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All About Sauna

Banya (Russian bath)

– a bathhouse with a steam room where heat comes from heated stones and humidity is added by throwing water on the stones.
A vital part of banya is venik – a leafy bundle of birch or oak twigs used body massage (platza).

Spend a day at one of Russian baths and you will sweat in bath and freeze in icy pool, enjoy birch leaves (venik ) massage and struggle with the heat. But after all, walking out of the banya, feeling ten years younger with skin soft and smooth like babies, you will promise yourself to come back.

So what makes the Russian Bath special?

Baths differ greatly in temperature and humidity. The hottest contemporary Finnish saunas have only about 5-10% humidity, which allow boiling temperatures (100C/212F) to be tolerated and even enjoyed for short periods of time. Other types of baths, such as the Turkish bath Hammam have almost 100% humidity, but the temperatures there are no more than 40C/100F. Russians believe that hot and dry sauna will only dry your throat and skin. And high humidity baths with heavy drops of water in the steam are also not healthy.

Russian bath has the same levels of humidity as the air we breathe every day: about 60%. And the temperatures usually do not exceed 80C/180F. Russians pay special attention to the quality of steam: by throwing water on stones heated to extreme temperatures behind metal doors, they create steam droplets of exceptionally small size; this makes breathing easy and enjoyable. And of cause there’s a famous Russian venik – leafy, fragrant bundle of birch twigs used to gently beat and massage fellow bathers.

Leafybundle (venik)
An essential part of Russian bath is venik – leafy, fragrant bundle of leafy birch or oak tree twigs. Venik in Russian bath plays a great role as regards warming up of the body and its massage. It improves blood circulation, intensifies skins capillary activities and metabolism. Venik leaves release phytoncides – biologically active substance that kills or depresses the growth and development of pathogens. Essential oils released by venik improve metabolism and prevent premature aging of the skin.

Venik massage / platza techniques
“Platza” or “Platka” or “Plaitza” – (Yiddish for shoulders or back) is a word not known in Russia, but it is “de facto” American term for venik massage.

There are several venik massage techniques: waggling, compress, stroking, lashing, rubbing and stretching. The best approach would be to carry out these techniques one after another.

With waggling you lightly flutter venik just above the body, maybe gently touching the skin with the tips of leaves. This creates an air flow that worms up the body preparing it for more intense procedures.

With stroking you gently press venik against the body an in one long wavy move draw venik from neck to toes and back. Venik’s handle should always go first in the direction of the move.

With compress you raise venik up where the temperature is higher, shake it for a second to gather the heat and then firmly press the venik against the waist, shoulders, feet or knees for 2-3 seconds. While pressing, you may cover venik with a second hand to make the contact tighter. This is particularly helpful against muscle and joint pains.

Then you can alternate stroking with lashing – light sliding hits with venik.

After that you can start to combine compress and lashing – raise venik up to get some heat, hit the body two three times and then press it against the body for 2-3 seconds.

After second round in the steam room after short lashing you can start rubbing. Take a venik by the handle in one hand and press it against the body with a palm of your other hand. Then rub the body making stroking or circular movements while keeping the venik tightly pressed.

To finish up you place two veniks on the waist and while pressing them into the body, move veniks apart (to the head and feet), stretching the waist.

Venik types
The most common types of venik are made from birch or oak.
Birch venik helps with muscle and joint pains. It perfectly cleans the skin, accelerate healing of wounds and scratches, not to mention that it smells great. Its special virtue is that it widens small bronchi. This helps with removal of phlegm and ventilation of lungs. That’s why after such venik it is so easy to breath. Birch leaves have essential oils, tanning substances, vitamins C and A. It is a great idea to wash one’s head with the infusion of venik, since it strengthens hair and destroys dandruff.

Oak venik suits best for people with oily skin. It makes the skin smooth and resilient; makes strong anti-inflammatory impact. The smell of 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 with some skin problems and excessive sweating of feet.

Other types of venik are made from eucalyptus, lime tree, fir and even nettle.
Venik has to be properly prepared before use. It has to be soaked for 20 minutes in a warm water, then for about 10 in hot untill the leaves become soft. Good venik could last you several times, but if it lost a lot of leaves and has a lot of bare ends, it is time to throw it away.

How to make a venik yourself?
Venik twigs must be carefully selected to have only thin twigs with plenty of leaves. Only certain time is good for making veniks – usually in June-July when leaves are fully grown, but have not started fading yet. Only dry days are good.

What to expect in Russian Bath
When you get inside, you typically see a small office where you can pay for the visit and can order a regular massage or a steam room birch twig massage. Usually you can purchase your bathing accessories here as well. You can leave the valuables with the attendant and receive a key for your locker. The number on the key not only represents your locker, but also serves as identification when you order something in the bar. When leaving, you will be charged for expenses recorded for your number.

The changing rooms are single-sex, and contain showers which bathers use to quickly wash themselves before the actual bath. No need to scrub yourself, just wash off the sweat. Leave your clothes in a locker, slip on a bathing suit and a pair of slippers – and off you go – you are ready for a steam room.

If you have bought a venik – you have to prepare it by soaking it in a bucket of hot water for usually 10 – 20 minutes. Leave the venik in a bucket. Take a towel to sit on it in the steam room. If you don’t have a hat, take another towel to wrap around your head and enter to the steam room for the first round. Good manners require that the sauna door is open for only a short amount of time to keep the heat inside. The first round is just a warm-up, so don’t push yourself too hard just yet. You may choose a higher bench if you desire a hotter experience or a lower level bench for a more moderate temperature. Comfortably sit or lay on the bench. Leave the steam room when you feel hot enough and cool off by taking a shower or a swim or just by sitting in room temperature or outside. Have a rest for about 10 minutes, order some tea.

Once you feel ready for a second round, go to the steam room again. Now you can take venik with you. You may massage yourself or lie on the wooden bench and ask your companion to massage you. Although the venik technique can become pretty sophisticated, in it’s simplest form it is just a rhythmic gentle waggling. After soaking, the leaves and branches become soft, so it feels like a pleasant massage. For those who won’t like to be massaged, it is fine to concentrate on sweating. Push yourself a bit and when you feel it is too hot to tolerate it anymore, go out and dip into a swimming pool with cold water. Ice-cold water comes as a bit of a shock to the body, but endure it to experience the Russian bath to the fullest. Give it between 10 seconds to the minute – in such a short time only your skin will be affected by the cold. If there is no swimming pool, just pour out a bucket of ice-cold water on yourself. Get out of the pool. If you’ve done it all, you will have a fantastic tingling sensation in your skin. Now find a chair, a friend and some tea.

Relax and then repeat the hot-cold cycle as many times as you feel comfortable with. Russians usually take about 5 cycles, but you have to listen to your body. Do not overdo it! Russians like to relax after the bath with the friends. They usually order beer or some vodka and snacks. They may chat and drink for the whole day.

Before putting on clean clothes allow enough time for cooling off, otherwise the sweating may still continue. Also watch out not to get cold since the body is in a more “sensitive” state after the bath than normally.

Avoid the most common errors

  • Do not drink alcohol while bathing. Alcohol and heat have cumulative effect increasing the load on the heart.
  • Cold drinks slow down the sweating. Drink hot tea instead.
  • Do not get stuffed, since heat makes the blood rush from internal organs to the skin and for proper digestion the opposite is needed.
  • Exercise caution if your health is not at its best
  • The steam room is not the best place for vigorous exercises
  • Do not compete with friends or more experienced bathers while in a steam room. Listen to your body. The same advice applies to the swimming in a cold pool.
  • Do not throw too much water on the stones. If stones are not hot enough, the steam becomes heavier and not so enjoyable to breathe.
  • Try to lie while in a steam room. If you stay or seat, the difference in temperature between your head and feet can be quite dramatic and you wouldn’t want to overheat your head.
  • Make sure that you get plenty of rest time between the rounds in steam room.

Health benefits
The high temperature in the banya has many health benefits. Excessive heat stimulates
sweating, thus removing unwanted materials from the blood and improving the work of the kidneys. Sweating also releases excess water and salt from the body and opens the skin pores, cleaning it and making it softer and fresher. The process helps rid the muscles of excess lactic acid. A dilated blood vessel increase the flow of oxygen to muscles, reduces swelling and aids in the repair of tears. Steam bathing also stimulates protein circulation, improving digestibility of proteins, fats, carbohydrates, and mineral elements. Because harmful bacteria and viruses can only survive within a narrow temperature range, the use of banya to create an “artificial fever” may aid the body in protecting against them. Finally, endorphins are released due to the increase in cardiovascular activity.

Relatives of the Russian banya

The Roman thermae
Ancient Romans had a cult of bathhouse. Greeting each other they said: “How is your sweating?” In the bathhouse (sauna) they not only washed themselves, but socialized, painted, read poetry, sang, and feasted. Their bathhouses had special rooms for massage, gyms, and libraries. Wealthy citizens went to the bathhouse twice a day. Both private and public baths were distinguished by exceptional luxury – swimming pools were made of precious marble, silver and gold were used to decorate sinks. By the first century BC there were around 150 thermae in Rome. Steam rooms were heated in the same way as Russian Banyas and Finnish Saunas: oven was placed in the corner; stones were laid on the bronze frame over the red-hot charcoal. Rooms with wet and dry steam were also available. Hot air was coming through a pipe under the floor. The structure of Thermae was complex: there were 5 rooms: a room for undressing and resting after bathing, swimming pool for the first bathing, a room for washing with warm and hot water, and finally a room for dry steam and wet bath.

The Finnish sauna
Sauna is the closest relative of the Russian banya and because the ritual, folklore, and construction of the Russian banya and Finnish sauna are largely indistinguishable, it is safe to assume that they developed simultaneously. Sometimes, they are distinguished by saunas having dry steam and banyas wet steam. However, historically, both types used wet steam. Indeed, some researchers believe that the adoption of the word “sauna” rather than “banya” in post-war Europe came about primarily as a result of the Iron Curtain rather than as a term of any meaningful distinction.[ However, it is notable that, in modern Russian, a sauna is often called a “Finnish Banya”, though possibly only to distinguish it from other ethnic high-temperature bathing facilities, such as Turkish baths referred to as “Turkish Banya.” Sauna, with its ancient history among Nordic and Uralic peoples, is national pride of Finns.

The Turkish bath
Hammams (known as Turkish saunas) were not as luxurious as Roman baths. A visitor who enters the Bathhouse finds himself in a spacious hall, where he leaves his clothes and then proceeds down the stairs and through a long narrow corridor to the soap room. In this room he sees several niches for bathing and 3 narrow doors leading to steam bath, to a cooler room, and to the hall for resting. This is the order of the bathing procedure. Only after having completed it, one goes to give oneself to a masseur. The source of steam in Hammam (Turkish Sauna) is a gigantic tub of water inside the wall. The steam goes through the hole in the wall. Moreover, the entire bath is heated by the hot air, coming through a special pipe located under the marble floor. The bather lies on the hot stone and sweats. When sweating is plentiful, massage starts. Massage is one of the specialties of Turkish Bath. Sometimes it seems that the masseur beats his client; however the latter has an extremely pleasurable experience: his body is relaxing and his muscles become very flexible.