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Russian banya traditions and how Russian bath house is different from Finnish sauna and Turkish hammam

Russian banya traditions and how Russian bath house is different from Finnish sauna and Turkish hammam

Banya is an extremely popular Russian tradition. It has already  been popular since pre-Christian times and it is still popular today.  So we are going to tell you about what a real Russian bath house is and what traditions are associated with it.

What the banya is

Speaking generally a banya is a room equipped for washing people with water, hot air and steam. Various types of baths have been known since  ancient times. Roman baths were one of the most significant places in the capital of the Roman Empire. By the way, most likely, the Slavs borrowed the word “banya” from the Latin word “balneum” – “something that makes pain and sadness go away”. It is a most invigorating experience.

Russia, Finnish, and Turkish baths are the most popular nowadays.

Russian banya

Russian banya culture has old traditions a lot of which are still followed nowadays. The traditional Russian banya consists of three rooms:

  1. A predbannik is a room where people can change and leave their clothes, as well as they can have rest between going into the steam room.
  2. A washing room is a room where people can wash.
  3. A steam room (parilka) is a rather small room with a high temperature. There are also hot stones in parilka on which you splash water in order to get hot steam.

Russian banya

In old times the banya was heated “black-way”. It means that there was no chimney but the smoke was going out through the door or special hole in the wall. This type of banya was heated with birch firewood. With time the walls and  ceiling blacken because of the tar that a birch has. Birch tar is very effective against various bacteria, and it is used for treating skin diseases nowadays.  It is thought that thanks to this type of bath, Russians managed to avoid the plague that appeared in Europe in the Middle Ages.

Despite its name, the banya “black-way” is a very clean place. In old times it was the place where people were treated and babies delivered.

The bath “white-way” is a more modern version of the Russian banya. The smoke goes out through the chimney. There is usually the masonry heater in this type of banya, on top of which the stones are put. There is also a tank for heating water that is used for washing. This type of bath is easier and nicer to use.

How to go to banya

Going to banya is a special ceremony for Russians that starts with the collecting of necessary things and ends with tea drinking.

What to remember while visiting banya

What to remember while visiting banya

  • The temperature in the steam room (parilka) is very high – about +70 – +80°C, therefore you need to take off all metal jewelry and not to wear any clothes with metal elements.
  • If you are ill, or just don’t feel well, you shouldn’t go to parilka. Doctors don’t recommend it. You should first consult your doctor if you have any type of chronic disease.
  • If you feel sick or a little dizzy, go out of the parilka and have some rest.
  • As the banya is a place for washing, remember to bring a towel (better two towels), a washing gel, a shower puff, etc. All other banya accessories – veniki, water scoops, banya hats, etc. are usually provided by the host.
  • People go to a private banya without clothes. In this case men and women take turns to go to the banya. When you go to a public banya you either wrap yourself in a towel or wear a swimsuit.

Banya techniques

When you first go into the parilka it shouldn’t be a stress for your body. Therefore, first, you should warm up in the warm predbannik or have a hot shower if you are in a public banya (after the shower you should dry yourself with a towel).

When you go inside the parilka, you should adapt to the temperature, so relax and lie down at the wooden bench.

When your body gets warm and relaxes you can start steaming with a venik. A venik is a must-have at banya. The banya host usually makes veniki. He cuts out young birch twigs, bindd them together and leaves them to dry. A classic Russian venik is made from birch twigs, but other kinds of trees such as oak or linden can be also used.

You need first to soak a venik in  very hot water for  10-15 minutes. After that you can start steaming. To steam yourself is not especially convenient so you can ask somebody else to do it. According to the rules of the banya etiquette, you can ask anyone who is in the parilka together with you, even if you don’t know this person, to steam you and they won’t refuse.

To steam with a venik doesn’t mean beating each other.  It’s similar to massage and it shouldn’t be painful but it should help you relax and release the muscle tension.

You can do it following the standard procedure  – starting with slight beats in the direction from the back to the feet. Then you can beat a little harder, and repeat the whole procedure several times.

You shouldn’t stay in the parilka more than 10-15 minutes. After you have left the parilka you need to cool your body down with some cold water. You can pour cold water from a tub on yourself, or jump into the pool or pond. In the winter you can jump into the snow or swim in the ice-hole. Don’t be afraid, you can’t become too cold. Cold water gives you a real pleasure and relaxation. You can also just sit in the cool predbannik and chat with your friends.

You can repeat the whole procedure  3-4times. The last time should be calm and relaxing. After that you can start washing.

After banya people usually drink tea and eat light dinner.

Finnish bath (sauna)

Finnish bath (sauna)

A traditional Finnish sauna is in fact very similar to a Russian banya, but its modern version is significantly different. Nowadays you can find sauna at  sports centers. It is not very common on its own as a place where you go to warm up and wash (except in Finland itself  where sauna is a national symbol; there are 2 million saunas per 5 million  people).

The much drier air in the parilka  is the main difference between a sauna and a Russian banya. You can sweat a lot in the sauna, so that later you can dip into the cool water. The tradition to wear sauna hats also originated in Finland. The sauna hats are made from natural materials that are not affected by high temperatures and they protect your head from the heat.

Turkish banya (hammam)

Turkish banya (hammam)

In Turkey there is also a special banya culture which is significantly different from the one in Russia or Finland, though. For the people in the East banya or hammam is a place where they  communicate and discuss important issues. Hammams are not as hot as Russian banyas, or Finnish saunas (+30°C – +55°C), but they are extremely humid. The temperature there is preserved by the steam from the boiling water. The interior design of classical Turkish hammams is luxurious. In the West it is called a Turkish bath.

Nowadays you can find hammams at SPA centers, swimming pools,  and sports centers.

Banya seems to be one of the greatest Russian traditions. If you follow all the rules, after banya you will feel stronger, younger and more energetic! If there is any chance, go to Russian banya! Remember to leave a comment about your experience of visiting Russian banya if you had any.

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