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ON THE SCENE: Steam cleaning oneself for the new year

December 31, 2014
By NAJ WIKOFF , Lake Placid News

On average every 10 days, but once a week if we can, Dan Plumley and I do a Russian-style banya either just together or with others when we can round them up. The prior couple years, we used a sweat lodge, and before that we took advantage of various friends' saunas when we could.

All three involve being in a really hot, tight space using the heat to open the pores in one's skin, sweat, and at times steam, to clean and purify, and in the sauna and banya, being whacked with a venik, bundles made of small birch branches with the leaves on them, or if not available, an evergreen like balsam.

The Native American sweat lodge and the Russian Banya have a lot of ritual attached to them and are often used as a cleansing ritual before or as part of a ceremony.

Article Photos

Dan Plumley and Naj Wikoff at the sweat lodge

For Dan and me, the banya is special in and of itself and because of its connection to the many deep friendships made together and individually in our trips to Russia and Siberia in particular.

This fall, Dan converted an old storage shed into the banya we now use, a banya that is still a work in progress but contains all the basic elements: an area with benches and a wood stove with a chamber on top that is filled with hot stones, the ability to dive into a snow bank, jump into a cold stream, or pour ice cold water over one's head during or in between sessions in the banya, a venik, the ability to scrub and cleanse oneself in the banya, and a nearby place to break bread and share beverages between sessions and at the end.

A banya is hot, really hot. Ours tends to be between 145 and 165 degrees. When Dan throws cups of water on the stones, the blast of steam that comes out makes it feel closer to 200 degrees. We generally spend a half hour in the banya at any given time, sometimes a bit longer. When you come out and jump in a snow bank or pour cold water over your head, of course there is the initial shock, but one's pores snap shut trapping the heat in your body. After that, you can sit on a log wrapped in just a sheet and be barely aware of the true temperature outside.

The coldest outside temperature I have experienced so modestly attired was minus 55 F when in Kemerovo Oblast during my first Fulbright to Russia that coincided with the coldest winter that the Russians had experienced in living memory. I must stay it is quite something to be sitting there so modestly attired with steam pouring off your body while watching others trudge by in their fur coats.

In much of Russia, a large number of people still live in wooden houses that have no running water. The houses are heated by wood. A massive stone and brick stove built in the center of the house is used for cooking and heating the space. Water is usually drawn from a community well about a block or two from the home. A basin is used for the daily cleaning of one's hands, face and other essential areas. Once a week, people either use their own banya, located in a separate building, or a communal banya with the men usually on one side and the women on the other, or certain times are set aside for use by men or women only.

"The purpose of the Russian banya is to refresh, purify, and recast your physical body in the best way possible," said Dan. "The main difference between a sauna and a banya is the hot rocks and the steam. Most Americans who are familiar with a sauna are familiar with a dry sauna, whereas the Siberian and Russian banya, and also the Scandinavian banya, use hot rocks and the steam they produce with water to really deepen the cleansing aspect. The banya in Russia is a cultural event. It is a family event and in many places a community event, a community of men or women. They set a day, or at least a half day aside, to really purify, relax and reconnect with their physical body.

"I really enjoyed learning the experience with native Siberians and Russians," continued Plumley. "I was completely unaware of it going over there. I never had any experience like that at all. I'd been in dry saunas before but found them stuffy and not beneficial. What I like about the banya is that it is purifying, fun and that there is fellowship whether you are in a mixed banya or one with all men. They are different, and both are totally enjoyable. The community banyas are typically for just men, or just women, and the twain shall never meet. In one's own banya, a family will use it together, or they will have a banya with friends of both sexes."

"What special about banya is that they use the rocks like the American Indians do in their sweat lodges," said my partner Renee Cosgrove. "It's really a lot like a sweat lodge. The rock is such a sacred symbol in a lot of ancient cultures. Spirits are in rocks. The people who could touch and carve in rocks were considered the most spiritually advanced of the group. Stonehenge is an example of the spiritual power of rock. What I like about Dan's banya is that you have the ice, the water and the steam. It is a wonderful reminder of the fact that things change form and form changes the quality. It goes from ice to water to steam and it is all the same thing, it's all one continuum.

My favorite aspect of the banya is the deep sense of letting go," continued Cosgrove. "If you go with it, or do enough of it, you really learn how to center yourself. It is an easy entrance to a place to meditate and to be fully present letting things fall away from you."



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