Get in the Bath
With the Winter Olympics officially underway and much of the world’s attention focused on Russia, many people are just now learning about the virtues of Russian bathhouses. These longstanding spa establishments practice ancient forms of healing, but the treatments are, in many respects, far from what you might encounter in a traditional luxury spa. For starters, you should expect to be beaten. You should also expect to burn and then to freeze. And in some cases, you should expect shots of vodka, which help to endure the burning, and the freezing, and the beatings. Oh, and you’ll likely make a few new friends along the way.
Of course, you don’t have to fly to Sochi for an authentic Russian-bathhouse experience. Reputable establishments are rooted around the globe, and they’re nothing new. The Russian and Turkish Baths in Manhattan’s East Village have existed on East 10th Street since 1892. “It’s casual in here, and it can get quite noisy and social,” says Dmitry Shapiro, whose family owns and operates the East Village bathhouse. “People gather to discuss business, chat with friends, and at the same time, they get the benefits of our treatments.”
What to Expect
“People seek out this experience for the benefits of the saunas, or banyas,” says Shirin Azhdari, general manager at Voda Spa in West Hollywood. “It starts with our dry banya, which is a room heated to approximately 200 degrees. Our spa attendants then tap you with a venik.”
This venik (also called a platza) is a small broom made from fragrant leafy oak or birch branches that have been softened overnight through repeated soakings in hot water and oils. In the treatment, which is considered a form of detoxification, visitors lie in the bathhouse’s hottest sauna while attendants conduct a rhythmic series of taps and strokes with the venik. The motion generates heat over the body and releases essential oils from the leaves. According to the bathhouse, additional benefits include improved circulation and healthier looking skin.
Rules of the Rod
“It’s important to remember a few things about these treatments,” says Azhdari: “They are supposed to be intense. Someone new to this will only last about five minutes in the dry banya. Always communicate with your specialist if you are too hot or you need more or less pressure.”
We’d also like to point out that while it’s 200 degrees for you—the client stretched out on your back or stomach—it’s also 200 degrees for your therapist, who is performing manual labor on your prone body. Tipping 20 percent for their services is strongly encouraged.
The cold plunge follows the dry banya, and we’re here to tell you that it’s exactly what it sounds like—a giant pool of 40-degree water, which shocks your system and promotes increased circulation (reducing inflammation). Unlike at normal spas, visitors to a Russian bathhouse typically pay a one-time fee of around $30 or $40 that allows for as many rounds of the hot-to-cold plunge as they would like (or can stand). Many bathhouses also offer food and drinks, which fosters a social atmosphere.
“We are coed, so we require people to bring bathing suits,” says Azhdari. “Other places that are separate, you might expect to be naked.”
At Voda, the rounds of hot and cold are accompanied by rounds of shots (see, promoting good circulation isn’t complete drudgery!). “Most people come here in groups. They will hang out at our bar, eat, and have shots of Russian vodka,” Azhdari says. “You have to be more careful drinking here than you would at a regular bar, because of the heat. Our bartenders are diligent about not over-serving, but it wouldn’t be out of line to say it’s a party in here.”