choose the right place: The ideal place for a banya should have 10 to 15 square meters. Try to position it near a shower or another place that will allow you to cool down immediately after the session.
- Solidify the ground: There must be a solid surface under the sauna. You can use a foundation slab for this purpose.
- Provide a place for storing wood: The extended roof of the Russian banya can serve as an ideal place for storing wood.
- Choosing a stove: The stove is the heart of the Russian banya. Choosing the right stove depends on many factors, such as the size of the bath, the number of people using the banya, availability of fuel. Remember that an electric stove requires access to electricity.
- Choose the right materials: The banya should be built from durable wood, such as Scandinavian spruce. Protect the raw material using a preservative, and for screws choose acid-resistant stainless steel.
- Take care of the roof: Bituminous shingles work best on the roof.
Why try a Russian banya?
Despite the current political tensions caused by the war in Ukraine, it is worth remembering that the culture of any nation should be respected and appreciated. The Ruska banya is an element of Russian culture that has been created by ordinary people over the centuries.
Enjoying the Russian banya allows you to separate politics from culture and appreciate what is simple and natural. This experience allows you to understand how deeply banya is rooted in the Russian way of life, and to enjoy the health and relaxation benefits associated with this traditional ritual.
It is worth remembering that culture is the creation of people who live their daily lives, not politicians and leaders. Therefore, it is worth approaching the traditions of other nations with respect and openness, regardless of the political situation.