In the 12th century, the Apostle Andrew visited what was to become Russia and discovered the bizarre bathing practices of the locals: "I noticed their wooden bathhouses. They warm them to extreme heat, then undress, and after anointing themselves with tallow, they take young reeds and lash their bodies. They actually lash themselves so violently that they barely escape alive. They make of the act not a mere washing but a veritable torment."
For the uninitiated like Andrew, the lashing with reeds or the venik is the most baffling and alarming element of the Russian banya experience. What exactly is going on? Why would anyone willingly submit to that lashing or self-flagellate with oak and birch branches? Is it some kind of strange sadomasochistic ritual? Is it a punishment or a rite of passage perhaps? Does it hurt?
The best way to answer those questions is to treat yourself to a classic venik massage from one of our experienced banshiks, but in the meantime here’s The Bath House guide to the venik.
What is a venik?
The origins of the Russian banya lie in the forest, draw on the elements of wood, fire and water and the venik is the instrument that brings all three together in the ritual of parenie or the venik massage. The venik is a bundle of small leafy branches harvested during the summer when the tree is in flower and tied together to form something resembling a crude broom. It is soaked until supple and used in the steam room to massage the body and to direct the steam from the stove. Parenie is not just the wafting and swishing of the venik. It requires skill and experience to capture and move the steam and to massage the body in the right way.
Parenie can resemble a sacred ritual in which the venik is used to invoke the gods of wood, fire and water.
The venik can be made from a variety of different trees. Birch and oak are the most common veniks used in the Russian banya, but you will also encounter eucalyptus, linden and juniper. Each has its own qualities and is deployed for different ailments and objectives. The aroma of the oak is prized for its rich and deep aroma and the leaves of the oak contain tannin and flavonoids, both of which have anti-inflammatory qualities. The birch venik has a subtle minty fragrance and also has anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties. It contains vitamin C and the smaller leaves of the birch tree promote exfoliation during the massage. A eucalyptus venik has a wonderful medicinal aroma and can be used during the venik treatment as a decongestant, while linden contains substances that promote circulation and juniper’s prickly leaves enhance exfoliation.
How do you use the venik?
Before using the venik is soaked in hot water for a good 20 minutes to release the aromas and nutrients within the leaves and to ensure that it is supple and flexible. During this time you should also ready yourself for parenie by spending time in the steam room, gradually getting accustomed to the temperature of the steam room. Some use the water that the venik has been soaked in to wash, although it is more common to throw it on the stove as it contributes to the aroma in the steam room.
Once you and the venik are ready, your banshik will take you into the private steam room at The Bath House. Initially, you will lie down on your front with your face cushioned on a venik soaked in cold water. This not only keeps your face cool but ensures the aromatic impact of the venik massage is maximised.
The banshik will add water to the stove to ensure the appropriate level of steam and then set about the massage. This is not a whipping or a beating, it is a steam massage in which the leaves are used to drive steam down onto the body and to massage the skin, at times gently and at times harshly. Your massage will last approximately 10 minutes after which you will be escorted out of the steam room for an ice-cold plunge. After that, you can lie down for a snooze in one of the aromatic hay chambers at The Bath House or go through to the lounge for some tea and something light to eat.
What’s the point?
Parenie improves circulation, stimulating dilation of the capillaries and promoting blood flow and oxygenation of the entire body. Intensive sweating removes toxins and waste substances from the body and the venik massage removes dead skin. This normalises the functioning of the sweat glands, which, in turn, slows the development of wrinkles and other signs of ageing.
The steam of the banya and the aroma of the venik open and clear the respiratory system, unblocking your sinuses and helping you to breathe more freely. Parenie positively affects muscles, joints and bones helping to remove lactic acid, salt and urea from the body and facilitating the absorption of nutritional substances and oxygen. It also relaxes the muscles, causing the production of endorphins, thereby promoting the release of stress-induced tension and alleviating muscular pain.
The rapid change in temperature experienced after parenie not only relaxes the muscles but also helps strengthen the immune system, as it convinces the body into believing it has a fever and prompts the production of white blood cells. In other words, parenie brings benefits for the whole body and you will emerge from your treatment restored, refreshed and relaxed.