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Branching Out: Extreme Bathing at the Banya

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Widely celebrated as places of learning, healing, and socializing, spa and bathing rituals have a place of importance in most global cultures. Greek Laconica and Roman Thermae were important ancient meeting spots for education, philosophy, and politics, while Turkish Hammam and Korean Jjimjilbang are still world-famous for their scrub-till-you’re-raw exfoliating treatments. Scandinavia, Europe, Asia—no matter where you travel, you’re sure to encounter some of the most interesting thermal and hydro-therapy from beauty traditions unknown to the west.

We were most intrigued by the practices from Russia and the Middle East—the wellness menu at an urban Banya (Russian for sauna) is anything but ordinary, and above all else emphasises the detox of the body through rapid heat and cold. When we got the invite to stop by San Francisco’s multicultural bathhouse, Archimedes Banya, we already knew which treatment was top of our to-try list: Venik Platza, a Russian hot massage. But unlike the kneading hands of your typical Swedish and Shiatsu techniques, you’re rustled with birch branches instead.

The Russian Venik/Hermera/Thinkstock

For generations, Russians have swatted themselves with a venik, a fragrant bundle of birch, oak, or eucalyptus twigs, while together in a wet sauna. The potent branches aid in digestion, respiratory breathing, and all sorts of immune-related health issues. We were, of course, most curious about the effects on the skin. Turns out, the essential oils from these leaves contain natural astringents which open up your pores, stimulate circulation, and exfoliate dead skin—all when vaporized in super high heat and humidity. A fan of tea tree oil for rogue pimples? Think of the experience like a natural acne spot treatment for your body, in overdrive.

After being patted and swathed by the branches in almost 200 degrees (it’s more comfortable than imagined), you’re asked to dive into an arctic-freezing pool for five to ten seconds. The immediate after-effects are unlike anything you’ve ever felt, and the adrenaline rush on your skin is palpable. Your heart-rate picks up, responding to the abrupt polarity in temperature, and your body is left tingling, detoxed, and practically anew. After that, you can go back to the sauna for a few more rounds of fire and ice, but be prepared for a clothing-optional crew.

Venik Platza, $30, available at Archimedes Banya SF, banyasf.com.