Who knew bathing in temperatures exceeding two hundred degrees and beating each other with twigs was good for you?! Apparently, the Russians did over a millennium ago. One of their most beloved institutions is the banya, a steam bath that plays an integral role in many parts of Russian life, has many traditions connected to it, and provides great health benefits.
The banya has been a part of Russian culture for over a millennium. Two different sources created prior to 989 C.E. detail the use of the banya. A visitor to Russia mentioned how the Russians beat themselves to exhaustion with the branches. However, the story of Princess Olga of Kiev is illustrative of the dark side of the banya. The man who killed her husband demanded the Princess’ hand in marriage so the princess demanded he and his men wash in the banya before she saw him. Quickly, she had her subjects lock the murderers’ in the banya and had it set on fire.
Many traditions are linked to the banya. Every major event in a Russians’ life is connected to the banya in some way. The prospective bride and groom are expected to bath separately in a banya a few days before the wedding and go to the banya together immediately after the wedding. A new mother and her child are traditionally escorted to the banya after the birth for the child’s first bath. Banyas are used primarily on days of religious significance such as Clean Thursday, but never on Sunday as this disturbs the spirit who lives in the banya. Further related to this, is the tradition of removing all religious icons/symbols when entering the banya as the banya predates Russia becoming Orthodox Christian.
Now the health benefits are awesome – the heat opens up your pores to make you sweat thereby releasing toxins from the body. The heat also creates an artificial fever which kills viruses. The branches used for beating each other are meant to create healthier skin – plus it sounds like a great way to work off pent up frustration!!