Can a ‘Russian bath’ cure insomnia and stress? I tried one to find out
Aside from the breathtaking views, incredible cuisines and pretty postcard streets, the world has so many beauty and wellness secrets to discover (and steal). The Koreans blessed us with sheet masks, the French gave us micellar water and our pals in Australia sent us pink clay. Now, we’re turning out attention to the Russians, who are bringing their wellness rituals to London.
The Bath House has just opened doors in Belgravia and aims to bring all the wonderful Russian beauty and wellness hacks to us Brits.
If, like me, you’ve never heard of a Russian Bath House before, allow me to explain. For centuries, the Russian Bath House, or ‘Banya’, has been considered an important meeting place in Russian culture. Frequented by individuals across all social classes, it is historically a place where everyone is an individual and an equal. As the Russian saying goes, “there are no epaulettes in the banya”.
Before the emergence of towns and cities, Russians lived in small villages and settlements in the forest. The banya was the heart of the village; an important institution where the whole village would assemble to wash together. Much like the Swedes swear by their saunas, the Russians made the banya an important wellness ritual.
So what exactly is it? It’s basically a large wooden chamber that’s heated to a high temperature using a wood-burning stove onto which water is thrown to generate steam. In the olden days, people would gather inside to sweat, wash and clean themselves with birch and oak branches. After steaming themselves in the bath house, people would rush out to swim in nearby lakes and rivers or dive into snowdrifts (brave!).
The Bath House is hoping to bring this ancient holistic healing back to the modern day with its own luxe version, which I had the pleasure of visiting on a hangover, no less.
cleaning and disinfection is carried out every 30 minutes, staff wear PPE where appropriate and have undergone additional training. We have reduced capacity to below half of what we would normally take and are staggering bookings to manage the flow of customers. We have also reconfigured the layout of the restaurant to mitigate risk. I can provide much more detailed protocols if necessary.
Donning jaunty little felt hats to protect the head and hair from the intense heat, I entered the Banya, which is much like a sauna but way hotter. Temperatures will generally exceed 60 C with humidity of 80 – 100% so regular breaks are encouraged.
After the first sweat breaks, you’re encouraged to cool off with an ice-cold plunge in the plunge pool or by tipping a bucket of freezing water over your head. It was certainly an effective way of taking my mind off my hangover.
The benefits of such an ‘experience’ are said to be plentiful and include stress and tension relief, as well as improved circulation. “As the body heats up, the heart starts beating faster and blood circulation increases,” explain the experts behind the ritual. “Following a cold shower or immersion in a plunge pool, the blood flow decelerates and the heart rate slows down. These rapid changes in temperature strengthen the cardiovascular system and have been linked to a reduced risk of a cardiovascular-related disease. The heat from the banya creates an artificial “fever” which also stimulates the immune system, giving it a beneficial boost. The heat and humidity also relax the muscles and can help to alleviate painful joints. Regular use of the banya also helps combat common colds, viruses, laryngitis and asthma.”
After a few hours immersing myself in the banya ritual, I was treated to a traditional Russian wellness treatment, the parenie.
The banshik, the specialist who delivers the treatment, lays you down in a private banya and covers your head with cool eucalyptus leaves (more refreshing than it sounds) whilst he throws water on the stove to achieve the optimum temperature and humidity.
Next, he takes a bunch of soaked oak or birch leaf veniks (bunches) to capture the steam and wafts them over your body, gently whipping you with the leaves. “The aroma of the leaves combined with a massage is profoundly relaxing and the treatment is said to promote weight loss, remove harmful toxins, rejuvenate the skin and improve metabolism,” says the banshik. He’s not wrong. My nasal passages are suddenly unblocked and my hangover has thankfully passed.