Welcome to another culturally rich post. In this post I will explain what a Russian banya is. Well, it is a Russian version of a bathhouse or a sauna. But don’t get me wrong, it isn’t a simple sauna. Banyas are extremely humid in comparison with the dry air of the sauna. At times, the levels of humidity may exceed eighty percent and reach one hundred! Impressive? Well, just try to get accustomed to the heat and steam. I must warn that this is not bearable for every single person, so be careful before you get in. It is also recommended to gradually get used to the atmosphere of the banya.
In Russia, the banya tradition has been around for centuries, since medieval times, and has been a staple for culture and health in every corner of Russia. Since banyas mostly originated in the countryside, every village had at least one banya, which served not only as a place for bathing and cleanliness, but also gathering. In old Slavic culture, it was also thought that the banya was inhabited by a spirit known as Bannik (it is important to note that Russians were pagan, thus would attribute a spirit to nearly everything).
The banya is usually a wooden structure, somewhere in the village. The insides features a steam-room with bottom and top shelves and a wood-burning stove that is kept at temperature of above 200 degrees. The procedure also usually involves energizing beating with a venik, which is a bundle of either birch, oak, or eucalyptus branches bound together that you either use yourself or ask someone to massage all over your body. The banya also has many benefits for the health of the visitor, it not only cleans the body, but also heals; steam opens up the body’s capillaries, increases blood flow, and jump-starts the metabolism.
Nowadays, the ritual of visiting the banya is mainly for enjoyment and relaxation, especially in wintertime. Generally, you can visit banyas at any time of the year, but in winter it is especially enjoyable, due to the contrast of temperatures. When it gets too hot inside, some brave individuals go outside for some fresh air, jump into a fresh pile of snow for some seconds, or even take a swim in the nearest frozen lake or river. This of course may only take place if you own a house somewhere in the middle of the country-side and thus have your own banya. After such a sudden change of temperature Russians quickly get back into the steam room. It is said that the temperature change from hot to cold produces a unique rejuvenating effect. Well, I think I’m going to try that in my shower… who knows maybe I’ll get the same effect from switching my water from hot to cold, from cold to hot, and so on.
Many informal business meetings may take place in the relaxed atmosphere of the banya. Once my father told me a story, that he was invited to a “business” meeting somewhere outside of Moscow. When they came, it was a bunch of guys just sitting back in the banya…eating and drinking vodka. I really don’t think they had a very productive evening in terms of business talk. However, one of the most crucial components of doing any business is trust. I like to see this banya gathering as a test whether “such and such” person could be trusted or not.