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Like saunas and public bathhouses elsewhere, people generally strip off to use them. While this may seem a little odd or confronting for people coming from countries where public bathing and steam rooms aren’t really a thing, it would be more strange for you to wear a swimsuit than to not wear one. Public banyas are separated by sex anyway, so you’re surrounded by your own kind – young, old and in between. So when in Rome, or Russia rather…
Intrinsic to the banya experience is to sweat a lot and to detoxify, so don’t underestimate how much you will perspire. If you’re feeling woozy and light headed, take a break. Usually there are well set-up changing rooms, where you can rehydrate and take a break from the heat. Some banyas will have plunge pools, so you can jump in for an invigorating shock of ice cold water. It’s important not to over do it, not just for your health, but rather because one of the last things you want to happen is to faint and to be carried out by a bunch of naked strangers. So err on the side of caution.
This might be one of the only instances where taking a beating from someone is ok. In fact, it is so ok, you should probably say ‘thank you’ afterwards and offer to return the favour. A gentle lashing with a wad of birch tree branches, or venik, seems to be good for the skin. It is said that these brooms soothe, relax and can help fix problem skin. Sometimes oak or eucalyptus leaves are mixed in too – apparently the oak aroma helps to regulate blood temperature in the steam room.
If you see a Russian pick up a venik or a towel in the sauna, and other locals move away, do the same. They are probably gearing up to help ‘settle’ the steam, which means they are prepping the conditions for maximum detoxification. First they add more water onto the stones. Then, they will soon helicopter the twigs or towel around their head to increase humidity and temperature. This is ideal climate for a venik lashings as it encourages perspiration and helps the leaves release their oils.
It may seem natural to grab a swig of cold, refreshing water while trying to stand the almost unbearable heat, but don’t do it. And certainly don’t drink beer. This dehydrating liquid will only put you more at risk of light-headedness. Drink tea instead. Apparently, tea stops the core body temperature from dropping, due to its warmth. It also contains antioxidants, which are not only good for the skin, but come with plenty of health benefits too.
They may look a tad dorky, but functionality doesn’t always need to be glamorous. Not only does it protect your hair from drying out, but it also regulates your head’s temperature. Our noggins heat up quicker than our bodies, and while we want to raise our core temperature, we don’t want to feel like our brains are melting. These felt acorn helmets buffer your head from the extreme heat and the extreme cold, and reduce the risk of overheating. And this is obviously more important than looking stylish.
Why rush? Visiting a banya is incredibly relaxing, in a deep tissue massage kind of way, so take your time and enjoy it. Russians know this too, and so most saunas you visit will be well set up. The changing rooms in most of them, including the historic Sanduny banyas in Moscow, are more like lounge rooms where you can order tea and snacks in between sessions. A lot of the bigger banyas will have a restaurant attached to them too. It’s not advisable to start on a full stomach, but once you’re finished with the bath houses, a meal is a nice way to round off the experience.
Don’t stress if you’re new to the banya experience. It is all about giving it a go. Locals have this age-old tradition worked out to a fine art and clearly know what to do, and there is no shame in being a newbie. They will have no problem guiding a bumbling newcomer through the ropes, and will let you know when and if you’re making a mistake. However if you’re at a loss over what to do next and can’t find anyone to ask, just follow the herd, as banyas in Russia are as old as time.