If you are looking for a way to relax and de-stress this winter, visiting your local Russian bath house might be the answer. However, before you get your shvitz on, there are a few things you should know before heading to the banya. The first visit can be a little overwhelming (and not just because you're wearing a skimpy bathing suit in front of a room of strangers). There is a whole culture and ritual surrounding sauna — one which is unfamiliar to most of us. It's easy to feel out of one's depth and uncomfortable, and something meant to relax you can turn into anything but.
If you are expecting a spa experience, you will be sadly disappointed. Thankfully, bathhouses have a lot of great amenities without the high price tag. After a one-time entrance fee you will have access to the entire facility. There will be dry saunas, wet saunas, dunking pools, an in-house restaurant, and you can usually book a massage for an extra charge. The bathhouse is about extremes — you get very hot then take an ice cold shower or dunk and get very cold, then repeat. Many different cultures have their own type of saunas. You can find bathhouses all over Russia, Turkey, Sweden, and Finland. Sauna life is said to have many health benefits, especially for the heart.
But going to the sauna isn't a boutique pampering experience (though with places like decadent Spa Castle in NYC it might turn into that). What used to be a social pastime reserved for older men to detox, converse, and debate, is gaining traction with Millennials. The New York Times described "a bathhouse renaissance in full swing," detailing the history and importance of the institution in their recent article "After 124 Years, The Russian And Turkish Baths Are Still A Hot Spot."
Give it a try, and once you let the steam unknot your shoulders, you will wonder why it took you so long to get there. If you are not sure what to expect, here are a few helpful tips to prepare you for your first visit.
1. Wear A Comfortable Bathing Suit
Some will say that all you really need to bring to the bathhouse is a bathing suit (assuming that it is coed). It is important that you feel comfortable in the suit you choose, because you'll be spending a lot of time in it. Do not bring any swimsuit that has metal details that could heat up and burn you in hot sauna temps. I don't like to wear anything too skimpy on my bottom half, as the cedar benches in the steam rooms can get so hot that even a towel will not protect your poor backside. Towels are also provided, and sometimes you can rent a robe for an extra charge. If you feel a little bashful about strutting your stuff, grab a robe from home that you don't mind getting damp.
2. Bring Your Own Shoes
In my past experience, I have found it helpful to bring my own flip flops. The bathhouse will have communal shoes provided, but these are usually one-size-fits-all (and not necessarily the cleanest shoes you will ever wear). No one wants to feel like a clown wearing foam slip-ons three sizes too big, carefully shuffling around the wet tile.
3. People Will Speak Russian
Most Russian bathhouses I have visited in Brooklyn are run by people of Russian descent and predominantly serve that community. They have always made me feel very comfortable and accepted, even if I couldn't understand everything they were saying or read the menu. It's fun to take in the scene, and feel transported to somewhere a little more exotic!
4. Do Not Laugh At The Adorable Felt Hats
Seeing grown men, their bellies spilling over their towels, wearing adorable elfin bell-shaped hats may seem silly, but they serve an important purpose. A felted cap is a traditional steaming accessory that keeps the head from heating up faster than the body's core temperature when sitting or standing in a steam room (this is why many recommend laying down during your shvitz). Felt insulates the head, keeping it at a constant temperature (so when it gets up to 90 degrees you don't overheat). Those little hats are also said to protect the hair from heat damage. You can get a similar effect from wrapping a towel around your head, though it might not look quite as cute.
5. Being Slapped With Branches Can Feel Kind Of Good
Traditionally, bundles of leafy oak or birch branches called "venik" are used to swat and massage a person's body while they steam. This can look fairly violent, but according to Russian-Bath.com it is supposed to have many great health benefits, such as: "improves blood circulation, intensifies skins capillary activities and metabolism." Supposedly, it also exfoliates and makes your skin softer, which is important in the winter. When the venik is fluttered and pressed into your back it will sting, and feel a bit painful, but should feel oddly good as well. Some bathhouses offer this service at a charge, but for most, you bring your own branch and soak it in a bucket when it's not in use.
6. If You Feel Lightheaded It's Time For A Break
It's very important to listen to your body when you are exposing it to extreme temperatures. Some guys might think throwing eight scoops of water on the stones makes them look tough. But hotter doesn't mean better, and if the stones become too cold the steam can become heavier and less pleasant to breath. Resting between rounds in steam room is key, and if a room is not to your liking, just leave and find one that is at a better temperature.
7. Eat At The Restaurant
Most bathhouses have a restaurant or bar where you can take breaks between steams. You may notice that many people have a large pot of hot tea on their table. This is because sauna wisdom says that while you may want nothing more than a cold beer, cold drinks slow down the sweating process. Many people choose to eat something light, like a fruit salad, since the heat might make digesting a big meal more difficult. If you choose to stay for dinner you will most likely find Russian specialty foods like smoked fish, stews, beef and lamb tongue, and more on the menu. Give yourself the full immersive experience by taking a chance on a new dish.
8. Relax And Have Fun
The point of the bathhouse is to detox and de-stress. Keep in mind that it's not a test seeing who can steam the longest or get the hottest. Take plenty of breaks, chat with your friends, and you'll be relaxed in no time.
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