Plunging into the Russian Bath

Feeling in Need of a Bath

Feeling in Need of a Bath (courtesy of Emma Gallagher)

I had heard just enough about the Russian bath ritual to mildly terrify me: Most of all, the cold plunge. Stepping from the heat, a bather must find a source of frigidness and jump in. This can be, and often is, a snow bank outside the bathhouse or pool formed by cutting a hole in a nearby frozen lake. Inside the bath, the heat is so intense that wearing a chapka, a protective hat, is necessary to avoid brain damage. Outside, it’s expected that you challenge your heart to withstand complete shock.

In my nervousness, I’d conferred with my oldest and most fluent English students about the customs. I’d made it a lesson, one of those sharing the culture-type discussions in which you have students teach about the local way of life you’re most curious about. In addition to telling me about the cold pools, my students, unable to find the correct vocabulary, informed me that people “beat” each other with “branches.”

Sometimes you just close your eyes and trust the adventure.

In Your Bucket Because…

  • The health benefits—cleaning the blood, opening pores, aiding cardiovascular stuff—are renowned both in and out of the country.
  • It may not sound like it so far, but this is what some people do to relax: Jump naked into freezing ponds and hit each other with sticks.
  • The Russian bath is a true experience of Russian culture, something that everyone does, from vacationing families to loosely acquainted business associates.

Bathing with Others

Close Up of a Bather in a Chapka

Close Up of a Bather in a Chapka

My first visit to a Russian bath was with colleagues from a language school in Moscow. Concerned about lounging about in the buff with strangers, I’d never been to any kind of public “bath” in my life. The thought of doing it with co-workers was, if anything, even worse. I wanted the experience; I just wasn’t sure I wanted it this way. Then, I found out people would be wearing swimsuits. A little tension released, even before the first puff of steam dispelled into the air.

Something I’d have never guessed about Russian baths is how familial they are. There may be an abundance of sweaty, bare skin, but the atmosphere is more like a campground. The bathing room itself is only part of the experience. In fact, many people never leave the antechamber, a living room-like area with a wet bar, an assortment of treats, and a cooler of beer. Even testing the cold is a sort of rite of passage for young men. Children are too faint for such feats.

In actuality, people do beat each other with branches. However, it’s more organized than a common pillow fight. Veniks, bundles of eucalyptus and birch branches, are slapped against the skin to improve circulation. I’m sure there is some sort of science there. Though a birch bouquet had appeared at the beginning of the night, it never made it into the sauna. The masochist deep inside me was a little disappointed.

About an hour after people began disappearing into the back room, I worked up the courage to strip down to my swim trunks. Stepping into the sauna, there was a small applause of approval, and my hosts insisted on clearing out a spot along the top bench—the hottest place—for me. The saturated air, usually pushed beyond the boiling point, steamed my body into submission in less than five minutes. I felt fully cooked, but I knew what was coming after I left. I tried to hold out.

Taking the Plunge

The Legs of Bathers at Ease

The Legs of Bathers at Ease

The Russian bathhouse was full of delightful surprises. Who knew we’d be having a picnic? In the antechamber, there was fresh fruit, cheese, and fine chocolate. There were shots of vodka and bottles of wine. Inside the sauna, we poured beer on the hot rocks, filling the tiny room with the smell of fresh baking bread. Best of all as far as I was concerned, the temperature had risen just above freezing, so too much snow had melted for bare-chested snow-diving.

Feeling safe and far beyond warm, I stood up, unable to endure more heat. It was like a wounded animal had wondered into a hyena den. I swear if there hadn’t been so much sweat dripping down from my forehead, I’d have been able to see my gracious hosts now salivating. My boss’s friend, who’d assumed the role of sauna director, grabbed me by the arm and escorted me into the bathhouse’s final room: It was not a giant Jacuzzi.

I stood at the pool’s edge contemplating. Contemplating was a waste of time: From the first instance I read about this ritual of temperature torture, I knew this was part of the experience, and for me, that fear had made it integral. It’s not a moment when you lower yourself in slowly to adjust to the cold. Like ripping a band aid off, you just do it and deal with the results. As I said, sometimes you just close your eyes and trust the adventure.

I don’t know if it was adrenaline or better circulation, but something kept me returning to that cold pool all night.

 
Practicalities

  • There are health concerns to be aware of. Like hot tubs or steam rooms, this activity is not advisable for pregnant women or people with heart conditions.
  • The chapka, though it looks ridiculously funny, is no joke. I was reminded many times to wear mine. Bathhouses will have them for you.
  • Should you be fortunate enough to do this in Russia, try to take a trip out to the country to experience it in a more traditional setting. There are entire places devoted to a night of bathing.
  • Though advised not to drink before getting in the sauna, having a few beers in between baking seem to be the norm.
  • Bathhouses are everywhere; however, check to make sure if they are unisex (or not). Not may require nudity.
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Comments

  1. says

    I think I could enjoy the warm part and the eating, but not the cold plunge!
    I wonder where the eucalyptus comes from. May have to go to Russia and find out.
    Thanks for a fun story, Jonathon.

    5

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