What is Banya
Banya is a common Russian word for a steam sauna which has old cultural roots across Eastern European countries like Belarus, Russia, Ukraine and others. For generations it used to be a central point to relax, improve health and socialise. Due to deep treatment by wet heat that opens your skin pores it was considered as the only place for “real” cleaning of body and soul. Banya was considered so important that in a Belarusian village, for example, most of the families would have a dedicated sauna house (banya) as a “must have”, second to the house they live in.
Difference between dry (Finnish) sauna and Banya
Dry saunas are the most common and widely used type of saunas in Australia (your gym or swimming pools would have one of them). They are creating dry heat with humidity of about 15% - 30% and temperatures in a range of 80C - 90C. This type of saunas are known as “Finnish” saunas. However, original finish saunas used to be wood fired with humid steam in a wooden house. Over time it became more convenient to have dry saunas with electric heating in urban settings. This is how modern “finish” style sauna originated.
On the other hand, banya is a based on high humidity and lower temperatures of 60C to 80C. Due to high humidity your perceived heat is higher than in dry saunas. The humidity in Banya is not constant and varies after each time water is being added on rocks.
Dry style saunas generate more body sweat than banya and the heat penetration is mostly limited by the surface of the skin. On the other hand, due to high humidity, our bodies can’t produce as much sweat in banya making heat pressure more intensive. It is said that banya heats your body deep inside.
So, what is the traditional banya? Usually it consists of at least 2 main rooms: changeroom (called “predbannik”) and sauna room (called “parilka”). The changeroom is there to leave your clothes and also often used to rest between sauna sessions while chatting to your friends and drinking Ivan Tea or kvass (special fermented drink similar to kombucha).
The sauna room (“parilka”) is the main place for “steaming”. There is no actual word in English that can translate or express the process of “steaming”. What happens there is expressed by a verb in Russian “paritsia”. Which means undergo the special body massage (usually with the help of your friend) by using a bundle of leafy tree twigs that called “venik”. The correct procedure of how to do that is described on our “How to Use Banya” page.
The heat in banya is created by wood fired stove which has rocks for steam generation and a hot water container. Every time when you want to create steam you take the hot water from the container and splash it on top of rocks. The temperature will soar and this is the right time to undergo treatment with “veniki”.
The other important part of Belorussian banya is its outdoor area. Usually, family banya is built by the lake or a small pond in the garden. After each steaming session you would jump out of banya straight to water to cool yourself. During winter you would go for the snow outside. Yes, you would! This is how locals grew up with their sauna culture. Besides, body exposure to contrast extreme temperatures for a short period of time has a range of health benefits which will be discussed later.
Traditionally, people used banya not only for its health benefits but as part of overall lifestyle. There were not many studies conducted on the effect on health of regular going to traditional Slavic banya. In fact, many locals say that banya is good on itself and doesn’t need any scientific studies.
On the other hand, finish and infrared saunas have been studied in more details. Based on the studies, there is considerable evidence to suggest that sauna bathing can induce profound physiological effects that affects different aspects of our bodies and mind.
Intense short-term heat exposure elevates skin and core body temperatures and activates thermoregulatory pathways via the hypothalamus and central nervous system leading to activation of the autonomic nervous system which results in increased heart rate, skin blood flow, cardiac output, and sweating.
On a cellular level, whole-body thermotherapy induces discrete metabolic changes that include production of heat shock proteins, reduction of the oxidative stress and inflammation activities, increased insulin sensitivity, and other changes. It has also been suggested that heat stress induces adaptive body mechanisms and the establishment of “sauna fitness” which is similar to exercise. So, our bodies consider time in sauna as exercise while we simply enjoy it.
The most studied effect of regular sauna is on cardiovascular health. It reduces risk of high blood pressure, stroke and memory diseases. Regular sauna (at least 4 times a week) can half the risk of death from cardiovascular disease or coronary heart disease.
Some other documented beneficial effects of regular sauna bathing include:
Reduced effect of pulmonary diseases including asthma, pneumonia and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease,
Improved cholesterol balance,
Reduced effect of depressions and psychological stress, improved sleep and relaxation, switching off from busy lifestyle,
Reduced symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis,
Detoxification through heavy sweating and improved overall body metabolism.
Besides, it is very common for Eastern Europeans to use Banya and steam body massage with venik as a remedy against early stages of cold sickness, running nose, coughing and flu. That’s why they often say “Banya health everything”.
Social Connections and Banya Etiquette
Banya is a common place for family and social connections. Usually the whole family will gather for banya at least once a week on Saturday in a Belorussian village. After couple hours of banya induced relaxation the family dinner would usually follow. Inviting your friends for banya and dinner is also very popular option. In fact, even business culture is connected to sauna. It is very common in Eastern Europe to have a whole day of relaxed sauna negotiations with your business partners or colleagues in sauna retreats.
It is also important to know some simple rules in banya which helps everyone to have good experience.
First of all, when coming in and out steam room make sure the door is closed properly. Nothing is more frustrating in banya than slightly open door.
Secondly, avoid walking in or out of the steam room when someone just added water on rocks or started body massage with veniki. By opening the door, you are reducing temperature and steam inside, which is exactly opposite to what others want. As a respect to others, you should wait until steam is subside.
Thirdly, use personal towel to sit on benches for hygienic reasons.
Lastly, please remember that banya is not a place for nudity if it’s mixed male and female. Some countries (like Germany) accept nudity in mixed sauna as normal but not in Eastern European banya. So, please make sure you wear bathers at all times.
Enjoy our Tiny Banya!