Stripped naked + stuck in a hot room + drowned in ice water + beat with leaves = a Russian banya.
Banyas are the Russian version of saunas, except they make you want to die while you’re in them. They’re real great when it’s all finished, though.
There are three general areas of the banya: the hot room, the cold room, and the hangout room.
In the hot room, the temperature rises above 150°F (70°C) and the humidity reaches 80% or higher, so you just sit and sweat and sweat and sweat. Because you’re sweating so much, you’re supposed wear nothing but a pair of slippers and a felt hat. The hat protects your head from getting too hot and the slippers prevent you from slipping because the floor and your feet are covered in water and sweat.
Sitting there, your heart starts beating hecka fast and you start breathing like you’re running a marathon.
As if that’s not bad enough, you’re also supposed to hit yourself (or have a friend hit you) with a bushel of birch leaves because #Russia.
But slow down there, Turbo! If you’re new to the banya world, don’t sit in the hot room longer than 10 minutes or you’ll pass out and wake up naked on the floor surrounded by Russians. This isn’t a Ke$ha music video, so pace yourself.
After the hot room, you’re supposed to drench your body in ice-cold water. According to Russian folk wisdom, anything involving ice water and buckets is healthy. The idea here is that the hot room opens up your pores and the cold water closes them, squeezing out any nastiness inside.
To cover yourself in ice water you can 1) jump into a pool of ice water (terrible), 2) lay in a tub of ice water (also terrible), or 3) dump ice water on your head (really terrible). If none of these options are available, just go outside and roll in the snow (which is terrible too).
After this hot/cold torture, you’ll go to the hangout room and relax. Take 15 minutes to recover, then go back in and do the hot/cold process all over again. Repeat four times or until you pass out (but remember that I don’t recommend that option).
Afterward, you’ll feel very refreshed. Your blood has circulated through your whole body, you’ve sweated a lot of junk from your system, and the combination of hot and cold leaves your skin with a nice crackly feeling.
But you’ll also be very very tired. You basically just ran a couple marathons and did five ice bucket challenges, so just go to the closest donut shop and chill for the rest of the day (there’s a Krispy Kreme right off of Red Square).
-Banyas are supposed to be a social event, so bring a friend if you can. Otherwise you’ll just be that weird naked guy sitting in the corner alone (as opposed to that cool naked guy surrounded by his closest naked friends).
-In between hot/cold sessions, instead of going to the hangout room, if you can find a big tub of warm water to chill in, do it. I did and it was one of the most relaxing things of my life.
-The most authentic banyas are the ones at people’s summer homes. So if you want the real experience, just go into the middle of the countryside, find a stranger’s house, and crawl into their banya!
-If you don’t feel like playing Goldilocks with a stranger’s banya or are stuck in the city, I recommend Sanduny in Moscow. The prices there range from pretty cheap to pretty expensive. I did something in-between and it only cost me $40 (because the exchange rate was bomb). It would have been $10-$15 cheaper if I’d brought my own slippers, hat, and birch branch, though, so if you want to save money, buy those things before coming to the banya (you can find them at a grocery store).
Here’s a video I made right after I went in January!!!!!