Russian assignment: Flogging and vodka
Always eager to try new experiences, mustering my courage, I accepted a very special invitation that came straight from darkest Siberia.
Offered since last November, the Banyä treatment at Nordik Spa-Nature is a truly special experience. If you already know it’s all about clearing your mind and being at peace with yourself, you must be from the Dënÿ, a region in northern Russia.
Banyä is for true seekers, those who are stout of heart and ready to discover what they’re made of.
The one-hour experience is divided into four stages: perspiration (or, as the Nordik bills it, a venik infusion), exfoliation, flogging, and hellfire. OK, I made that last one up, but that’s what it felt like.
First of all, our group of three (groups are generally about a dozen people) is told that the Banyä treatment is inspired by a thousand-year-old Russian tradition. We then toast with a chervil-infused vodka shooter topped with an orange slice and a coffee bean. I’m already loving my life.
Next, we enter the sauna where we’ll be spending the next hour. It’s a kind of arena with a big rock heater in the middle. My boyfriend chooses the highest (and therefore hottest) place to sit. I’m a little worried about passing out from the heat, so I choose the middle step.
Two charming and experienced Sauna Meisters join us and explain what they’ll be doing at each stage of the treatment. The first stage is perspiration, or rather, the venik infusion. A basin of water contains birch twigs gathered into bundles, like small brooms. These are the veniks. While explaining that birch produces an essential oil with anti-inflammatory and purifying properties, the Sauna Meisters remove the bundles from the water and shake them over the hot rocks. Steam rises, and it smells good, it smells “green”.
Be careful, she has veniks in her hands.
Eyes closed, I suddenly feel a warm rain falling on me. The Sauna Meisters are shaking the birch leaves above my head, and it’s very pleasant. They run the brooms over my arms and legs. It’s very relaxing. After about 15 minutes of this treatment, we are invited to leave the sauna for a drink of water. We chat with the other guinea pig, and we all agree that we’re having a special experience, a long way from a hot tub. Everything is cool.
After our break, we re-enter the sauna and proceed to the second stage, exfoliation. Lavender-infused snow is thrown on the hot stones. The air fills with steam, and our two Sauna Meisters start spinning towels over their heads like pizzas. As waves of heat hit us full in the face, our skin pores open, and it’s time to exfoliate. Each of us receives a small dish containing a mixture of oils and salt. I’m perfectly happy to slather myself with this concoction. Exfoliation, I call your name in Russian. Oтслоение!!! My Sauna Meister asks me if I want a bucket of water to rinse off with. Well oiled and salted like a little chicken, I accept, little suspecting that the water in question is a tad chilly.
We exit the sauna a second time, fully awake. During this break, we are given apple slices marinated in tea and honey. The snack gives us a boost, and we’re ready to go to the third stage: flogging. The Sauna Meisters have strange smiles that don’t bode well.
Bring it on, сука.
I’m first up. I lie down on my stomach to await my tragic fate.
From my feet to my shoulder blades, the birch branches whip me lightly—hard enough to tingle, not hard enough to call security. I tell myself I’m experiencing something extraordinary, in the sense of not ordinary at all. My blood is circulating properly, which is the point of the exercise. Once we’ve all been suitably whipped, we leave the sauna for a tea break. Once again, we’re all chatting, happy and relieved to have come out alive—more alive than ever, in fact (and with a scattering of birch leaves stuck to our bodies).
The time for the last stage has come. This stage is less intense, but equally intriguing: the sauna will be heated to a temperature high enough to melt Putin. This is the Aufguss ritual (a German term meaning infusion), and it’s quite festive. The Sauna Meisters no longer have those sadistic smiles: now they look kind and cheerful. Whew.
We go back into the sauna one last time, ready to sweat like piglets. Each of us is handed a softball-sized snowball. Our hosts pour grapefruit essential oil onto the hot stones and fling their towels around like there’s no tomorrow. The heat rises, and I inhale the beneficial vapours.
The Aufguss ritual
The music starts. And what music: “Rasputin” by Boney M. I feel like dancing to this classic disco number, but the sauna is so hot I’m afraid I’d collapse. I hang onto to my snowball as if it’s a lifebuoy. It’s so intense! The song ends. Time to escape this hell and plunge into icy water. Oh yeah.
The thermal shock works its magic: I come out of the pool completely relaxed, yet invigorated, and my skin is smooth and moisturized.
As we leave, we say goodbye to everyone who participated in the experience. I can’t wait to do it again. With a group of girlfriends, maybe?