I’m a spa junkie; always on the lookout to visit new spas and try out new treatments. So when I heard about the Russian Banya I knew I had to add it to my list.
What is a Banya?
A Banya is a traditional Russian bathhouse that’s sort of like a sauna, but don’t be fooled this isn’t your usual spa experience.
Banya’s have been popular in Russia for centuries and are an important part of Russian culture and heritage. For most Russians, a visit to the Banya can be a whole day affair; a chance to see friends and family while relaxing and unwinding at the same time.
What Happens At The Banya?
A visit to the Banya starts in the sauna. Before entering you’re given a small felt hat to wear to protect your head and hair from the heat. Once the heat starts to become unbearable you then leave the sauna and jump in an icy plunge pool or stand under a cold shower. In Russia it’s not uncommon to leave the sauna and jump straight in a frozen lake; thankfully the Banya’s that are slowly beginning to appear in the UK don’t have any of those!
Once you’ve rinsed off with your icy blast it’s time to head to the cafe to rehydrate on tea or water (lots of it!) before heading back to the sauna to start all over again.
For some, using the sauna and plunge pool is enough but you can mix up your visit to the Banya by incorporating other treatments into your sauna experiences such as massages, scrubs, wraps and washes.
One of the most popular, and most iconic, treatments at the Banya is the Parenie. A Parenie is a traditional Russian massage that involves birch, eucalyptus and oak leaves. These are chilled in cold water and some are placed around the head before the massage starts.
The therapist will then use the bundles of leaves and twigs to bring the heat from the sauna down towards the body. Then the bundles are brushed over the body in long, sweeping motions alternated with harder, shorter brushes to help invigorate and exfoliate the skin.
Although it sounds, and looks, like it, might be painful or uncomfortable the result is quite the opposite; while it’s not particularly relaxing a Parenie massage energises the body, making it feel lighter and healthier.
The health benefits are numerous including:
- Exfoliating the skin helping to even skin tone and reveal healthy, youthful-looking skin
- Improves circulation
- Aids with lymphatic drainage
- Reduces stress
- Relieves tension in the body
- Helps boost the immune system
My Banya Experience
I was lucky enough to squeeze in a trip to a Banya before lockdown or any Covid restrictions came into place.
I was a little hesitant before my treatment; although I am willing to sacrifice a little bit of comfort in the name of feeling and looking good I really don’t like the cold and the thought of being dunked in an 8-degree plunge pool didn’t exactly fill me with joy.
Upon arrival, I took my felt hat and headed to the sauna. The temperature of the sauna in the Banya is slightly lower than that of a traditional sauna. The one I visited had been heated to about 70 degrees which allowed me to heat up nice and quickly.
As soon as it became too much I took the plunge (literally) and jumped under a bucket shower which was filled with freshwater, the temperature of which was between 7-10 degrees. To say it made me catch my breath is an understatement but surprisingly I instantly felt great, as though I was suddenly flooded with energy.
I opted for a mud mask and a Parenie massage which took place in the sauna. I was concerned that the heat would be too much for the duration of the massage but it was perfect; the chilled leaves placed around my head helped to cool me down and allowed me to breathe easy.
The massage itself felt great and although it looks rough it certainly didn’t feel it. The pressure was perfect and the rhythmic strokes really helped relax the body. Immediately after the Parenie, I was taken to the plunge pool where I was submerged three times in icy water.
I headed to the cafe to warm up before starting another round in the sauna. By the time I left the Banya, my skin felt super tingly and so soft to touch. I felt so refreshed, energised and ready to take on anything not to mention I slept soundly that night for the first time in ages!
The Science Behind It
For centuries many cultures have been using hot/cold therapy in various different ways. By heating the body then quickly cooling it down it causes the blood vessels to constrict rapidly which then, in turn, elevates blood pressure, floods the body with endorphins, improves blood flow and elevates the heart rate. The effects are numerous, both mental and physical, with many reporting increased mood and energy levels as well as many claiming a visit to the Banya relieves pressure on joints, rejuvenates the skin and helps the body eliminate toxins.
Where To Go
Banyas are slowly becoming more popular in the UK. There are two fantastic Banyas both based in London; Go Banya and Banya No 1. I was lucky enough to visit Banya No 1 which also offer specific ladies days and have a comprehensive menu of fantastic treatments.
If you can’t make it to a Banya try and bring the Banya experience home; finish your bath or shower with a blast of cold water. This will still invigorate your skin, lift your mood and help flush out any toxins.