Anna is a New Yorker writing about her globe-trotting, culinary, and healthy living adventures.
Authentic Russian saunas, also known as Russian bathhouses or "banya" in Russian have been growing in popularity in recent years. At least in New York City they have! There was a time when only Russians frequented these spas to sweat their faces off, but recently with Groupon offering deals to these fabulous venues, more people have been venturing to them . . . and coming back for more!
Traditional Russian bathhouses have been part of their culture since medieval times and nowadays can be found in most cities around the world with a large Russian community.
Typical Russian saunas in the United States have a variety of different rooms within them where bathers can go into each, sit down and literally sweat their faces off. These include a:
- A steam room made of wooden planks
- A steam room made of bricks
- Turkish steam room decorated with ceramic tiles
- Dry room
Following each of the rooms, it's customary to plunge into an ice-cold pool where an ice machine shoots ice cubes (really, it's that cold!). Then you do the routine over and over again. You might also go to the lounge area for a break and perhaps take a shot of vodka with your friends.
This guide will explain what Russian saunas are, their health benefits, and what to expect when you go to one.
Health Benefits of Saunas and Steam Rooms
A sauna is essentially a heated room that makes you sweat and feel relaxed when you sit or lay down in it.
A major part of Russian saunas are the steam rooms.
Relaxing inside a steam room has the following benefits:
- Relaxing sore muscles
- Cleansing pores
- Detoxifying you from toxins that lie below the skin
- Exfoliating skin
- Controlling blood pressure
What to Expect at a Russian Bathhouse
What should you expect at a Russian bathhouse? Definitely anticipate lots of sweating, steaming, soaking, and eating! Sounds enticing? Oh, it is! Once you go, you'll probably want to come back for more—it's that good! My friends and I now do regular get-togethers at a Russian spa we've come to love in Brooklyn, NY.
When you enter a Russian sauna, you'll need to check in your valuables, and in return, you'll be given a key to the locker room. Then you head to either the men's or women's changing room where you change into your bathing suit and leave your things at your locker. Afterward, you use another door to enter the interior of the sauna where the different bathing rooms are located and both men and women get reunited.
Here's what you'll find at a Russian sauna:
- Several different steam rooms and a dry room
- A jacuzzi
- Spa services such as different massages and "venik" treatment (for an extra fee)
- A restaurant featuring Russian fare, including specialties like crepes with Salmon caviar, dried fish, and draft Russian beer
- A very relaxing atmosphere
Admission fees (typically around $35 in NYC) usually include access to the steam rooms, a dry room, a jacuzzi, an ice-cold pool, access to an outdoor deck, and a relaxing lounge that doubles as a restaurant. At the lounge, you'll be able to order authentic Russian cuisine or just lounge around if you wish.
What to Bring to a Russian Banya
Wondering what to bring to a Russian spa? Definitely bring your bathing suit and flip-flops (although really tacky flip-flops are provided complimentary, I like to bring my own because I don't want to put my feet into flip-flops that have been previously worn). Also, bring something comfy to wear for the lounge area that you can easily get in and out of. I personally bring a cute short sauna robe. And since your hair will get wet, bring shampoo (although complimentary shampoo is provided) and conditioner. Also, many bathers wear special sauna hats (they're wool) and help maintain body temperature. Many people also bring facial cleansers and other beauty products for the skin.
The "Venik" Treatment
A "venik" treatment is a traditional part of the Russian sauna experience. A venik is a bundle of leafy twigs usually made from birch or oak trees (sometimes eucalyptus, lime tree, or fir trees are used).
A venik is used to massage and warm up the body. It's also said to have many health benefits including:
- Improving blood circulation
- Intensifying skin's capillary activities
- Improving your metabolism system
- Preventing premature aging of skin
Each type of venik has different benefits.
A birch venik helps with muscle and joint pain, helps clear up skin, accelerates the healing of wounds and scratches, and smells really nice! It's said that dunking your head in a bucket infused with a birch venik will strengthen your hair and will get rid of dandruff if you have it.
An oak venik is the best option for people with oily skin. It is said to make skin smooth and to have a strong anti-inflammatory effect. The smell of this type of venik removes stress.
There's usually an additional fee for a venik treatment at a Russian sauna. You can also bring your own venik which can be bought online or on-site at the spa. To use a venik, you will need to soak it for 20 minutes in warm water (buckets with warm water are provided at the sauna). You will know the venik is ready when the leaves are soft. A venik usually lasts several sessions but if it's already missing lots of leaves or has bare ends, it's time to part with it.