The first thought that crossed my mind when I was planning for my week off in London (which I took last week) was the spa. The infrequent yoga session and hot pink salt baths are definitely wonderful mid-week stress-relievers, but I had been craving something more.
You may know by now that I’m quite the fan of the spa. I love to sweat out tension, steam away negative thoughts, and generally sit in a bubbling tub of complete relaxation. Well, Banya No.1 certainly delivers on intense relaxation, but it’s definitely not your average spa…
I started the day as per usual – a humid London made for a sticky tube journey, and I ducked out at Old Street to find myself wandering into a residential area. Citymapper wasn’t lying – I was just about to discover one of London’s best-kept secret spas.
Banya No. 1 is located in the basement of an apartment building, and has just opened its private suite, Taiga. Upon entering the beautiful wood-adorned rooms, you’re welcomed by fresh eucalyptus scents and a distinct earthly feel, plus the running water in the entrance is lovely on the ears.
Upon entering, I was taken through the way that banya, a Russian-style sauna, is completely different to your average spa or sauna. Integral to Russian culture, rural families build their own banyas, while city-dwellers visit the communal banya as a weekly ritual, making friends with the people who also join them at the same day and time every week. I loved hearing how important banya is in Russian culture, intwining wellness and community through a shared experience.
The key difference at a banya is steam, and the intensity of the whole experience. On every visit into the authentic timber-walled sauna, steam is thrown onto a 700°C cast iron furnace which creates an incredibly humid room ready for parenie (a treatment I’ll detail below). Divided into male and female sessions, banya is best when naked (although I wore a bikini the whole time, I’m not that brave) as it increases blood circulation, and promotes great cardiovascular health.
You probably haven’t heard of banya (nor had I before last week) – this might be because Banya No.1 is the only one in London, and it opened in 2013. However, historically there were lots of banyas in the city, with jewish immigrants opening bath houses to congregate in the 1900’s. You can even find a replica of one of the famous banyas that used to exist on Brick Lane in Banya No.1!
I started my treatment by changing into my bikini and heading to the banya for a quick five-minute introduction. Before entering, I was given a soft little hat to wear (honestly they’re so cute) to protect my head and hair from the intense heat. It’s astounding how quickly my body changed to adapt to the 70°C heat upon entering, and once my time was up I left the banya light-headed, chilling out under the warm shower before going to sit in a private booth and rest. The key to any type of sauna is to spend a short time inside, and double the time resting before heading back in.
During my first rest, I was greeted with a few selections from their classic menu, such as milk and honey, and kvass, a fermented drink made from rye bread that’s a little reminiscent but a lot less sharp than kombucha. These were a great pick-me-up before banya part two!
After 10 minutes, I left with sweat pouring, and washed under the shower before resting in my booth. I did feel like I was getting the royal treatment with the booth, which was a lovely escape in-between sessions.
SCRUB (A DUB DUB)
I was then fetched by a lovely woman for my honey and salt scrub. This was pure bliss! Laying down on a warm stone table, she lathered my skin with honey and sea salt, thoroughly scrubbing away any dead skin, and leaving my body really peaceful. It was at this point that I began to get drowsy, and was left to sit in the banya for a little while with the mixture melting on my skin, and then thoroughly shower before resting.
It’s good to note that all of the beauty (and food) products used at Banya No.1 are natural, organic where possible, and made on premises. That’s always something I’m a little wary about, but I was even shown where they keep the bundles of leaves to soak so they’re fresh and fragrant in the sauna.
Finally it was onto my parenie! This is definitely the best part, but it’s genuinely not for the faint hearted. On my second visit to the banya, I watched a demonstration of parenie, a vigorous massage for the entire body, with a fragrant bouquet of birch, oak, and eucalyptus leaves placed over the face. Two more bouquets are then used by the masseuse to bring steam from the top of the room down onto the body and pressed into the skin to clear the pores and ease up the muscles.
On doing this in the new Taiga suite, I was treated to the whole banya, with their most senior masseuse and banya extroadinare taking me through everything he was doing as he beat my body down with leaves, and took tension out of my muscles. It started on my front, with intense heat wafting down and being pressed into my back, and then again on my front. Finally, I was sat upright to steady my blood flow and breathing before being taken for the somewhat scary part: icy cold water.
The beauty of parenie is that it first opens up the capilliaries, and then rigorously shuts them back down again by pouring two freezing cold buckets of water on your head (front and back). When I was stood under this, my whole body acted without me, shouting out when the water hit me and again, before being led to the 7°C plunge pool to jump into, completely submerging myself and exiting full of adrenalin and excitement.
Looking back on it, it’s actually incredible that this didn’t hurt, but instead felt purely amazing. My mind and body had connected on a level that I didn’t control and despite having to sit and breathe after the experience, I was already excited to do it again at my next session.
I ended my time there by drifting in and out of sleep in my booth, while sipping a little fireweed tea, a caffeine-free tea made from fermented rosebay willowherb leaves. When the time came to leave, I drifted out of the building and through the streets of London on a cloud!