Sigmund Freud is sitting half naked on a bench with his legs crossed, his middle covered by a checked towel, while his friend Carl Gustav Jung has a towel slung over his shoulders and sits on a step a few meters away. Both men are relaxing on the porch of what looks like a simple, countryside banya and both men appear to have recently enjoyed the steam. Freud looks directly at the camera while Jung is looking pensively to his left. The two fathers of psychoanalysis are silent, but united in the calm after the steam.
Sadly the photo is a fake. The faces of Freud and Jung have been photoshopped and, although they were great friends, there is no evidence that they bathed together. Which is a shame because it would be a great pretext for an article on mental health and the banya. However, I like to think of the two of them taking a banya together and there is plenty of evidence to suggest that steam baths can promote better mental health and are a great remedy for some of the ills of modern life. They would approve. Most of us probably feel like the man sitting behind Freud, with our heads in our hands after more than a year in the grip of Coronavirus. Here’s why banya can help us emerge from that state and repair our mental health.
Banya is a social affair and most people visit the banya with friends or family. Some will go to the same banya with the same people at the same time of the week for many years, developing a deep companionship over that time. Where some cement relationships by attending football matches, Russians visit the banya. Bathing together by its very nature is also a very intimate experience. You are physically exposed in the banya, relaxed by the heat and steam and bonded with whoever is in your group. Social ties, community and the quality of our relationships clearly affect our mental equilibrium and our general emotional wellbeing can only benefit from regular banya visits with friends.
Modern life is hectic and stressful, with many of us permanently on call, alert to our devices whatever the time of night and day. Sleep is perhaps the only respite and even that is often impaired by exposure to screens before bed. Silence and reflection are precious commodities and we encourage people to put away their phones for a few hours while visiting The Bath House. The benefits of meditation and reflection are well established and time in the banya (and in the steam room in particular) can help you to find the calm to still the mind. The body is totally relaxed, allowing the mind to slow and you to breathe. Take advantage of it.
The roots of the banya lie in the forest and the banya draws on the elements of fire, water and wood. The music of the venik during the ritual of parenie, the aroma of the leaves, the hiss of steam and the rush of water from the tipping bucket are a portal to the countryside in the heart of the city. Even the most committed city dweller is restored by a walk in the woods or a swim in the sea and banya can offer something similar.
The process of going to the banya has not changed much in a millennium. The venues may be grander, but you still sit and steam in a wooden chamber, oak and birch leaves are still used to massage the body and you emerge from the banya refreshed and restored as you would have hundreds of years ago.
Banya connects us with ourselves, others, the natural world and the past.