Russian Banya Etiquette
Steam bathing is a very common practice in all of Europe. Yet, the banya tradition holds a special place in the hearts of the Russians.
Banyas have been around for hundreds of years. These are among the many places in Russia that people of all social classes, nobles, and villagers alike, hold in such high esteem. Throughout Russia’s history, there have been numerous references to the banya ritual, given voice by famous Russian personalities. Stories with banya themes involving everyday folks are plenty. Also, many wise sayings came to be all centered around the banya.
Deemed as the Russian counterpart to the modern-day spa, the Russian banya offers a place where one can relax and steer clear of the day’s stresses. Aside from the health benefits it gives, it is also an environment where customs are carried out. Married couples would visit the banya after the ceremony. Doing so was believed to prevent birthing difficulties. End of life rituals is also performed here. Mourners would gather in the banya to be assured that their deceased loved ones would safely reach the afterlife.
All About the Banya
For hundreds of years, Russians have frequented the banya as a valuable part of their culture and tradition. Such is its importance that it has been said that your Russian experience would not be complete if you don’t at least go to one. Though some of these rituals are not as followed in present times, people still visit the banya for the simple reason of gathering and holding social conversations or intimate ones.
Types of Banyas
Most Russians have their own private banya in their country houses, also known as dachas. You may opt to go to a public banya for those visiting the country, where a fee is paid upon entering.
There are two ways that banyas are constructed. Black banyas are built with a hole in the ceiling, where the smoke goes out. White banyas make use of exhaust pipes to release the smoke.
The banya ritual
A banya typically has three spaces: the dressing room and resting area, the washing room, and the steam room. The first thing visitors should do is take off their clothes in the dressing area. A hot shower follows, and the skin completely dried before going into the steam room for about 10 minutes. Then, the visitor goes back to the washroom to shower with cold water before re-entering the sauna. This is done repeatedly before resting.
By the third visit to the sauna, visitors should lash themselves with a venik (a dried birch branch of eucalyptus leaves). This part of the ritual is believed to promote blood flow. During the resting period, snacks and drinks are served in the entrance room.
Acceptable and Non-acceptable Behavior in Banyas
In the past, Russian cities created rules to govern the usage of the banya. During summer, people were limited to using them on specific days, so the incidence of fires can be prevented, considering these bathhouses were mostly made of wood. But for the privileged few, extra days were allowed.
How to act inside a banya
Over time, some modifications to these rules came to be. Because banyas were significant to the Russian way of life, certain behavior is to be expected when going to one. As it is when visiting a highly-respected place, it is important to know how to carry yourself properly. Russian banya etiquette dictates that there are things one should be accustomed to before indulging in this bathhouse experience.
One protocol when using a banya is to be naked. For some, this may be disconcerting, but Russians do not see the need to wear a swimsuit since the two sexes are separated anyway. Taking a gentle lashing with a venik is an essential part of the ritual.
To achieve maximum detoxification before the lashings, locals may try to increase the room’s temperature and humidity by pouring more water to the stones and twirling the venik or their towel above their heads. You should do the same. Felt hats are also provided to protect the hair and head from overheating, as the temperature in the sauna can reach as high as 100 degrees Celsius.
Banyas are places for relaxation, so it only makes sense that you are not in a rush to finish your steam therapy. Savor the moment and indulge your senses in a pleasing ambiance.
A typical dressing room is set up to look like a lounge area, and this is where you have your snacks between sessions. Of course, do not have the ritual on a full stomach, but you could go for a full meal once done with the sessions. If unsure about the flow of the ritual, feel free to ask the locals as they have this down to a tee.
How not to act inside a banya
The whole point of steam bathing is to sweat out the toxins from your system. But a word of caution to banya visitors: if you feel unwell at some point during the ritual, you are most welcome to rest for a bit. If the heat gets too much for you to handle, rehydrate in the changing room. If there is a plunge pool, you can take a quick dip in the cold water.
Another common mistake of visitors is they immediately go for cold water when they feel light-headed due to the heat. This will do no good since this just makes your dizziness worse. Apparently, tea is a safer alternative for its warmth prevents your body temperature from drastically dropping. Tea is also known to contain a lot of antioxidants, which are always good for the body.
The ritual of using the Russian banya is something that has withstood the test of time. If you desire a complete Russian experience, a visit to a Russian Banya is just what you need. You could arrange the details of your whole visit, making it one that suits your preference. And knowing the do’s and don’ts of such an important trip makes the experience more worthwhile.