Steam of the Century: The Tradition of the Russian Banya

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While steam showers seem like relatively modern advancements, they have a rich history with deep cultural roots. Many qualities of today’s steam showers can be found in the Eastern European tradition of the banya, or Russian steam bath.

Dating back to medieval times, the banya is a cultural staple and one of Russia’s oldest traditions. Each village contained a banya as a place for cleanliness and bathing and was overseen by a guardian spirit named “Bannik.”

Today’s banyas keep the centuries-old tradition alive. Each banya includes a special room where water and firewood create hot steam. Inside the banya are wide wooden benches along the wall leading up to the ceiling. The bather sits or lies on the lowest step and gradually ascends to higher and hotter ones.

Once warm enough, the patron leaves the steam room and cools down—either by pouring water from a tub or dipping into a pool of cold water. In Siberia it’s not uncommon to walk out of the banya and jump into the snow!

Similar to a steam shower, the air in a banya is hot and moist, reaching 80 to 100% humidity. Because the temperatures often exceed 200 degrees Fahrenheit, special felt hats are worn to protect the head from the heat. Patrons will often use special bath brooms called veniks as well.

Made from bundles of twigs and leafy branches, the veniks are moistened and briskly smacked over the body to improve circulation.

“The day you spend in the banya is the day you do not age.” This Russian proverb underscores the importance of the banya for overall good health. Health benefits are thought to include cleaning the skin and fighting sickness by removing harmful elements from the body.

Whether an ancient banya or a modern day steam shower, steam remains a popular health-conscious choice even today.