If I had been forced to write a bucket list two years ago, there is absolutely no way one of the items would have been “sit in an obnoxiously hot sauna while a man pours honey over my naked body and then beats me with an oak tree.”
That’s the beauty of 40 Before 40. Because now that it happened, I get to add it to the list!
Let me back up a bit.
In Russia, a “banya” is a type of sauna — it’s a centuries-old tradition to visit a banya, and some people even build them in their homes. The banya is made of wood and heated by fire, and an intense hot steam is created when water (sometimes infused with essential oils) is poured over it.
Wooden benches line the walls of the banya, and guests lie on them to be smacked briskly by “veniks,” which is a broom made of twigs, branches and leaves of birch or oak trees.
Yes, you read the right. People in Russia relax by paying people to whack them with tree branches.
More to the point, I paid to be whacked by tree branches.
I’d heard about a spa in Denver that specializes in banya massages, and as I near the end of 40 Before 40, it seemed like a good time to try one. My (mostly work) trip to Colorado last week came on the heels of a circus-related injury that’s caused muscles in my shoulder/back to seize, placing constant pressure on my right scapula. I’m not in pain as long as I’m not doing anything crazy (like… you know… circus), but it is pretty uncomfortable.
I arrived at the spa to greet the therapist who would spend the better part of an afternoon with me: he was a burly, bearded man, clad in swim trunks and flip flops. Beyond reading a little about the banya, and the tree whipping, I didn’t know much about what to expect — I find that with new experiences, it’s sometimes more fun not to know all the details (it’s a philosophy that backfired on me when it came to my death jump in the Adirondacks). However, I’ll admit I was a little alarmed by my intake form, which asked me to rate my tolerance for heat… and pain!?!
I was lead to my treatment room, which was gorgeously decorated with wooden panels and carvings. A typical massage table took up about half of the space, with the other half dedicated to a hot tub, a shower and the banya.
I started my treatment in the hot tub, which was lovely and featured glowing blue and red lights that pulsed on and off slowly. It would have been mesmerizing if I hadn’t been wholly focused on preventing my own drowning.
I am a fairly accomplished long-distance swimmer — my longest open water swim was a 6.2 mile crawl across a lake in California. Deep water doesn’t scare me. But one doesn’t often climb into a hot tub with the expectation of treading water. The tub was so deep that if I sat on the seat, I had to tip my head completely back to keep my nose out of the water. Even so, the water was churning and bubbling, and it was nearly impossible to relax.
I am not a short person, and I do not know how this hot tub could be reasonably used by anyone under six-foot-four. I ended up squatting on the tub’s seat which had the added benefit of keeping part of my chest out of the water, helping me avoid feeling like I might overheat and die.
(It’s important to note that, as my intake form will verify, my tolerance to heat is “very, very low.”)
A knock on the door 15 minutes later signaled my time to dry off and lay on the massage table. For the better part of an hour, my therapist worked on my shoulder and back. Though I hadn’t used it in the most ideal way, the hot tub had warmed my muscles and made my body far more pliable than normal, so the massage was deep, intense… and magically healing.
Then it was time for the banya, the real adventure!
The therapist left the room for me to move to into the banya, which felt like an oven that had been preheating for days. As I climbed onto a towel, my naked calf touched the wooden side of the bench, and I legitimately worried that I had burned myself.
I hope you can appreciate how much I hate to be hot. A summer day should be 80 degrees, and anything beyond that feels like we might as well live on the sun. I am not being melodramatic — I either experience heat more intensely than most people, or I have an extremely low tolerance for it. Maybe both.
So imagine my delight when the therapist entered a few unbearable minutes later and said, “Alright! It’s time to heat this place up!”
The next ten minutes were a lesson in living in the moment. If I allowed my mind to even begin to wonder how much longer I might have to endure the heat and humidity — which just kept increasing, thanks to the therapist throwing pails of eucalyptus infused water over the hot fire — I would become convinced I was about to die.
I am not being overly dramatic… it was by far the most intense heat I have endured, and I have been to Death Valley and taken a (admittedly VERY short) hike in 121 degrees. Because I had to force myself into the moment to keep from panicking, I did experience something I have never felt before: I literally could feel every pore on my body as it opened and began expelling sweat. I don’t know how to describe it except to say that it was like being slowly pricked by 100,000 needles. But in a good way. Which I know makes no sense. Just go with it. It was awesome.
Finally, as I was about 4 seconds away from exploding, the therapist began beating me with two very large, very compact handfuls of oak branches.
It was oddly relaxing, after I got over the initial shock. The branches had been soaked in water, so in some ways, the assault was a welcome relief. But it was more than just cool drops of water hitting my scorched body — something about it… the rhythm and the intensity… it was actually very meditative.
That brief moment of zen ended abruptly as the therapist put down his weapons and said, “Jennifer, are you ready for the honey?”
Am I ready for the honey?
I was silent. Surely I misheard.
It didn’t matter. A response was completely unnecessary. The question was barely out of his mouth before I felt a cool, sticky liquid pooling behind my knees and in the small of my back. I looked up as a giant plastic bottle of honey made its way towards my neck and hair.
I started laughing — I couldn’t help myself. I get myself into some weird things, but this had to take the cake. If ever there were a reason to read about something before you go, if only to mentally prepare, this was it. Though I will admit, having half a gallon of honey poured all over my body was enough of a shock that I forgot I was still roasting inside a giant wooden torture chamber.
So I don’t know if I learned a lesson or not.
After a quick shower to wash off the honey and the random leaves and twigs now stuck to my skin, I was back on the massage table for another 45 minutes of bliss.
Then it was back in the banya. More heat, more heat, more heat. You hot yet? Let’s add more water! Let’s feel those pores open up. Are there areas of the body you didn’t think capable of produce sweat — eyelids, fingernail cuticles, belly button? Guess what?! They all sweat eventually — you just need to be hot enough!
If you believe the hype and/or the Russians, this process allows the body to release accumulated toxins. I’m pretty sure I sweated out every preservative I’ve ever eaten, every artificial anything. Meat byproducts I consumed decades ago? Gone. The box of grape Nerds I bought in 1983 from a concession stand at a roller skating rink? Eliminated! The buckets of perspiration pooled around me proved it.
Then it was time for another tree beating. More honey.
And finally, it’s over.
I was left alone to take a very long, very cold shower. Afterwards, my muscles were so fatigued I sat on the floor, trying to summon the strength to use a towel to dry off and put my clothes back on.
If what I felt in that moment wasn’t bliss, then I don’t know what is.
So there you go. Would I recommend the banya massage? Absolutely. Though if you don’t have $100, or two-plus hours to spend on yourself, I suppose you could build a fire, collect tree branches from the yard and a bottle of honey from the fridge and try a DIY version.
I expect to see your results on Pinterest, ok?!