The Basics: The Banya is the Russian version of the heat bath. The Russian Banya is at least as old as the Finnish Sauna, and shares a few key features, like a stove with hot rocks. The sauna which is a dry heat, with typically less than 15% humidity, the banya is usually maintained at 60-70% humidity. Banya fans claim that this creates much less stress on your system than the sauna.
The banya stove is the key to this. It is much more massive than a typical sauna stove, with tons of rock inside of a closed masonry construction. The rocks inside are heated to 600-800°C (1100-1475ºF). Water is thrown onto the stones through a small door, typically 100ml (about ½ cup) at a time. This creates a fine transparent steam that fills the top of the banya chamber. To hold this steam, the banya has a higher roof than a sauna, and it typically has minimal venting.
To bring the steam down to the bathers, they are given a platza, which is a form of massage with a venik, a whisk broom usually made from green oak or birch branches. The giver of the platza uses the broom to bring the steam from above down to the bather who is reclining on a bench. The heat, humidity and the oils from the branches are transferred the skin of the bather. Russian-bath.com has a nice page detailing the venik, techniques and benefits of the platza.
One of the challenges in the banya is keeping the temperature in the room at a level that is safe for the bathers. The high-heat required in the stove and the steam given off both raise the temperature if not carefully controlled. Many banyas have a supply of cold water in the bathing chamber for dunking over yourself to allow you to prolong your time in the heat. A banya fan would refer to a room like this as a schvitz – not always a compliment.
When you exit the banya, the Russian way is to cool rapidly in a cold plunge pool or shower. These are usually located right outside of the exit of the hot room.
Most banya facilities have restaurants, and other saunas, steam rooms and pools.
What to Bring: Russian Banyas, depending on the facility, can be either single-gendered or mixed gender. The mixed-gender facilities usually require swimsuits. Single-gender facilities are usually enjoyed nude.
Towels and other toiletries may or may not be provided. Check with your facility before going. If not provided, you’ll want to bring two or three towels: One to lie on in the banya, one for toweling off between rounds, and one for drying off after your final shower. A robe may be desirable for lounging while resting between rounds.
Footwear, like a slide sandal is usually worn outside of the baths. If the facility does not supply them, you may need to bring your own.
The intense heat of the banya can damage your hair, so most experienced banya afficianados bring a wool hat to wear in the heat for protection. If you don’t have one, you can always drape a hand towel over your head.
Veniks are usually available for purchase at a Russian bath. If you’ve got access to trees in the early summer, you can make your own and store them in the freezer for a substantial savings over what the house charges.
Enjoying the Banya:
The banya is about the bath. When you arrive, you’ll want to take a shower to rinse any dirt, perfumes or other cosmetics off of your skin and change into your swimsuit (if needed).
Begin with a session in a dry sauna to get your body sweating and cool down. Now it’s time to venture into the heat and humidity of the banya. Before going in, cool yourself down as much as possible with the shower or cold pool. A platza is a good way to enjoy this session. Stay in the hot room as long as is comfortable, and cool down your preferred way when you leave.
Russian lore says that you shouldn’t take more than three rounds in the banya, lest you anger the Bannik, the spirit of the Russian bath.
After your bathing rounds are complete, you can relax and cool down in the Banya facility, and enjoy a meal at the restaurant before donning your clothes and heading back out in the world.
If you’re looking for a place to enjoy a banya, you can consult our database for a full list of places we know. Here are a few to get you started.