Banya: A Mentally and Physically Exhausting Therapy Only For the Brave
Despite all of the modern advances in our society today, there are many natural practices that not only boost healthspan but are also clinically proven to prevent disease.
Two examples are heat and cold exposure for the human body.
Saunas, which involve exposing the body to temperatures up to 185 degrees Fahrenheit, have been shown to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and neurocognitive disease. Ice baths, which have recently surged in popularity, have been shown to decrease inflammation, aid with sleep, and help with focus.
Both saunas and cold baths have been used by nearly every culture worldwide, dating back thousands of years. However, there is one group of people that took the hot and cold exposure to another level.
The Scythian people, who lived in the modern-day Ukraine and Southern Russia region, are known to have been the first documented to practice banya. Starting around the 7th century BC, banya is a process where you alternate between a sauna and an ice bath for several hours.
But it’s not just exposure to extreme temperature changes. There is far more to the banya experience, which is what I want to share. Maybe you’ll be inspired to kick-start your longevity journey with a banya experience…
A Long Drive Into the Ukrainian Countryside
In the winter of 2016, I traveled to Ukraine to visit my good friend Peter. He had been living in Kyiv for about a year and kept telling me to come visit. Oblivious to the seasons in the capital city, I chose to visit at the beginning of January.
Out of place is a perfect way to describe how Ukrainians looked at me. I wore a beanie from high school, a peacoat, jeans, and cowboy boots. Yes, cowboy boots.
To top it off, I got my body completely horizontal in the air, before crashing down on an icy sidewalk. Of course, this was in front of dozens of people on one of the busiest sidewalks in downtown Kyiv.
Peter almost had a heart attack from laughing so hard, until he saw the enormous bruise on my hip. Still laughing, he suggested we go to banya to make it feel better.
“Banya?” I asked him.
“Yeah. Banya. It’s amazing. You will feel like a new person afterwards!” Peter said, still laughing a bit at me.
I had no idea what he was talking about. But I trusted that he would take me somewhere to make me feel better. Peter could tell that I wasn’t physically or mentally prepared for Kyiv in the winter. During my entire visit, the temperature never went above freezing.
That night, we took a cab out into the Ukrainian countryside to go to banya. Peter intentionally didn’t give me any details, as he wanted to keep it a surprise.
Driving down unfamiliar, dark, snowy roads in a foreign country was – as anyone foreigner could imagine – a bit intimidating.
Then we pulled up to a big two-story log cabin, with wrap-around balconies, in the middle of the woods. As the cab stopped in front of the main entrance, two big hairy dudes stepped out the front door.
They were both shirtless, with white towels wrapped around their wastes. Then, three huge dogs ran out the front door, around the men, and jumped into the snow that had piled up on the sides of the entrance. The scene looked so ridiculous that I didn’t even know what to think.
I looked over to Peter as he was settling up with the cab driver. He looked back at me with a grin. It was obvious he was still laughing inside as I tried to digest the scene that was unfolding right outside the cab.
The two men ushered us into the massive log cabin and directed us to walk down a narrow hallway. We were then shown into a room just big enough to fit a round table with four chairs. The entire room was adorned with wood paneling, with animal skulls mounted on the walls.
It felt like a movie set. The floors creaked perfectly, the entire cabin smelled of a wood-burning fireplace, and the mid-60s Soviet decor appeared to be completely original – because it all really was.
Peter and I sat on opposite sides of the round table while I waited for what was to come. Having done this before, Peter knew exactly what was in store but refused to give me any clues.
I could tell that he was having fun with this entire process. It was at this point that I decided to settle into the experience. This was made even easier as we were served a platter of pretzel sticks, with a bowl of honey for dipping, and a big pitcher of beer.
Peter, who had stopped drinking ten years earlier after a transformative ayahuasca ceremony, watched me guzzle down two glasses. After the drinks, my nerves calmed a bit, and I started to get excited about what was to come next… whatever that was.
After about twenty minutes, one of the large hairy men (which one, I could not tell) came into the small room. He instructed us to wrap ourselves in a towel and remove all of our clothing. We were then given felt hats that looked like dunce caps.
The feeling of vulnerability was overwhelming. Wearing nothing but a towel around my waist and a cap on my head, I struggled to interpret the Ukrainian language that was being barked at me.
Actually, to be more accurate, there was no language interpreting going on for me. I was just following hand gestures and facial expressions. Peter, still smiling, enjoyed watching me squirm.
This is When Things Got Scary
Next, Peter and I were separated and led to different areas of the large log cabin. I had no idea where Peter went, as I was completely focused on surviving.
With my towel still wrapped around me, I walked into a large room with an enclosed sauna on one side and a small dunk tank on the other. Two men, Igor and Sev, both of equal height to me, stood in the room smiling. They, too, had towels wrapped around their waist and caps on their heads.
“OK,” I thought to myself, “The hot and cold therapy doesn’t really scare me. But these two guys make me very uneasy.”
First was the sauna.
The men instructed me to enter the sauna, and lay face down, butt naked, on a hard wooden bench.
Upon entering, I immediately understood why we were all wearing felt caps. The temperature inside was over 200 degrees Fahrenheit, and without the cap, your hair and scalp would burn.
Laying on the wooden bench, my back and calves started to scream from the intense heat. Just as my body felt the urge to stand up and run out of the sauna, Igor started to smack my back with birch branches covered in leaves.
Looking like an old-fashioned broom, the bunch of birch leaves were dipped in water before being whipped across my back and legs. The pain from the branches smacking my skin distracted me from the extreme heat.
Supposedly, there are natural oils in birch leaves and branches that act as anti-inflammatories that increase blood flow. However, at that moment, I had no idea what was going on other than the fact that I was being beaten by two half-naked dudes while lying face down inside an oven.
After about fifteen excruciating minutes of being beaten, I was directed to stand up and walk out of the sauna. As soon as I was away from the extreme heat, my eyes locked on the cold plunge tank, which was about three feet square and six feet deep with a traditional swimming pool ladder.
At this point, as I grabbed both sides of the stainless steel ladder rails, I gladly lowered my steaming body into the ice-cold water. Surprisingly, the cold water didn’t seem to shock my system as much as I thought it would.
Slowly, my body began to cool off while submerged. After about five minutes, Igor instructed me to dunk my head under the water for as long as possible. Twenty seconds was about all I could tolerate before the stabbing freezing feeling overwhelmed my brain.
Just as my body seemed to be shutting down from the cold, I climbed the ladder and made my way back over to the sauna. Again, lying down on the hard wooden bench, I receive more smacks across the back and legs with bundles of birch.
Since my body was cold from the icy dip, I could stay much longer in the sauna this second time. In fact, Igor and Sev had to take turns going in and out of the sauna, while I stayed inside, taking a beating in alternating shifts.
Eventually, I couldn’t take the heat anymore, which meant it was time to do another polar plunge.
For my second round in the cold water, I did even more head dips until I seemed to reach a state of euphoria. The pain from the cold seemed to dissipate, and my mind zeroed in on my breath. Just breathe. Just survive.
Finally, after what seemed to be at least fifteen minutes in the ice water, I was beckoned back to the sauna.
Only there was a big problem… I couldn’t physically get out of the plunge pool.
Although my hands were gripped around the ladder rails, I couldn’t make my body ascend up the rungs.
I was physically stuck in the ice water.
The look in my eyes, paired with the cyanosis that was likely transforming the look of my face, must have immediately cued Igor and Sev to lift me out.
Hunched, naked, and freezing, Igor and Sev each grabbed an arm and lifted me out of the plunge pool.
Stripped from the feelings of vulnerability and embarrassment, my mind was completely focused on controlling my breathing and keeping my vision focused. It started to feel as if I was having an out-of-body experience, seeing myself from a bird’s eye view.
I had the sensation of being distanced from the direct pain and discomfort caused by the extreme cold and heat I had been exposed to. It was a bizarre feeling that I can only describe as being close to a psychedelic experience.
At this point, I went directly back into the sauna, with the assistance of Igor and Sev. They could tell I was physically and mentally exhausted. But they pushed me to continue on.
My third bout in the sauna was less intense. The door was left open, so much of the extreme heat escaped. Instead of being beaten by birch branches, I was scrubbed – head to toe – in a honey and salt slush (it was probably the same honey that I had been eating just about 90 minutes earlier).
Still, the sauna was hot. I needed to get out once my body had completely recovered from the cold exposure, and I had started to sweat.
Instead of jumping back into the plunge pool, I was taken outside. I followed Igor, who was wearing rubber boots and still just a towel around his waist, through the knee-high snow, until we got to a traditional outdoor swimming pool.
The pool was completely frozen, with an additional three feet of snow on top. However, on one end, a hole had been made with an ax, which was just big enough to jump into to access the frigid water below.
Of course, that is where I was directed to jump in. And I, being a former collegiate water polo player, felt comfortable enough to swim a fair distance under the ice before popping back up and getting out of the pool.
Igor got a good laugh out of that, as it was probably the only brave-looking thing that I had done since we had started the whole ordeal.
From Pain To Pleasure
We ran back through the snow to the log cabin, where I was greeted by Sev, who wrapped me in multiple blankets from head to toe. Looking like a mummy, he then led me around the outdoor balcony, which was coated in a thin layer of slippery ice, and gave me hand gestures to lay in a hammock that was strung up between two huge log structural columns.
Laying in the hammock, with just my face exposed to the air, he gave me a gentle push and then walked away. For the next half hour, I slowly rocked back and forth, watching my breath turn to condensation and blow away in the gentle breeze.
The psychedelic sensation that I had experienced earlier had now transformed into a feeling of extreme relaxation. My body and mind had both been pushed to their limits, and the only energy I felt I had left was used to simply exist in that very moment.
Eventually, Igor came out onto the balcony to bring me back into the cabin. Once inside, he unwrapped me from the blankets and left a towel around my waist. Then, he pointed to a rickety wooden staircase that he wanted me to climb.
Like a baby giraffe fresh out of its womb, I cautiously climbed the stairs as my legs could barely support me. My body was spent. But my banya experience wasn’t over.
At the top of the staircase, I entered a huge loft area that had at least four different massage tables spaced generously apart. Immediately, I noticed Peter on one of the tables getting a massage.
“How did he get here first?” I wondered to myself, “I started the whole banya process before him, but somehow he got through it faster than me.”
Peter looked up from his lying down position, with a perfect circle imprint on his face, “Cody! How was it, buddy? How do you feel?”
He had a huge grin on his face, and I immediately connected the dots. He had asked Igor and Sev to give me an extra special banya experience.
“Great, Peter! It was great,” I responded, not wanting to show that I had actually been terrified throughout the entire process.
Over the next hour and a half, I enjoyed a deep tissue massage.
From start to finish, my extra special banya experience lasted about four hours. I’m confident that what I went through is not the norm. In fact, I’d venture to say that very few people would have tolerated the extremes that I was pushed to.
But it was awesome. The refreshed feeling that seemed to permeate throughout my body for the days and weeks after was like nothing I had ever experienced.
On one hand, I felt as if I had sweated out every little toxin that existed in the far corners of my body. On the other, the cold exposure seemed to have sent a healthy shock to all of my muscles, joints, and everything in between.
There were also mental health benefits. Although my first extra special banya experience was brutal, I came out the other side knowing how far I could push myself physically and mentally.
Furthermore, the feeling of being in the moment for those four hours was the equivalent of many days worth of meditation or talk therapy.
Is the Ancient Practice of Banya the Future of Longevity Retreats?
Over the past several years, the world of longevity has seen an explosion of attention from some of the world’s wealthiest people. Dozens of new companies have popped up with billions of dollars in funding.
The crypto community has launched unique tokenized projects, and some countries have committed billions of dollars in grant funding, all to research and combat aging. Meanwhile, major think tanks have identified the world’s aging population as one of the biggest threats to our global economy.
Investors and entrepreneurs have noticed this opportunity by developing products and services aimed at providing preventative healthcare to those who are still in their younger years.
And although all of this funding, research, and advancement will undoubtedly transform the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries, we shouldn’t overlook the power of ancient practices that have stood the test of time.
Although the men who took me through my banya experience may not be well versed on the scientific literature surrounding the benefits of deliberate heat and cold exposure, we shouldn't discount what the practitioners know to be true.
Now, only time will tell if banya will become another trend in the longevity and healthspan space.
Will the same experience ever become more accessible here in the states? No idea.
But what I do know is that people are increasingly seeking out alternative practices to improve their well-being. And I do foresee elements of the unique and invigorating banya tradition being used more frequently by health seekers.
Spas and health retreats are now starting to integrate extreme services such as cryo-chambers and virtual reality therapy.
Heck, even local gyms and fitness centers are starting to offer ice baths and infrared sauna blankets.
For now, banya remains a fascinating cultural artifact and an experience that is well worth trying for those who are looking to reset their body and mind. Whether it's the intense heat, the cold plunge, or the camaraderie of the banya community, there's no denying the appeal of this ancient practice.
You never know what ancient wisdom might hold the key to your optimal well-being.
From Fearing to Seeking
In 2017, one year after this full banya experience, I returned to Ukraine to visit Peter again. And, of course, visit that log cabin on the outskirts of Kyiv to get my dose of banya.
On this second visit to the log cabin in the woods, I entered into the banya experience with a whole different perspective.
For starters, I wasn’t scared like I was during my first go around. This time I embraced the process, instead of fearing the heat, cold, and intimidating Ukrainian men barking orders at me.
More importantly, on my flight back to the US from Kyiv, I – once again – felt completely recharged physically, mentally, and spiritually.
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