Banya or banja comes from Russian Banya, i.e. a steam room. It stems from the Russian tradition. It is undergoing a surge in popularity in the Suwalki region. Its Polish equivalent was a steam bath. In the Suwalki region, banya was popularised by Old Believers living in the towns of Augustow, Sejny and Wodzilki.
In Poland, banya is a wooden cabin with two chambers. One is a resting room for relaxation after a heat session. It often houses a table with spirits (the so-called forest spirit) which go with a suiting refreshment, e.g. onions. The second chamber, parilka (steam room), is a room with benches to sit or lay on and a device heating the chamber, i.e. a wood-fired stove (not to be confused with an electric sauna heater – it is completely different).
- Relieves fatigue and helps in revitalization
- Improves circulation and respiration
- Facilitates weight loss
- Alleviates muscle and joint pain
- Boosts energy and concentration
- Strengthens immunity and provides relaxation
In our region you can also come across last black banyas, i.e. Siberian banyas, with a stone-built stove without a chimney. Once it heats up the ash is removed from it and the chamber is ventilated. Next water is poured over heated stones in order to reach appropriate temperature and humidity. In such banyas walls and ceiling are black from soot, but benches should be kept clean. This type of banya is still found in the Suwalki region, for instance in villages of Ruska Buda and Wodzilki.
Nowadays, the most common heat source for banyas is a wood-fired and stone-covered chimney-stove, often with a cauldron of boiling water atop it. The steam room should also have a wooden bucket with water to pour over stones. Banya allows to reach high humidity, even up to 90% (black banya) as a result of pouring large quantities of water on heated stones. You can then spot droplets of water hanging in the air.
Temperature in banya reaches up to 120°C (albeit in lower humidity). The optimal temperature in banya is about 90-100°C with high level of humidity. With intense pouring in a single heating cycle, lasting around 2 hours, approximately 50 litres of water is used. Majority of people feel comfortable at about 70-80°C and 40% humidity. Conditions in the banya should be adjusted to people inside it. The users should be able to relax. They should not be compelled to withstand high temperature.
the heated banya
and warming up
Enter the banya no earlier than 1.5-2h after your last meal. The meal should be easily digestible. You must not go into a heat session on an empty stomach. Excessive fluid intake is not advisable as it causes kidney strain. Drinking fluids does not influence the amount of exuded sweat. In such a case perspiration increases marginally. It is natural for a healthy person to stop sweating after 4 or 5 banya cycles. Breathe through your mouth. Cover your head, ear and nose. It is advisable to wear a large woollen hat covering your ears. If you find the temperature appropriate, you do not have to wear a hat. The banya user must feel comfortable during the heat session.
During perspiration the body excretes mineral salts which have to be replenished after a heat session by, for instance, eating vegetables. Banya has hygienic and health benefits, strengthens your organism and allows to relax and unwind. During a session in the steam room it is not uncommon to use birch, oak or even eucalyptus twigs with green leaves in the summer or dried ones in the winter. However, dried twigs require proper preparation prior to their use, so that their leaves do not fall off. Moreover, dried ones are better as they release essential oils better than the green twigs.
After cooling yourself in water you should not towel-dry your body as dry body will release additional sweat. Twigs are used to lightly massage the body from feet to shoulders in high temperature and humidity. Application of twigs allows to better warm up your body. It is thought that heat is then “pushed” 3-4 cm deep into your body. Subcutaneous vessels expand, toxins are released and the skin cleanses itself. Cooling your body should last until your skin starts to itch. After such heating body should be cooled well, preferably in cold waters of a river or a lake. It leads to a high increase in blood pressure and heart beat rate. Next the heating process is repeated. Cooling should always take place from bottom to top.