We’ve all been there. No matter how often we repeat the mantra that we should “try something new” or “get out of our comfort zone,” doing it may feel uneasy. Especially if “something new” involves temperatures of 190 degrees and a bunch of people (some with foreign accents) hitting each other with oak twigs.
While the remarkable health benefits of banya and sauna have long become a part of mainstream scientific thought, the public still needs to catch up.
No wonder! Saunas and banyas aren’t exactly a part of the culture for the Americans, and the only exposure people get to these practices may come from John Wick action flicks…
… or mafia lore.
Some newcomers don’t know what to expect from their first experience in banya, which results in, let’s say, less-than-perfect results.
I’ve seen it all over the years.
A good friend ran out just as the steam room door closed behind him, only to be found hiding in the jacuzzi of all places, hoping I won’t make him go back into “the inferno.”
Another one spent hours downing beer after beer in the banya bar, refusing to step into the sauna while offering a single nonsensical explanation to everyone who tried to reintroduce him back to the heat: “I’m in a pub. This is just a pub. I’m just watching the TV in the pub.”
Those cases are an exception. Most people immediately get the hang of banya, and their experiences continue improving. Yet even one person living life avoiding banya is far too many if you ask me.
So, how does a rookie enjoy the first visit?
What to expect
Let’s start with setting expectations.
Your first banya visit will likely include several rounds in a sauna (Archimedes Banya has four with various combinations of heat and humidity), each followed by a cold plunge, a dip in a swimming pool, or a shower, whatever you prefer. When you get more comfortable with the heat, try the venik platza, a hot massage using tree leaves.
Sounds simple enough, yet with no prior experience, some parts may appear slightly worrying.
Worry: I won’t be able to stand the heat.
Recommendation: Take it slow and do what feels right.
Banya lovers are people, too. No one’s banya career starts (or should start!) with getting a platza on the upper bench of the steam room for 15 minutes straight. We are just as susceptible to extreme temperatures. The only difference is that we had a lot of practice and built tolerance.
We all took it slow, observant of how we felt.
That’s why – medical problems excluded – there is nothing to worry about. If it’s too hot, move to a lower bench, exit, relax, breathe some fresh air, have a sip of water, and then try again if you feel like it.
Worry: I won’t know what to do and will feel lost.
Recommendation: Ask! Banya people will be glad to help.
That can be a concern, especially if you come to banya alone. Luckily, this is an easy one to dispel.
Social clubs — and banya is one — cannot function without rules. At Archimedes Banya, these rules, guidelines, and etiquette principles are published on the website. I encourage you to take a look before your visit.
Some of the rules are common sense, yet others are derived from the experience and are hard to intuit (did you know that after the steam and cold plunge, your body needs oxygen, and deep breathing is a great idea?).
There is also a beautiful map of Archimedes Banya to help you find your way around the place.
Of course, the banya staff is always ready to help. But there is another reason why you shouldn’t worry about feeling lost in banya.
I will steal the metaphor from Adam Rang: banya is the original social network.
When you come to a banya, you are surrounded by people with at least one thing in common — they all love sitting in a room breathing in the hot and humid air. They assume you like it, too. Since this experience brings people a profound sense of joy, anyone who shares the passion is automatically a part of the social network.
So, don’t hesitate to ask other banya patrons a question. They will be more than happy to help.
Worry: The cold plunge sounds scary.
Recommendation: Yes, but it is worth it!
Jumping into a pool of 45 degrees water after getting out of 190 degrees sauna may be intimidating. But here is a thought:
Overcoming this fear is precisely what makes it unbelievably rewarding.
Our minds constantly analyze risks and warn us about what they label “dangerous,” creating fear. At work, we are overwhelmed with tasks and projects; at home, we are worried about our life plans and personal goals. If we fall behind, our brains sound alarms and paint anxiety-inducing pictures of future catastrophes.
The cold plunge is a break from this mental chatter.
When you immerse yourself in the cold water, the jolt of norepinephrine shuts off the “monkey mind.” In these moments, you experience pure being, cleansed of all worries and anxieties.
And when you are out of the cold, serene calmness stays with you.
Please remember, although the mental and physical benefits of heat and cold exposure are enormous, it is still a shock to the system and, therefore, should be avoided by people with cardiovascular problems.
Overall, your first visit to banya is just the beginning. So, relax, remember you are in good company and do what feels right.
I cannot predict how your relationship with banya will develop. Will you come back for the health benefits? Will you appreciate the state of mind extreme temperatures create? Or will it be the community that will draw you in?
But one thing is sure: we all want to do something outside our comfort zones. I know that banya is just the right mixture of different and exciting that you owe yourself to give it a shot.