It’s official: I’m BRINGING THE BANYA BACK.
Don’t ask me where it went or when it was ever here, and if you are Russian, don’t correct me by saying that it never left. Because in all seriousness, these Eastern European therapeutic spa havens are not present enough. There’s no reason why the Banya can’t become a mainstream way to spend a leisurely Saturday.
THE BROOKLYN BANYA
I took my cousin Karen along with me for an afternoon/evening at the Coney Island/Brooklyn Banya, located just off the Q train in Brooklyn, New York. Her boyfriend had wished her “good luck,” indicating his perception that bathhouses are filled with hairy, naked Russians in hot tubs. He is not alone in his perception, but I am thrilled to inform you that he is not accurate. Nobody was naked, not everyone was Russian, and very few of them were hairy!
Karen and I were greeted in the bright, clean facility and seated at a table by the pools and served our choice of flavorful hot pitchers of tea. The table was home base, where we ate, caught up on life, determined that the Russian music videos are slightly hotter than American ones, and observed our wet, social surroundings: A hot tub, a small pool, 2 saunas (one wet, one dry, both nearly 200 degrees) a steam room, cold showers, spa treatment rooms for massages, scrubs and other specialty services, and a generally laid back crowd of couples, friends and families.
There was a 21st birthday party going on too, and they were having a blast. Fifteen friends splashed around with blow-up duckies, lounged in the hot tub, drank beer, ate shish kabobs and did karaoke in bikinis on a cold November day. Amazing! Although the beer is a bit of a step back, these coming-of-age youngsters were actually doing great things for their bodies, too. Moving from hot to cold sensations is wonderful for your circulation and heart health, and one of the #1 reasons people go to Banyas.
I met an 11 year old girl in the steam room who goes to banyas all the time. “I have to,” she said. “I’m a dancer and a cheerleader and a gymnist and an ice skater.” Show off.
After testing the various hot and cold (mostly hot) attractions, it was time for the main event:
Platza is an ancient, invigorating form of Russian massage that involves the use bundles of birch, oak, or eucalyptus leaves to smack, splash, infuse heat into your body, and rock you into what I’d can only describe as Spa Coma.
Don’t be alarmed when your Platza-giver removes a “venik”—the leaf bundle—from a bucket of mysterious soapy water in preparation for your smackdown. A soak in hot water makes the venik soft and fragrant, providing an organic aromatherapy throughout.
I laid face down on towels on the sauna bench, and at first, the smacking was extremely enjoyable. The aggressive pitter patter of leaves up and down my body was awakening and soothing at the same time. Then, I heard something sizzle in the sauna oven, like a wet washcloth on a stove. Suddenly a gust of heat rushed over me and the veniks coming down on my body were now like miniature iron whips branding my body like it’s Colonial 1799.
Okay, maybe that is a slight exaggeration, but WOAH, those babies were hot. He alternated smacking with pressing the leaves into my body, as though I was a stubborn shirt crease and he was an iron. The crazy part is, it didn’t even feel terrible. It was a tolerable stinging heat that I could feel penetrating my body on a mission to torch away any aches, pains and tightness within.
After about 15 minutes, I could no longer stand the heat. It was not because the veniks were hot against my skin—it was because I felt like a drunk asthmatic on mile 25 of a marathon in the middle of August. I got up and stumbled out of the sauna, only meaning to step outside for a minute to catch my breath, but since I couldn’t say it in Russian, that ended up being it.
In a fog, I was escorted to an ice cold shower which came spilling onto my head, too stunned to even flinch, and then was held by the hand until I softly descended into the pool where I floated mindlessly for about 5 minutes, slowly regaining strength. They set up a lounge chair next to the pool, beckoned me to come lay down there, and covered me in soft towels. As I laid still and giggled like a child on laughing gas, I could hear the navigation lady in my head say: “You have arrived at your destination, and may never move again.”
What an experience! I could feel my body kissing and thanking me for this sublimely rude awakening.
Karen didn’t last quite as long in her Platza treatment, and for someone who doesn’t try crazy spa treatments for a living, this was hands down the most outer body physical experience she’d ever had.
As we plucked the remaining leaves off our legs, there was one thing we both agreed upon completely: Our bodies felt awesomely brand spankin’ new.
Did I mention this is also a gourmet restaurant? We finished off our day at the Coney Island Banya with a delicious traditional Russian/Greek feast of bread soaked in butter, a Shepared Salad, Whole Grilled Branzini and Caviar Blinkies. One of the owners came over towards the end of our meal for an unexpected dessert twist:
SALT AND HONEY FACIALS
Our hostess mixed our tea honey with salt and had us apply it to our faces. Honey has wonderful skincare benefits such as acne healing, strengthening, tissue healing, scar reducing, and when mixed with salt, it also works as an exfoliant. We applied to our cheeks and chins in an upward motion, scrubbing the salt into our freshly steamed skin and let it sit for about 5 minutes. The perfect ending to our alternative spa day. Try it at home!
Speaking of trying… I encourage you to GO TRY A BANYA. Not just because I’m on a mission to bring the banya back; because I know you will love it. Bring a date! Throw your holiday party there! And GET. THE. PLATZA.
Check out the Coney Island Banyas for yourself. Here’s a little video and their information. They have festive dance parties every month, which I plan on attending too. Come join the Banya movement! For more photos, click here.
602 Coney Island Ave
Brooklyn, NY 11218
Venik photo courtesy of communitrip.com