The healthy effect of Russian banya has been enshrined in Russian sayings such as Banya parit, banya pravit (banya steam makes the body right), Zharky par lyuboy nedug istselit (hot steam cures any illness) etc.
Since the time of Ancient Rome and Roman thermae, steam bathing, technically speaking, has involved high-temperature steam treatment that removes waste products from the body through sweating – resulting in a pleasant sense of relaxation and repose. The idea behind the Russian banya is essentially the same but the process differs in several ways.
The first difference is in the temperature and the humidity, and here the Russian banya falls between its Turkish and Finnish counterparts. The temperature in the Russian banya is about 80 degrees which is balanced by moisture.
The second point regards the inside/outside temperature differential. Only in Russia you can heat yourself up till you can hardly bear it and then jump to the plunge pool or go outside and douse yourself with snow when the temperature is 10-15 degrees below zero.
Alternating between hot air and ice-cold water is very stimulating as it makes the blood vessels expand and contract, thus keeping them elastic and toning the whole body. One important point is not to expose the head to the impact of hot air and cold water. For this purpose all banya-goers should wear the special felt hats.
The third important difference regards the venniks (bunches of birch, oak or fir tree twigs). Birch, oak trees and fir trees have a special impact when they come in contact with the skin. They stimulate the flow of blood to the outer layers of skin, thus massaging it and helping to draw waste out through the pores. They also release essential oils so the massage leaves the skin completely rejuvenated.
People generally go to a banya on an empty stomach, as the process does not help digestion of anything consumed beforehand. However some food and drink can be consumed afterwards, which is all part and parcel of the banya tradition.