Jan 02, 2018

Russian Banya

Joanne Colella

With January upon us and the stress of the holiday hustle and bustle having taken its toll, it’s only natural to seek out new opportunities for warmth and relaxation – ideally, without having to board a plane or cruise ship to expensive, faraway destinations. For those who yearn for a more convenient and cost-effective day’s outing that offers a tropical climate, delectable dining, a cultural experience, and health benefits, too, here is an exquisitely unique suggestion: a trip to a Russian banya.

For the uninitiated, a banya – or Russian bath – is akin to what you may find when you go to a resort or perhaps even a health club with a sauna and steam room – but so much better! A Russian banya experience is a full-blown event to be savored and is a family affair, with everyone from grandmothers to teens to young children gathering to enjoy good food, great company, a soothing setting, and warmth, in every sense of the word. An essential part of life in Russia for centuries, banya locations can be found throughout the tri-state area, with most of them offering the same basic amenities, but some more inviting than others.

Generally, a Russian banya will include several varieties of steam room, some with added aromatherapy; an icy cold plunge pool, to provide a brisk counter to the heat and stir the circulation; a pool and/or Jacuzzi; showers; spa treatment rooms; separate locker rooms for men and women; and relaxation or mediation areas. In addition, there will usually be a restaurant and a juice bar, plus ample seating and tables for family and friends to mix and mingle, snack, watch television, read, or play cards.

Preparing for a visit to the banya is easy; the only thing that’s really required is a swimsuit. You may opt to bring your own slippers, although most locations will offer the one-size-fits-all variety. Some people bring robes or cover-ups, but more often than not, guests remain in their swimsuits or simply wrap themselves in one of the hundreds of clean, soft towels that are provided everywhere and constantly restocked. Traditional felt hats are often worn to protect one’s head from overheating, and regulars will be seen sporting a variety of styles; you can buy one from the front desk, bring a simple hat with you, or just put a towel on your head while taking in the heat. The locker rooms will generally have soap, shampoo, lotions, and hairdryers on hand, but you’re free to bring your own. Some banya owners allow visitors to bring outside food and beverages; others do not. Worth noting: unless you can prepare it in your own kitchen, hold out for the authentic Russian fare on the menu!

Upon arrival, you will check in at a front desk to pay for your visit, which averages around $30 to $40 per person, to stay for as many hours as you’d like. Additional services such as massages, spa treatments, or accessories can be purchased here, also. Each guest is given an elastic wristband with a numbered locker key. During your stay, the key is also presented to make any additional purchases, including food and beverages, and charged to your account. Once you’ve settled in and changed, get ready to sample the centuries-old tradition, confirmed by scientists and health experts, that promotes stress reduction, detoxification, rejuvenation, immune system stimulation, weight loss, and increased health and wellness through a cycle of hot and cold bathing. Take a towel to sit on in the steam room. Take your hat or another towel for your head and enter the steam room for the first round. Good manners require that the sauna door is opened and closed quickly to keep the heat inside. Choose a higher bench to sit or lie down if you desire a hotter experience or a lower level bench for a more moderate temperature. Leave the room when you feel hot enough, then cool off by taking a shower or a swim or just sitting at room temperature. Rest for about 10 minutes, and order some fragrant, flavored tea.

Once you feel ready for a second round, go to the steam room again. If there are different ones, you may wish to experiment with each of them to discover the subtle differences and find your favorite atmosphere. When you feel it is too hot to tolerate anymore, take a dip into the cold plunge pool. If there is no swimming pool, just pour a bucket of cold water on yourself or step under a cold shower. You will have a fantastic tingling sensation in your skin. Now find a chair, a companion, and some tea. Rest and repeat the hot-cold-relax cycle as many times as you feel comfortable. The usual is about five cycles, spending three to six minutes in the steam room each time, but listen to your own body. Don’t overdo it!

A unique addition is a platza, or body massage, that is given using a venik – a leafy, fragrant bundle of twigs, usually made from birch or oak, that has been soaked in water and softened.  Considered an essential part of the day for true banya aficionados, the process involves assorted techniques, as the recipient lies down on a bench while the venik is stroked or compressed against the skin and joints. The motion of the venik, at once graceful and energizing, creates an enhanced air flow that warms the body even more to improve circulation, soothe muscle and joint pains, ease breathing, boost metabolism, and release essential oils from the leaves to heal and prevent premature aging of the skin. Some visitors bring their own venik that they’ve purchased or fashioned themselves; they may also be bought at the banya.

Afterwards, banya guests may relax with friends and family, usually ordering drinks and snacks as they chat for hours and allow themselves to cool down before getting dressed and going outside.  And if there’s a restaurant on the premises, there is no finer way to satisfy a healthy appetite – or a better way to end the day – than to sit down for a wonderfully hearty meal of authentic Russian cuisine (perhaps with a perfectly frozen shot of vodka!)

Upon emerging from a visit to the banya, your skin will glow, your muscles will feel like mush, and you’ll be exuberant and mellow at the same time. Women will relish their bright and clear complexion. Men often shave when they return to the locker rooms, for the smoothest, closest shave possible after the steam has opened their pores. And, along with feeling years younger and all that baby-smooth skin – you are sure to sleep like a baby, too!

If you’d like to take a day (or evening, since hours tend to be quite extended) trip to a Russian banya, consider the following popular local venues. Bear and Birch Russian Banya and Spa is located at 6 Paragon Way in Freehold. Call them at (732) 780-3354, email bearandbirch@yahoo.com, or visit www.bearandbirch.com. Another is the Marlboro Banya, located at 165 Amboy Road, #500, Marlboro. Their website is www.marlborobanya.com and their phone number is (732) 242-9438.