Like its neighbors on Scandinavia, Russia also has its own sauna tradition. Well, during extremely cold months, warming yourself at with a steam bath does sound like a good idea. Knowing how harsh winter in Russia is, no wonder steam bath is one of their popular pastimes. Steam bath in Russia is called banya. It’s one thing you should try when you’re visiting the country.
History of Banya
Banya has been around since as early as 945 AD, according to an ancient story at Radzivill Chronicle. It was first described in 1113 on East Slavic Primary Chronicle. The description almost sounds like today’s Banya, where people “warm themselves in the wooden bathhouses”, and people “last themselves” with young reeds. You can read more about Banya’s history and health benefit here.
The word Banya itself comes from a Greek origin, means “clean a body with the help of steam”.
Banya is almost everywhere in Russia To this day, it remains one of the popular social activities to do. Families spend their weekend on Banya, friends “flogging” each other dried herbs at Banya. Businessmen discuss their business deals by having a relaxing session at Banya with their business partners. It’s also a place where politicians meet and having a discussion. Banya can be found almost in every city in Russia. You can even find a Russian Banya at London too.
Difference between Banya and Sauna
In hindsight, you’ll see how Banya sounds like Sauna or any steam bath around the worlds. But Banya, the Slavic steam bath, has its distinct characteristic. The difference lies in its heating technique and also its tradition, how Russian people do it. It is different from a Sauna, Turkish bath, or a Japanese hot bath.
1. Banya is a part of Slavic culture
First of all, Banya is exclusive of Slavic culture. It originated in Slavic countries centuries ago, and remain popular until today. In the Soviet era, Banya was even more popular because people lived in a small apartment and they lack a proper bath. People go to Banya as often as every week. It can be said that Banya is a part of Russian identity.
2. Dry heat vs Wet heat
Banya uses a different heating method than Sauna. Typically, a Sauna uses dry steam where the hot stone is kept exposed on an open stove, where the humidity is set to be low at a Sauna. Meanwhile, a Banya uses steam bath technique. The hot stones are kept hotter inside a closed stove. There are small openings that let steam exit the stove gradually for a higher temperature.
3. Steam vs almost no steam.
The different heating method results in Sauna having a lot of fog inside the room. Meanwhile, you can see that many patches of fog in a banya heating room. The closed stove results in a clear wet fog. The temperature is the same between the Sauna and Banya, around 77 C to 105 C. But humidity of Banya is higher.
4. Wear a hat during bath
although Banya and Sauna share the same temperature, Due to the highest humidity, Banya will feel hotter to visitors. This is why Russians wear a felt hat when they go inside the steam room. The head area of a human body is known to heat faster than the rest of your body. So, to prevent your head from overheating, you wear a hat during a banya session. The hat keeps your head temperature low during the bath.
The hat is unique to Banya only. It’s something you can’t find anywhere else in the world.
5. Douse with cold water
Once in a while during the bath, people will douse their body with cold water. It makes your body temperature lower so you can last long inside the hot room. It’s a practice you’ll never encounter in a Sauna. But it is one of the quirks of Russian Banya.
6. Flogging or lashing
For the most health effect, you can find on a steam bath, Russians have a routine they call venik, or flogging the body with dry twigs. It is believed to have a health benefit for your skin and your body. People usually use birch tree twigs and last themselves with it. Friends will take a turn to lash one another.
You lash the twig after you sweat from the steam bath. It said to improve blood circulation and releases toxins. There are so many kinds of herbs used depending on your health needs. People use oak to moisturize skin, lime tree twigs are for headaches, fir twigs are for good circulation, and the birch twigs for join aches and muscle strains.
7. Banya vocabularies
Banya even comes with their own terms and vocabularies. A steam room is called “parilka”. The dried twigs and herbs are called “veniks”. If they want the room to be steamier, they’ll ask with an expression “poddat’ paru”. Even you can wish each other a good and beneficial steam bath by saying “s legkim parom”, translated in English as “enjoy your steam”.
So, those are the 7 Differences Between Russian Banya and Sauna. Although they are different, their similarities are also a lot. Both Banya and Sauna are a tradition to keep one’s hygiene, health, and cleanliness. It also a social activity. It’s to warm up your body during winter. Sauna and Banya are quite similar in its basic principles.