Working cross-culturally here in the USA, I'm always giving invitations and looking for ways to create community. So, when one of my international friends, Medina, from Kazakhstan reciprocated and invited me to a traditional Russian banya, I was delighted to accept. She also brought along her friend, Rayana. Though I’ve been many places and done many things, this was certainly one of my most memorable cross-cultural experiences.
The “banya” is a type of Russian heat spa. It’s very important across Slavic cultures and has been used for hundreds of years to promote health and healing. It’s an important social activity. At the banya, men and women rotate between very hot rooms and cold baths or showers. The adrenaline produced in the body is healing for the immune system, so they say.
In addition to steam, men often lash themselves lightly with veniks which are dried trees or herbs resembling short broom sticks that have been soaked in hot water. This reddens the skin, which is thought to improve blood flow, reduce joint and muscle pain, and aid in detoxification. Participants rotate between sessions of hot and cold until they feel fully relaxed.
Modern Banyas in Russia have separate rooms for men and women, but no clothing is worn. After steaming themselves, they might take an ice bath or just run naked into the snow. In America, however, men and women bathe together in swimsuits, wearing traditional pointy felt hats to protect the head and hair. The idea of the banya isn't entirely Russian; Finnish, Swedish and Turkish cultures all boast similar types of public heat spas.
“In Kazakhstan, if you don’t go once a week, you aren’t clean. Showers just rub the dirt around, but in the banya you clean deep down from the pores.” Medina tells me.
At this particular banya, there was an entrance room or common area between three hot saunas: the lower temperature, higher temperature, and “American steam room.” Walking forward there were some curtains with showers, a large bubbling jacuzzi, and then an open bar with many tables and a restaurant. The floor was wet, and the atmosphere was moist and steamy.
Medina puts her felt cap on. “You need one of these," she said.
“Why?” I asked.
“To protect your brain from heat, and your hair… you know what steam does to hair.”
I was apprehensive. At this point I really couldn’t care what happened to my hair. Rayana and I just took an extra towel and wrapped it on our heads.
Medina and Rayana watched my face and giggled as we walked into the lower-temperature heat room. “I can’t breathe in here!” I exclaimed.
“This is the easy one!” Rayana laughed. “We will work our way up to the hard one.”
We sat for a few minutes as skin began to glisten. Breathing in the moist, hot air felt strange in my throat and nostrils. There was a large oven in the corner of the room. It was bearable, though, like Savannah, Georgia in the summertime. “I can do this,” I thought.
After 8 minutes or so, we stepped out into the center area, where there was a line for an open shower. I figured people do this to rinse off the sweat. One man stood under the water, touching his toes, and then doing a lunge to stretch his muscles. He looked pretentious, but the water looked refreshing. When it was our turn, I cautiously reached my hand under the water, discovering that this was no normal communal shower. It felt like ice water. Rayana laughed and then pushed me under, holding onto my arms. I stood there immobilized screaming, “AHHHHHH YOU PEPOPLE ARE CRAZY!!” … Eventually, I squirmed out of her grasp and Medina was having a hearty laugh, thoroughly amused. I had to slow my breathing not to hyperventilate from the adrenaline.
Apparently, Russians like to torture themselves.
After some sips of water and a few moments to recover, we decided to try to the “hard” sauna. It was crowded on all three seating levels, men sitting shoulder to shoulder. At least 25 men, sweaty and half naked, mostly in their 30’s and 40’s with big muscles and tattoos. We sat right down in front. “It’s better to start on the lower levels, because heat rises” Medina told me. I was wearing a baggy blue tank top and modest exercise shorts, but still I felt self-conscious. The only other woman present was a very attractive woman wearing a scandalous black string bikini. I sat next to her, thinking “whew. They won’t be looking at me.” ... The thermometer read 202 degrees. It wasn’t as terrible as I imagined. My muscles began to feel loose and soft. Sweat glistened and began to drop down my back. I scratched my legs which were itchy from the heat. They looked red and splotchy; turns out steam is a great exfoliator.
I thought about my hands. Maybe the banya will help my hands feel soft, I thought...
Without a doubt, my hands are my most unattractive feature. My skin is rough and calloused in many places. My knuckles are knotty, and my fingers (if you look closely) are curved, like they’re in the early stages of RA. Perhaps it’s the years of piano playing, diaper changing and (more recently) digging in garden dirt. Perhaps it’s my lazy aversion to moisturizer. I keep my nails cut short. There’s absolutely no point in adorning them with acrylic and pink sparkles. But they are very strong. They can play sonatas and survive through hours of massage and counterpressure on a laboring woman’s backside. At least they’re useful for being so ugly. Thankfully, men don’t care too much about hands beyond their functionality. If they did, I might’ve lived a spinster. I’d grow old as a librarian with 18 cats. (Sounds like a nice life, actually. Quieter than my current reality).
Rayana and Medina looked engaged in a heated debate, speaking Russian and using gestures I didn’t understand. So, I sat there quietly imagining my life as ugly-handed cat-lady when Medina finally says, “Ok! Let’s go.” We walked out into the common area, but this time I only rinsed my hands and face under the ice water. We followed this pattern of rotating rooms and cold showers four or five times before sitting down at the restaurant to enjoy a nice meal of rice and lamb kababs.
Over dinner, Rayana shared about her Baha'i faith. She didn’t feel confident in her English, and she kept looking at Medina to translate between us. “The last person I talked to about Bahai converted from Christianity,” she challenged me. “Don’t worry. I love to talk about religion.” I told her.
Rayana is Baha'i, Medina is Muslim, and I am a Christian. So, of course, it was a lively conversation. Then Rayana asked for my birthday. I didn’t see how that was relevant to our theological discussion, but I told her anyway. She looked at me, seriously, and said something in Russian. “You are a complex person; you have two competing energies,” Medina translated. (I still have no idea what that meant). “Rayana believes in numerology. She says you can learn a lot from the numbers in your life,” Medina explained. The conversation continued. This was certainly an interesting place to have spiritual conversations. I made a mental note to google "numerology" later.
I had to admit, I felt very relaxed. I had almost begun to enjoy the warmth of the banya. I was cold and enveloped in a soggy wet towel during our meal. Afterwards, I grabbed a dry towel as we revisited the "easy" sauna one last time. Then, as is the tradition, we went to the women’s locker room for a full shower, scrubbing our skin and applying copious amounts of lotion. I felt so exfoliated! I was instructed to use extra moisturizer, because the pores are more open and can easily absorb. My hands were ugly as ever – but for once, they felt quite soft.
I left the Banya relaxed and grateful to have experienced such an important part of my friends’ culture.
Slavic people do like to torture themselves. But, then again, maybe they have good reasons.