Russian Banya

A Bather’s Guide to Thermal Rooms – Part 3 (Saunas)

Thermal bathing is becoming more popular than ever. However, with so many different rooms to use, how do you know which ones will offer you the benefits you are looking for?

Follow our series of blogs designed to explain the look, temperature, useage and benefits of each room and discover the range of experiences and rituals available.

Overview:

In general, sauna rooms are traditionally clad in timber with benches, a wood stove or electric heater and stones.   They are commonly built using Aspen, Alder, Cedar, Spruce, Ash or Kelo timber, some of which can be heat treated to intensify their colour and aroma.   Some rooms have feature walls made from slate or stone and glass can also be used for walls and doors to enhance the feeling of space.   Both LED lighting and fibre optics are used for ambience, relaxation and mood enhancement through chromotherapy.

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Some rooms have feature walls made from slate or stone and glass can also be used for walls and doors to enhance the feeling of space.   Both LED lighting and fibre optics are used for ambience, relaxation and mood enhancement through chromotherapy (please see previous blog post Complementary Wellbeing Part 2 – Chromotherapy for more on the benefits of mood lighting).

Traditional (or Finnish) Sauna:

Temp Range:   80 – 100C                             

Percentage Humidity:   10-20%

Traditional (or Finnish) Sauna

Traditional (or Finnish) Sauna

A traditional sauna is a hot, dry room with wooden benches, typically in two tiers.   The lower benches are always cooler than the top benches, often by about 20 degrees.  Ensure you find a temperature to bathe in that is comfortable for you.   Small amounts of water can be ladled onto the stones to increase the humidity for a short period of time.  Add a few drops of your favourite essential oil to the water (if you can – not all commercial spas will allow it), infusing the steam created with your chosen fragrance.

Benefits:

The high temperature in the sauna releases endorphins, which are the body’s natural painkillers, sometimes referred to as ‘happy hormones’.  Endorphins can ease the pain of arthritis and relieve muscle soreness after intense exercise.     Sweating caused by high temperatures opens the skin’s pores and helps reduce levels of toxins and impurities in the body, eliminating waste and reducing the load put on the kidneys.  Sauna bathing also lowers blood pressure temporarily and improves circulation as the blood cells dilate, increasing the oxygen levels around the body.

Banya (or Russian Bathing):

Temperature Range:      70-110⁰C

Percentage Humidity:   40-70%

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Banya (or Russian Bathing)

A Banya traditionally incorporates a wood burning heater.  Water is generously ladled onto hot stones, or even thrown at the walls, to increase the humidity in the room.  To protect the head from overheating in the high temperatures, bathers often wear Sauna hats which can first be dipped in water to aid the cooling process.    Often a massage is carried out using a fragrant bundle of thin leafy twigs bound together called a Venik, or Vihta.  This is said to release toxins through the skin, ease muscle tension and improve blood circulation.

Venik Massage:

Venik

Venik bundle

There are several techniques involved in a Venik massage – waggling, compressing, stroking and lashing.  It is best to use these techniques one after the other.

Waggle – flutter the Venik just above the body to create an air flow that warms the body up for more intense procedures.

Stroking – gently press the Venik against the body and draw it from head to toe and back again.

Compress – raise the Venik up to the warmer air, shake it to gather the heat, then press firmly against the body for 2-3 seconds

Lashing:  Light sliding hits with the Venik.

Alternate the stroking and lashing, then combine compressing and lashing – lash the body two or three times and then press against the body for 2-3 seconds.  Generally, this is carried out by an experienced masseuse.

Benefits:             The same as for a Traditional Sauna.

Herbal Sauna:

Temperature Range:      50-70⁰C

Percentage Humidity:   25-40%

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Herbal Sauna

An herbal sauna is very similar to a traditional sauna, although is often slightly cooler.  Fresh or dried herbs of your choice are put into a small amount of water in a bowl or dish suspended over the heater stones.    In commercial saunas, a tray of herbs is placed above the heater and water is dripped over the herbs from a tap.    As the herbs heat up in the water, their aroma is released gently into the room.

As in the traditional sauna, the lower benches are always cooler than the top benches so bathe where you feel the most comfortable.   Ladle water over the stones to increase humidity for short periods.

 

Sauna Master (or Aufgiesser)

Several spa’s employ a Sauna Master to enhance the bathing experience of their guests.   It is impossible to give an exact description of what they do as each Sauna Master will have their own techniques and rituals.  However the experience will always involve aromatherapy and heat manipulation.

Generally, the Sauna Master will pour water enriched with essential oils onto the hot stones, creating a burst of scented steam, releasing the health properties of each essence.  This makes the air more humid and the heat feels more intense.

They will start waving a towel, using different movements, to agitate the hot air and circulate it around the sauna, intensifying the sensation of heat.  Then they fan the bathers by wafting the towel in front of them creating a wave of heat that rushes over their body.  The bathers breathe deeply, inhaling the healing vapours of the essences.

The Sauna Master will encourage bathers to leave and cool down before repeating the process several times.

 

 

 

For more information on bathing rituals click here:  http://www.dromuk.com/online/dromology

 

 

Sweat bathing the Banya way ….

Banya stove - Photo by Vlad Chorazy

Banya stove – Photo by Vlad Chorazy

A variation on the traditional sauna bathing practice is the Russian Banya.   The Russians have long understood the concept of health and water and sweat bathing is now part of everyday life for most Russians, because of the many health benefits as well as for relaxation.

The basic concept of true Banya bathing is to sit in an extremely hot sauna for 10-15 minutes (or as long as you feel comfortable), cool off in cold water, return to the sauna for an invigorating Venik massage then cool off again as before.  This ritual can be repeated as often as required and a refreshing drink (water or herbal tea) should be incorporated into each cooling down procedure.

The temperature within the Banya should always exceed 90 degrees Centigrade.   The heaters are wood burning stoves or ovens with stones on top.  Once the stones are hot enough, the smoke from the wood is let out either through the door (in a ‘Black’ banya) or the chimney (in a more modern ‘White’ banya).  Then water is poured onto the hot stones to produce the steam and increase the humidity in the room.     DROM_022

As the head heats up quicker than the rest of the body, it is advisable to wear a felt sauna hat.  This can be dipped into cool water beforehand, enabling the bather to stay in the Banya longer for optimum benefit.

The steam and heat of the Banya opens the pores, improves blood circulation, eliminates toxins through the skin, increases metabolism and increases the oxygen level of the cells.   The heat also creates artificial fever conditions within the body which boosts the immune system.

Once the bather is sweating profusely, it is time to cool off.  Most Russians throw themselves into the snow or an icy lake, but in the absence of these a quick dip into a plunge pool or ice bath is just as beneficial!     Watch out for future blogs on the best way to refresh after sauna bathing.

Then it is back to the Banya.   Again, water is sprinkled onto the stones to create more steam.   It is common to enhance the bathing experience by adding essential oils, eucalyptus leaves or mint to the water, as different fragrances can either aid relaxation, reinvigorate you or de-stress you.

Once the steam has disappeared and the sauna is bearably hot, it is time for a Venik massage.  A venik is a fragrant bundle of twigs tied together which is used to stroke and lash the body to improve blood circulation and metabolism.    The most common veniks are made from birch twigs, but eucalyptus and oak are also widely used.

There are several ways to use a Venik, including waggling, compressing, stroking and lashing massage techniques.   It is best to use these techniques one after the other.

IMG_7116Waggle – flutter the Venik just above the body to create an air flow that warms the body up for more intense procedures.

Stroke – gently press the Venik against the body and draw it from head to toe and back again.                                            

Compress – raise the Venik up to the warmer air, shake it to gather the heat, then press firmly against the body for 2-3 seconds.

Lash – Light sliding hits with the Venik.

Alternate the stroking and lashing, then combine compressing and lashing – lash the body two or three times and then press against the body for 2-3 seconds.  This stimulates blood flow to the outer layers of skin which helps draw waste out through the open pores.

To get the best out of Banya bathing, repeat the hot, cold and massage rituals several times.   Take your time and enjoy all the wellbeing benefits this particular form of sauna bathing can offer.