The Banya is, arguably, the most Russian thing there that exists. A little building with three rooms – all part of a ritual behavior known to all. In the first room, you spend the least amount of time – leave your coat on a hook and change your shoes for some slippers. In the next, undress and get ready to experience a heat and humidity that will make even the most hardened southerner weak at the knees.
When you first enter, you will notice that it hurts to breathe – not a lot, but each breath through your mouth burns a bit, so you stick with breathing through your nose. Next, you will start to smell the tinge of birch circling through the air – on account of the birch wood benches or the birch veniki that will help massage your body after a good sweat has been worked up.
Sitting in a Banya is different for everybody. This weekend, I had the opportunity to steam in a private Banya in Buryatia, a semi-autonomous republic on the southern shore of Lake Baikal. It was there I steamed and washed alone – and it was a wonderful experience. Being with the same seven people day-in and day-out for a semester can be taxing; staying with those same seven people for an extended weekend in close quarters only adds to the inevitable annoyance that boils within my largely introverted brain. But the Banya – the banya relieved all of these feelings. Perhaps they were sweat out along with the months of dirt since my last Banya visit. Perhaps the joy gained from a trip to the Banya simply overruled these negative feelings. Perhaps it was the birch, perhaps it was the veniki, perhaps it was the bannik, or “spirit of the Banya,” that is thought to tell fortunes and be a guiding force in life.
Having steamed before, I thought I knew how it felt; but I was wrong. I had steamed before in New Jersey, in a public Banya where everyone wore swimsuits and a 30-year-old man asked me if I’d like him to beat me with veniki. But I digress – I had never steamed when it was at the freezing point outside, or when it was so dark outside you could see the milky way. My steams had never been that kind of magical.
My favorite feeling, to which I’ve already alluded, in the Banya is the skin peeling off after sweating for a few minutes. In the New Jersey Banya, there was a scale where you could weigh yourself before and after – seeing a physical difference in both water-weight loss and, as gross as it sounds, dead skin loss. The feeling intensifies if you steam multiple times: 30 minutes, exit the steam, douse yourself in freezing cold water, and then go back in again.
As I laid in the Banya, allowing months of dirt to exit my pores, my mind went blank in the best possible way. Here, I am always “on,” having to translate most of what I say, or at the very least think about the case, gender, number, etc. of every word I’m using. It’s quite tiring, and so to be able to sit in a Banya by myself and enjoy the cold outside afterwards is something I desperately needed and something I will not soon forget.
My experience was aided by the fact that I just finished a book I’ve been slowly reading and digesting for 3 months now, With Light Steam: A Personal Journey through the Russian Baths by Bryon MacWilliams. If you are at all curious about the culture of Banyas in Russia, I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Over the summer, I had the chance to hear Bryon speak, so perhaps my reading experience was enhanced by the fact that I can hear his voice in my head, and not just the standard narrator.
Pictured in the featured image is the village in which we stayed: the village in which I steamed.