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  • Writer's pictureAlta's Oyster

Heat and Serenity: I Sweated My Age Away in a Russian Banya

Then God said, "Let there be Aquarians."

I celebrated my birthday recently, and a key highlight was my first experience at a Russian Banya. I'm building a tradition of traveling for my birthday. I've gone to Chicago to see Hamilton (yes, in January!). I've gone to Mexico, Hawaii, and Thailand. I'm even counting the birthday I celebrated in Glenwood Springs, Colorado in 2021. Hey, I was 2+ hours away from home and slept in a hotel, so it counts!

This year, I stayed home. No hotel room, no rental car, no friends visiting. It was me, myself, and I was engulfed in heat and serenity as I sweated my previous age away in a Russian banya at Izba Spa in Denver.

The Russian banya is a type of wet steam bath that promotes relaxation and stress reduction. I set the appointment for the day before my birthday and was given plenty of helpful instructions like hydrate, do not consume alcohol, and have a light breakfast.

Things started easy enough with a 15-minute soak in a hot tub. I had the option to wear a bathing suit (I even brought one), but since I had a private room, and it was literally 12 hours until my birthday, I decided to enjoy the tub the way I came into this world: nude.

The post's author, a Black woman, smiles, gaze focused beyond the camera as she sits in a hot tub. One hand is on her chest. Her shoulders are bare
The water was 94 degrees, and the jets did wonders for my lower back.

They left a small cup of water for me, and I chugged it, remembering the emphasis on hydration. After soaking in the tub, it was time for the massage. This was my first experience with a male masseuse, and it's notable, because his version of deep pressure was not uncomfortably deep the way it is with the female masseuse. I wonder if it's because he has to pull back his strength while the women have to emphasize it.

Anyways, the massage was fabulous. He told me I fell asleep a few times. That was news to me! Apparently, I was so gone that I snored! Girl, when?!

After the sleep-inducing massage, it was time for the main event. I was not ready. The room dedicated to the banya looks like a sauna, but the humidity makes it much, much hotter. I laid on my stomach, a thin towel separating my skin from the hot wood. The masseuse poured peppermint essential oil on the hot coals (or whatever the source of heat was) and stepped out. Okay, cool. Peppermint is relaxing.

But my calves were stressed. They were getting hotter and hotter. I don't know if it was their proximity to the coals, but very soon they were on fire! Meanwhile, my upper body was sweating. The good sir came back in to pour eucalyptus, and I barely smelled it, because I was melting like the wicked witch of the west.

I sweated away my age, my problems, 2023, my worries, and my anxieties. Babe, I was hot. It felt like I'd been in there for five minutes, but considering temperatures in a banya can surpass 120 degrees (remember this is a Russian tradition, and it gets cold as hell in Russia), only a minute must've gone by, if that! I didn't mind the sweating, but, my God, heat from hell itself was hugging my poor calves. I played footsie with myself, trying to alleviate the burn, but that seemed to make it worse.

During the eucalyptus visit, the good sir asked how I was doing, and I told him! He said I needed to sweat from my calves, and he rubbed them. It didn't help. Then he asked if I'd done a banya before. Typical getting to know you. I tried hard to sound like a normal person during the conversation, and I think I succeeded.

In addition to impressive heat, a banya includes thick (and I mean thick) bushels of dried branches and leaves from a eucalyptus, white birch, or oak tree. My masseuse had two, and he dipped them into hot water, ran them over the heat source to capture more...heat, and then he proceeded to beat my body with them, from my ankles to my shoulders. Then a second dunk, gather more heat, then a beating. This felt good, especially on my shoulders.

He then launched a conversation about pasta.

Do you know how to cook pasta?

Yes. He told me to walk him through it, so I did. You boil water, then add the pasta and let it cook until it reaches your preferred level of softness.

I started talking about making the sides while the pasta's boiling, but he didn't want me to walk him through a whole meal. He then asked if I knew what to do if the pasta water gets too hot. I said no.

I was lying there thinking he's leading into why I'm overheating. He's going to bless me with some kind of expertise about why the body (and specifically my calves) gets so hot in a closed room like this. I know it.

He said that when the water gets too hot, you can pour cold water into the pot to lower the temperature.

I said oh, really blown away. I've learned something.

He said, "Here comes the cold water!"


I yelled!

SECOND SPLASH! Two buckets of ice-cold water poured on the entire length of my body up to my neck. I was yelling and laughing. The yelling was dramatic. The yelling was because my brain expects ice-cold water to be extremely uncomfortable.

Can I tell you it wasn't? It was a relief! I was the pot of water that needed to be cooled down! Oh, it felt so very good. Cold was solace. Cold was reward.

Cold is the cap to a banya. While he grabbed a fresh, dry towel, I had a few seconds for my system to recover from the shock. He guided me to move slowly. He asked me how many of him I saw. I saw one, but the corners of the room were moving a bit.

He helped me down the steps, then left me so that I could shower. And I continued to move slowly. I'm pretty sure my blood pressure dropped a little bit.

I felt like jelly. Everything was good, man. Izba Spa fed me slices of apple and a non-caffeinated tea. I took my time eating them, then got more food after I left.

I highly recommend finding the nearest banya spa near you. Scorching calves included, I will do this again.


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