The Russian bath, otherwise known as Banya, is a bathing ritual that dates back many thousands of years. First mentions of the Russian steam bath occur around the 5th Century AD, and it was a ritual that was common with all people - from wealthy noblemen, to common folk. The banya played a big part in people's lives, and many religious traditions were connected with it.
In Russian villages, in each yard there was a banya, usually in a quiet place behind the house. It was (and still is) a small wooden house.
To build a banya is rather difficult, as one needs to know a lot about the type of wood most suitable, as well as the correct methods of creating heat and steam.
Strong beliefs about the health benefits of saunas go back a long way, and can be seen by the firm beliefs in current society, particularly in countries such as Russia, Turkey, and Finland, who each have their own "style" of sauna.
In Russia, many people believe that banya is the best treatment for illness, or for general health.
The heat is generated from a
wooden stove, with water standing beside to be poured over
hot rocks that sit on the stove.
Inside the banya, the temperature ranges from 100-180 degrees Fahrenheit (40-80 degrees celcius), and the humidity approximately 60%. There are usually 3 levels of shelving to sit on, and the higher up, the hotter the temperatures. So, depending on the health and fitness of the individual would depend on the level used (lower down if not as healthy).
The most distinguising feature of a Russian bath, is the custom of hitting the skin with small branches of birch or oak (small twigs and leaves, not large, thick branches!). The theory is that it helps improve circulation.
The bathing ritual commonly lasts for quite some time, and anywhere from 3 to 6 hours is not unusual, especially for men. Of course, not all time is spent inside the banya, and periodic breaks are a must. In Russia, it is common to go from banya to the cold snow outside in winter, and even to dive into an "ice-hole" into freezing cold water.
Fluid intake is also important during this time, to counter the large amounts of fluid lost from the body due to perspiration. Special herbal tea is common, and for men, beer is a very popular accompaniment to the Russian bath.
Banyas are everywhere in Russia - it's an essential experience! Whether it's in a small wooden hut in the countryside, or a 5-star luxury hotel, be sure to try it out on your next visit.
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