The first thing that happened when we walked in the door was separate the men from the women. We went to the right while the guys went left, not to be seen again until later that evening. Then, we waited for our turn to pay the admission fee and go inside, where we were led into a room with rows of tables and couches, most of which were occupied by naked women. We took off our clothes, wrapped up in towels, and headed into another room, where more naked women were showering in open stalls, pouring cold water on themselves, or swimming in a freezing cold swimming pool. Finally, we went through one last door, into a room that was somewhere between 100 and 180 degrees Fahrenheit. The air by the door was so hot it literally burned my lungs, but the far corner of the room was slightly more bearable. We de-toweled, sat down on the floor, because that was the coolest [read: least scorching] place, and sat and sweated until we couldn’t take it anymore. Then we went back into the other room to douse ourselves with cold water. Then we went back into the heat, this time with a bundle of leaves to hit each other with.
If you’re thinking right now that I’m describing some sort of bizarre dream I had, you would be wrong. Ditto if you’re thinking medieval torture ritual or seventh ring of Dante’s Inferno. What I have just described is the Russian banya, which I visited with ten of my girlfriends on Sunday. And, despite all evidence to the contrary, it was one of the most enjoyable experiences I have ever had.
The first thing that makes a Russian banya so incredible is the mere fact that everyone is naked and no one cares. It may sound strange, but there’s something incredibly lovely about a room full of women being naked with no judgement, no self-consciousness, and no assumption that there has to be anything inherently sexual about people with their clothes off. There was every age and body type represented, from the woman in her sixties to the young girl there with her mom. Compared to the States, where it seems like the naked body is something to be either sexualized or ashamed of, it was really amazing to be in a place where a naked body was just that–a body, and nothing more. There’s also something to be said for the bonding experience of spending three hours hanging around naked with ten of your friends.
As for the heat of the sauna, I realize it doesn’t sound at all like a pleasant experience, and this is my feeble attempt at explaining just how wonderful it actually was. Within seconds of entering the room, I was sweating like never before in my life, but instead of feeling like it was making me dirty, I felt like I was getting incredibly clean. On one trip into the sauna, the attendant was re-heating the room, which involved pouring bucket after bucket of water into an oven, making the room hotter and hotter each time. It was almost but not quite more than I could take. I put my head down to be closer to the floor and therefore slightly cooler, or at least cool enough that I could continue to breath the air, and as I felt the sweat drip off of me, I had the sensation that every stressful thing in my life was leaving me as well, right along with the sweat and all of the Saturday-night toxins. I finished the day by treating myself to a moisturizing oil treatment, which was possibly the greatest ten minutes I’ve ever had in my life. By the time we left, we could literally see each other glowing. There were mirrors all along the walls on the way out, and one of my friends remarked that they wanted to make sure you could see how good you looked leaving. I agreed with her, and then it occurred to me that nothing in the banya had directly changed our external appearance… it was coming from somewhere inside.