Banya: This is how you take a sauna in the Russian bath house

Photo: CC0 / Pixabay / Zerocool

A banya is not for the faint of heart! In the Russian sauna it can easily be hotter than 100 degrees Celsius. We explain what you should know about this and how a sauna session works.

The term “banya” hides a Russian bathhouse with a steam room, which is similar to the Finnish sauna. It is a wooden log cabin, which usually consists of three rooms – a steam room, a wash room and a recreation room. Traditionally, the bathhouse is heated with a wood stove. What is used for saunas today was often the only bathing opportunity in Russian villages in the past.

Peculiarities of the banya

Temperatures in a classic banya can range from 80 to over 100 degrees Celsius. Regular infusions in the form of hot water or ice mixed with essential oils are common. The work is not done with a trowel, but the birch twigs are dipped in Birkensud and knocked out over the hot stones. The high humidity can cause an even greater feeling of warmth. The experience is said to have a calming effect on body and mind.

A special feature of the Russian sauna is that it is often strictly separated according to biological sexes. The tasseling with birch branches is also very typical. In Russian culture, the banya also plays an important role in maintaining social contacts.

This is how a visit to the Russian sauna works

In the banya, you traditionally wrap yourself in a cotton cloth.
In the banya, you traditionally wrap yourself in a cotton cloth.
(Photo: CC0 / Pixabay / Mariakray)

A visit to a banya is usually divided into three phases, which are typical of the process in this Russian form of sauna. They include:

  1. Preparing for the sauna session: For a visit to a banya, you traditionally wrap yourself in a cotton or linen towel and put on a banya hat, a headgear made of felt. In the washroom you can clean your body and change accordingly. However, make sure your head stays dry to avoid overheating. Meanwhile, birch twigs are soaked in a cauldron of hot water for later use.

  2. Application: Once you have arrived in the steam room of the banya, you can take a seat on one of the step benches. After a few minutes of relaxation, the so-called “Wenik” ritual (in German: “broom”) begins. Here you tap your body with soaked birch branches. This should not hurt, but only serves to stimulate blood circulation.

  3. Cooling down: After the Wenik ritual, you can cool down with a cold shower, a walk in the fresh air or an ice rub. Most of the time, a restaurant also belongs to the banya. Between or after the banya courses, usually there are two, people eat and drink together, traditionally vodka or a warm tea.

    Risks of the banya: who shouldn’t go to the Russian steam bath?

    However, the intense heat of over 100 degrees Celsius is not right for everyone. According to the Federal Center for Health Education (BZgA), this applies above all to pregnant women, whose circulation is usually more heavily burdened by hormonal changes and the weight of the baby.

    According to the Apotheken Umschau, caution is also required for people with high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, colds or fever. If you belong to one of the groups mentioned, you should refrain from visiting a Russian sauna.

    Even for all-round healthy people, it’s not recommended to drink alcohol during or before a visit to the sauna – even if that may be part of the tradition. Because, as the BZgA warns, both the heat and the alcohol dilate the blood vessels, causing the blood pressure to drop sharply. It is easier to overestimate yourself when you are drunk and you may stay longer in the sauna than your body can handle. A circulatory collapse can then occur. If you’re heavily intoxicated, you might fall asleep. Both are life-threatening in the sauna if the other visitors do not notice it immediately and react correctly. Those who don’t want to miss the vodka as part of the traditional banya experience should definitely postpone it until after the sauna sessions are over for the day.


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