“The banya is like the Russian’s second mother”, wrote Pushkin in 1832. Though it may sound like hyperbole, the banya has been a staple of Russian culture and health since medieval times. Every village had at least one banya, serving not only as a center for cleanliness and bathing, but for magic and folklore. There was even a mischievous little sprite associated with the banya called a mystical “Bannik”, the guardian of steam and heat, the caretaker of the sauna and its participants. In order to appease the sprite, the bather had to enter clean and leave the same way. So developed the etiquette for bathers.
Dallas has an authentic Russian banya. The facility also has a Finnish Sauna (dry heat), a steam room (Hammam) and a cold plunge pool (ice and dunk tank). There is a restaurant, men’s and women’s locker rooms and a small store, which sells the traditional birch bundles (more about this later) and traditional felt hats in two styles, one for the guys and one for the girls. These hats are worn in the banya, protecting the top of the head and the ears from the intense heat.
One Sunday, I went with two friends to see what this was all about!
No frills, no deluxe amenities: this is a pretty spartan, bare-bones facility. When we arrived, there were several men and one lady sitting around one of the tables, drinking water and talking. The men, as we learned, were spending the day…sauna, banya, cold plunge, sit and drink water and talk and then start all over again. We were told to bring a bathing suit, but were given a robe, towel, and flip-flops were available. We asked if we could wear our own and were told yes. The robes looked as though they were an after-thought; they had seen better days. The good news is that I did not feel compelled to purchase one to have at home. Towels are much the same: white, beige, worn, not so worn. No linen envy on my part!
A bit of a tour and short explanation followed. We had scheduled a Venik Massage and were told a bit, not much, about that. If you wanted a traditional massage (I’m not sure what a traditional Russian massage would be), that had to be arranged with an off-site person who would come to the banya for that purpose.
So into the locker room, into our bathing suit and into the Finnish sauna we went. Hot, but comfortably so, I could have stayed and stayed. The three of us talked for some time, broke a good sweat and then the door opened and the gentleman scheduled to give us our Venik Massages came into the sauna to give a bit more detail about the procedure. He suggested that we go into the banya to feel the heat and said that he would do one massage at a time, but that the other two were free to stay and watch, if desired.
Robes back on, we walked across the narrow hall and went into the banya. The woman and most of the men were there and it was hot! My concern was how long the massage would last and if I could last for the duration in this intense heat. Our masseur was a man of medium height, quite tan and with a large belly. He was wrapped in a long blue and white striped towel and spoke with a “Boris and Natasha” (from Bullwinkle) accent. In fact, we nicknamed him Boris. Strong, like bull, Boris!
We stayed in the banya for a few minutes and then went back into the sauna to visit and enjoy the milder heat. As suggested, we went to our table in the main room and drank water. Boris came and said he was ready for the first massage. He had told us that our bathing suits, being synthetic, were not appropriate for the cleansing of the Venik Massage and that it would be better if we wore nothing. When in Rome…actually in what spa do you wear clothes? None.
First victim! Andrea came back out several minutes later (maybe fifteen), red as a beet and was instructed to immediately immerse herself in the cold plunge. Boris, sensing her reluctance, exhorted her until, screaming, she did so. She came to the table and drank water, as instructed. Lots of color to her skin, some mottling, but whether due to the cold plunge or the Venik Massage, it was hard to tell.
Lyn was next. Same routine. Red as borscht, wahoo-ing as she went into the cold plunge and then back to the table for water and note comparing with Andrea. Boris, who wears the felt hat with ear flaps and heavy gloves, said that he needed to take a breather and wanted to wait a bit before he went back in to do my massage. Also, the men had gone back into the banya and he wanted then to complete their stay before he and I went in.
Maybe twenty or thirty minutes passed before it was my turn. So in we went. Towels are placed on the wood bench of the second level. It is entirely too hot to be on the wood without some protection. Boris asked me to lie on my stomach first, but let me explain what the Venik Massage is all about.
Verik Massage is a traditional Slavic experience, also called “platza massage” or a “shvitz massage”. A venik is a bundle of birch, oak or eucalyptus branches bound together. The bundle is repeatedly soaked in cold water to soften the leaves without making them drop from the branches. Then the venik is soaked in very hot water to release the oils in the leaves and branches. In the banya, the venik is placed in a container of hot water. Once you are on your stomach, the masseur takes the bundle out of the water and shakes it over your body so that the oils drop on your skin. The bundle is massaged over your body, pressed into your skin, and then you are hit with the bundle in various places. This is done front and back and then back again. All of this takes place in about fifteen minutes.
Boris then asked if I was ready to leave and, with bits of venik stuck to my skin, I wrapped my towel around me and headed for the plunge. I was expecting the water to be unbearably cold, but it was quite pleasurable. While icy to the touch when we first put a hand in at the beginning, after being in the banya, the water was delightful, refreshing, rather than shocking.
Back to the table, told to drink lots of water (this I think for their protection, it is not actually a traditional sauna practice), Boris said we might feel sleepy for a bit. The treatment was something I will probably do again, now that I know what it is all about.
Once home, I made a bit of lunch and, overcome with tiredness, went to bed for about two hours. Boris was right.
All that was missing from my Russian experience at the banya was a gypsy with a brown bear on a chain.