Banya, The Russian Bath"Give me the power to create a fever, and I shall cure any disease"- Hippocrates
Sweating and health are virtually synonymous in Russia, where in the early 20th Century, more than 30 medical essays were published on the healing powers of the banya, or Russian Bath.
It's a tradition that has been part of Russian culture since medieval times. Almost every village had - and still has - its own banya. Even until today, the perception of the banya as a healing panacea is still common in remote villages where traditional folk medicine prevails.
"Give me the power to create a fever, and I shall cure any disease", said Hippocrates, the Greek founder of modern medicine, over 2,000 years ago. Since then, many cultures have used heat and steam to implement this principle and induce "artificial fever" and sweating.
The essence of the Russian banya is steam. Producing the right steam is crucial as Russians make a distinction between the light and dry steam or the thick and wet one. This is essentially what differentiates the sauna from the banya: The latter has wet, moist steam, while the former is based on hot, dry steam. The banya is not as hot as the Finnish sauna, but compensates in excessive moisture (created by continuously pouring water over the fiery stones of the stove) what it lacks in temperature.
Unless it's a mixed family banya, men and women attend the bath at separate times. Generally, and especially in the small towns or villages, people go to the same banya for years. This makes it an ideal place to meet and socialise. Bathers exchange extensive social greetings upon arrival, then proceed to the "parilka", or steam room.
The "parilka" is lined with benches on at least three levels. It houses a large stove with smouldering stones radiating heat, surrounded by large buckets of water and a giant ladle. A bather takes a ladle full of hot water and pours it directly onto the stones, immediately filling the room with hot, dense steam. While this is happening, another bather guards the door, as it sometimes gets blown open by the pressure of the steam.
The bathers feel their pores open instantly, as they begin to sweat profusely, eliminating in the process the week's accumulated toxins. Novice bathers are sometimes unable to take it and some have to leave at this stage. It's a powerful moment. Russians believe this process not only removes toxins but also cleanses the mind, relieving stress.
The longer you can stay in the banya, the better. Usually, once you've built up a good sweat, you head to the cold pool for a dip - the hot and cold contrast being a crucial element of a real banya-, then it is back again into the steam room. Bathers repeat this process five to six times on each visit. Half way through the bath, the "flogging" starts. Using dried branches of "beryoza" (white birch) or oak tree, previously soaked in hot water, the bathers lash their bodies repeatedly all over, until the skin turns a rosy glow. This process is repeated three times or more, using different branches. The objective of the lashing is to promote good circulation.
In a small town or village the tradition is to go swimming in the nearby lake or river after the banya, or even to go out and roll in the snow in the winter! Certainly, most of us will be satisfied with a mere dip in a cold pool or a cold shower.
To fully experience the banya you must be able to spare around two hours. After which, you'll emerge scrubbed, polished, purged and totally relaxed.
Russians view their visits to a banya as both preventive and healing. For them it's key to continued good health, especially with regards to circulatory and respiratory illnesses. Many Russians believe that the banya is particularly important for preventive maintenance of good health and balance in the body.
Certain herbs used in the water of the banya are believed to intensify the experience. These consist of a combination of leaves including Eucalyptus, Coltsfoots and Pine Buds.
Benefits Of The Banya
William Tooke, a British member of the Imperial Academy of Sciences at St. Petersburg, observed: "In general, the common Russian uses but few medicines; supplying their place in all cases by the SWEATING BATH, a practice so universal among them, and which has so decided an influence on the whole physical state of the people..."
Summary of benefits:
- Opens up pores, stimulating toxin elimination with up to thirty percent of waste and toxins excreted through perspiration.
- Improves blood circulation and heart and vascular systems, increasing the number of red blood cells and haemoglobin quantity.
- Intensifies capillary activities
- Boosts metabolism
- Increases overall cell oxygenation level.
- Alleviates tiredness, stress and mood swings, promoting a state of relaxation.
- Increases mental clarity and emotional stability and provides an overall sense of well being.
Steam bathing is a pleasant and efficient way to fend off neurotoxicity caused by physical stress and environmental toxins altering our psychological and physiological well being. It detoxifies the body by opening up pores and promoting healthy sweating.
Call it sauna, banya, onsen or hamam - the health benefits of steam bathing are tremendous. Around the world, steam baths are increasingly gaining popularity amongst health seekers.
Caution: Remember to consult your doctor if you suffer from any serious health condition before you take up sauna or steam bathing. This is especially important if you have any type of heart condition, as a sharp temperature increase can cause cardiac arrhythmia. Pregnant women and people with high blood pressure or diabetes should also avoid saunas and steam baths before seeking medical advice.
PS: Accumulated toxins age the body because they prevent cells from regenerating efficiently. Louis Kuhne, an early pioneer of hydrotherapy (19th century), particularly recommends combining the sauna experience with the Detox Bath for a highly effective daily detox.
Stress, anxiety, anger and all negative emotions release toxins in the body. More
"A great life is born in the soul, grown in the mind and lived from the heart."