Few of Russia's traditions are as steeped in ritual than a trip to the banya, a sauna-style bathhouse where the steam is produced by throwing a steady supply of water over heated rocks. In fact, for many banya lovers a trip to the bathhouse is almost a religious experience, complete with birch twigs for self-flagellation (to open pores and promote circulation). The banya is a cultural tradition that became popular in the 17th century, when attending a communal bath was the only way for many Russians to stay clean. Today, it's still believed to have therapeutic benefits and is also valued as a place to relax, socialize, and even do business. Many find that a visit to one is a highlight of a trip to Russia.
Keep in mind that men and women are separated, although families and couples can hire a private bath for use together, and soap is strictly forbidden (the steam is supposed to clean you). To prepare best for the Russian banya, go to the Sandunovskiye bani's website (www.sanduny.ru) and read the "secrets" section (available in English). Here are a few easy steps that will help you get the best steam possible:
1. Check yourself: If you have low or high blood pressure, a heart ailment, or some other health issue, you may want to stay away. Pregnant women and asthma sufferers are advised to do the same.
2. Check In: After paying the entrance fee, your valuables are handed to a special attendant who puts them in a locker and watches over them. Theft is rare, but you may be better off leaving valuables in a hotel safe. Tipping is customary, generally 50R–150R for the attendant, 300R–500R for a good masseur. You'll then be given a towel and assigned a locker for your clothes. Bring a pair of flip-flops to walk around in.
3. Sweat it out: Banya fans believe that steaming helps combat respiratory problems, aids in circulation, and opens the pores to help rid you of "toxins"—that's why the steam room is kept at a toasty 90°C (194°F). Have a seat on one of the benches lining the walls. You can wrap yourself in a towel but most bathers in gender-segregated rooms go nude. Towels are, however, very useful for sitting on. And don't overdo it: 10–15 minutes is more than enough for your first time.
4. Cool down: Once you feel sufficiently steamed, dunk yourself in the pool, barrel, or bucket of icy water provided. If you don't get your body temperature down, your next trip to the steam room won't be much fun.
5. Relax: The banya will probably have a relaxation zone with couches, cold drinks, and even meals. While the ultra-Russian ambience might seem ideal for doing a shot or two of vodka, keep in mind that you'll be dehydrated. Stick to beer, juice, or best of all, water.
6. Repeat steps 3–5: Once you're rested, reenter the steam room. You'll likely sweat more this time. Repeat the process as many times as you see fit, and when you're done, give your neighbors the traditional post-banya salutation: s lyokhim parom—may your steam be light!
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