It is known that the use of saunas dates back to Scythians, or century BC. There is proof that ancient American indigenous tribes also used saunas for their cleaning rituals, and ancient Greek doctor Hippocrates prescribed sauna as treatment for over half of his patients for different illnesses. Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, Persians and Chinese are some of ancient people who used different types of saunas throughout history. There were public and personal saunas with wet and dry steam – to fit anyone’s needs.
Of course, Russian sauna (banya) is different form all the rest. Where Greek, Roman, Egyptian and Persian saunas are constructed from stones, marble, and tile and use a lot of humid steam (much like modern day steam rooms), a Russian sauna is constructed from wood and, though also uses humid steam, does not require as much liquid as a lot of the former ones. The two most important parts of a Russian sauna are the furnace and the steam room itself.
The furnace is constructed of bricks or rocks with an outlet to the inside of the steam room, where it connects to a metal container with water. Rocks are placed underneath the container and are heated by the furnace. Rocks and water inside the sauna are heated by the furnace, and water evaporates, creating a degree of heat and humidity. When the temperature rises to the needed point (this varies from each individual, but is usually between 65 and 90 degrees Celsius), small amounts of water are thrown over the rocks, which creates more steam. The optimal way to heat a sauna is with wood. Coals can be used as well, but they don’t give as pleasant of an experience as wood does.
The sauna itself has to be of perfect measurements, depending on your needs, the size of your family, and/or whether the sauna is public or private. The larger the room, the harder it is to heat and maintain. In most Russian saunas the human body is the main measurement for comfort. The steam room consists of two, three berths – the higher you are, the hotter it feels. A person should be able to ‘steam’ lying down on a berth and easily accomplish all the rituals that are a part of taking a steam bath.
When temperature rises to at least 65 degrees and humidity is at least 40%, it’s time to go in! And this is where all the different rituals of using a sauna come in. These differ not only from nationality to nationality, but also from one family to another. In Russia, the norm is to go in several times (3-5), for a period of approximately 10-15 minutes each. Usually, after each inning, Russians will jump into a pool of cold water, poor cold water on themselves if there is no pool, or jump into a pile of snow. This specific ritual strengthens blood vessels and the heart. The break should be 15-20 minutes each, during which you can drink tea or water. Despite the traditional association, alcohol is not recommended while taking a steam bath.
While inside the steam room, you can use different methods to aid the body’s detoxification process. These include using different body scrubs and creams, and beating yourself with a special sauna broom made of linden or birch (other types of tree branches are also used). Though this process may sound painful, it is actually very pleasant and is great for relaxing the muscles and cleansing your body. The broom should only be used during your last inning.
In The Primary Chronicle, written between 850 and 1110 AD, it is described that Saint Andrew, after seeing a Russian sauna, went back to Rome and told people what he has seen: “They heat it up really hot, undress and hit each other until they are half-dead. Then they poor freezing water on themselves and become alive again. They do this all the time, not tortured by anyone, but torturing themselves.”
If you have never had a pleasure of experiencing the Russian sauna, we suggest you find one in your city and dedicate a few hours to it. Remember, since ancient times the benefits of using a sauna have been stimulation of the body’s cleansing process and strengthening of the arteries. Before you go, don’t forget to stock up on sauna supplies!