Tuesday, May 7, 2013

My First Russian Banya Experience

"Do you have things for banya?"
"Not really... but all I need is soap."
“Today we banya.”

I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

This morning, I was doing washing the dishes when Nastia said I should stop and come. Apparently they were all pretty much ready to go and I was still in my pyjamas, unaware we were going anywhere.
“To our friends' house.”

Then she handed me a towel.

“To banya.”
And we drove over bumpy dirt roads for around 20-40 minutes.

In my head, thoughts cycled through.
We're going to a friends house... to bathe.
Sounds good to me.

I had heard of the Russian banya before and had seen one before, but I'd never taken part before.

We got to their friends' house, had a lunch of borscht and bread that had been cooked and baked on their stove (the one that heats the entire house), drank tea, and then talked for a bit. I went for a walk and when I got back, it was “time for banya.”

I followed the other two woman to the small house in the yard. It was blazing hot inside and we all undressed.

“You don't banya in America? No collaboration?”
“Not together... 'cept at the swimming pool,” I said.

So, together with these two Russian women who live in the countryside, I stripped down to nothing. We went through a room with big metal bowels into a room that can be likened to a sauna. Natasha, the women who lived there, poured some water on the hotfire and the room quickly felt hotter. We sat up near the ceiling of the room and relaxed. I loved the feeling of the heat on my body.

After our faces were covered in beads of sweat, we went into the second room. Natasha blended together hot water and water freshly drawn from the well to make a lukewarm mixture which, without warning, she dumped on me with a huge smile. It felt nice and she signalled that I was supposed to shake my arms from the cold feeling and shock. On the second rinse, I shivered and shook... but, like every other part of the process, it felt good.

We “rested” in the first room for a bit, where the heat wasn't as intense, and then went back into the first room. Some birch branches (the parts with the leaves) were soaking on the bench. Nastia swished them in the water and the banya smelled like tea.

Natasha told me to lie down the bench on my stomach.
And then...

She beat me with the birch branches.
Whack. Whack. Whack.

“Russian massage,” she said.

And this just might be reason number one why I love Couchsurfing. I don't know how else I would have ended up in a village with a population of six with a family that visits another family and will take me along with where I'll end up getting to take part in getting hit upon with birch branches.

The feeling was nice and she waved the hot air down from the top of the room with the branches before wacking again. It was amazing! Am I allowed to say that? I haven't said things are amazing in a while and I think this classifies as amazing.

We finished up by stepping out into the open air for a minute, heating up again, scrubbing and washing, and then rinsing and getting dressed.

I felt alive.
I felt refreshed.
I had “done Russian banya!”

I asked them if they got together weekly to banya and they said that they did, more or less.

Russia – I think I'm falling in love with your culture and your people. I like this whole bathing-together-once-a-week-and-beating-each-other-with-birch-branches thing.


  1. I am not adding a banya to our house.

  2. There are some Russian/Ukrainian baths with the leafy branches in the U.S. One of the Boston dancers occasionally talks about taking people to one in Brooklyn. At Burning Man and related events we often have steam baths, but no leafy branches. The bread looks wonderful.

  3. Sounds quaint, isn't it? You're right, the Russian banya shares several similarities to the Finnish sauna. The birch beating is supposed to improve circulation and raise the heat directly above the skin, by the way. I hope you get to enjoy more experiences like this one, since habitual use of the banya can lead to numerous health benefits.

    iHealth Saunas


Your words make me grin.

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