Banya: the hot and cold comforts of a Russian sauna

Banya is an Arctic sauna experience that involves intense heat, ice baths and a light whipping

Features

21 Feb 2017

A man called German gently cradles my head on his thighs. I’ve never felt so relaxed. I’m lying in a pool somewhere deep beneath the Cromwell Road having just finished my banya, the Russian sauna experience which has become increasingly popular among London’s glitterati.

‘I try to have one at least once a week,’ Hugo Campbell-Davys founder of luxury lifestyle app Urbanologie tells me, ‘they’re so invigorating.’

In fact, this seems to be a common refrain from banya users I bump into around the South Kensington Club, a glitzy members spa. I’m in attendance at the club’s annual Explorers Dinner. Sat between people who like nothing better than a good banya after a busy few months negotiating the Darien Gap or the Southern Ocean, this particular sauna experience sounded like a great introduction to a more rugged way of life. ‘They’re also a great cure for a hangover,’ one explorer tells me.

For the uninitiated, banyas are a sort of traditional Arctic sauna experience. Villages across Russia have them and they are regulated by a strict etiquette. But essentially a hut is heated to a ludicrous temperature, participants birching each others bare flesh with twigs, before everyone gets out and jumps into a hole in a frozen lake.

Hence they are very popular in countries with plenty of ice and, given the will power required to withstand the heat, they get very competitive. A few years ago a Russian competitor died in a banya competition with Finland after sitting in a sauna heated to 110 degrees.

So before entering the more refined version in South Kensington, I need to sign a disclaimer as those with weak hearts (or indeed hangovers) are advised not to go in for it. However, being a bit of a newbie my sauna is only going to be heated to a relatively balmy 80 degrees.

banya, sauna, spa

Our man in the banya

As I lie down wearing a felt hat rather like the peasants in a Bruegel painting, burly German gets to work gently thwacking me with birch twigs from my ankles upwards. The dance of the leaves, as it is known, is not unlike being inside a car wash or being enthusiastically nuzzled by an affectionate spaniel. The moist leaves capture the heat and then radiate it across your body which feels strangely pleasant.

Just as me (and German) are getting into our stride, it’s out of the sauna and to a giant ice bucket for a triple dunking, before a session resting on Germans legs in the jacuzzi. It is surreal, eccentric and fabulously refreshing.

As I am wrapped up in a white sheet and German spoon feeds me Latvian honey he tells me more about the art of banya. The leaves I’ve been whacked with are silver birch imported every week by a lorry direct from the forests of Latvia. The treatment I have will improve my circulation and those who have one a week find themselves pretty much impervious to disease.

This is all very interesting; the first I knew about banyas was when Nat Rothschild mentioned them in the High Court after the Daily Mail questioned his relationship with Peter Mandelson and Russian aluminium magnate Oleg Deripaska. In court, Rothschild confirmed that the trio did indeed have a jolly time in a banya in Siberia, ‘It is the best way in the world to beat jet lag and everything else,’ he explained to the curious judges. ‘Everyone woke up the next day feeling revitalised and excited.’

Now a new generation of Londoners with hectic lifestyles can experience the oligarch way to wake up on the right side of bed. At the club, freeskier Annabel Seel tells me how she uses them to recharge after competing in the Alps, endurance athlete Noah Devereux, last seen swimming the straits of Messina before running up Mount Etna, explains they are a great way to recuperate between events.

‘People nowadays don’t have ordinary nine to five lifestyles,’ Campbell-Davys explains. ‘If you’re working from seven until two in the morning, taking 30 minutes out to recharge is a great restorative.’

As German leads me on to my next treatment, a gentle skin exfoliation using a combination of coffee granules and honey, my overriding sensation is more of the room spinning than my batteries recharging. It’s certainly restorative but after all that gentle thwacking I’m in need of a good lie down.

For more information, visit www.southkensingtonclub.com


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