Relaxing doesn’t get tougher than this
Tom Ough did his bit for Anglo-Russian relations by agreeing to a massage that was more intense than expected
Relaxation is a curious thing, I mused from beneath a white, Smurf-style hat as a bearded bodybuilder pummelled my naked back with steaming birch twigs. I felt like I was being beaten up by a large tree in a rainstorm. I felt like Basil Fawlty’s car (“I’ve laid it on the line for you time and time again!”). And that’s before I had to roll over so that the bodybuilder could do my torso too. Oh, and this was happening in a very humid sauna. And after the massage – for that is what it was – I was invited to splash a bucket of cold water over myself. Brrr! I mean: mmm!
All this was taking place in Banya No 1, a Russian spa in East London. “Banya” is a Russian term meaning something along the lines of a sauna, and Banya No1, which has been visited by luminaries including Kate Moss, Justin Bieber and Emilia Clarke, is the pre-eminent banya in London.
It’s a good time to visit, not only because Anglo-Russian relations could do with some thawing, but also because new research, conducted by scientists at the University of Jyväskylä, the University of Eastern Finland, and the University of Bristol, has found that sauna bathing may be linked to health benefits, from reducing the risk of heart disease to improving the condition of people with arthritis, as well as making participants more likely to live longer.
Banya No1 claims in its promotional literature that its treatment is better than a Finnish sauna, because the air in its steam room is more humid and so less shocking for the bare skin encountering it. My own bare skin, no friend of high temperatures, agreed.
Before I’d got to the sauna, though, I’d had my first brush, if that’s the right word, with a venik, a bundle of birch and eucalyptus twigs and leaves with place”. which I was soon to be beaten. Once I’d arrived at the spa, I was given a sudsy body wash on a cool massage table, with Janis, the muscle-bound banshik, giving little indication that the venik with which he was brushing me would shortly be repurposed as weapons of war.
Following the massage, I was frogmarched to a tiled area with two buckets hanging overhead. Ropes hung from the buckets. Janis instructed me with patchy, soft-spoken English to pull one of the ropes, and icy water cascaded over me. I was ready for parenie.
Parenie is the hot, percussive massage to which I referred earlier. Janis led me, trembling, to a wood-lined sauna room, where he had me lie on another massage table, this one much warmer. I was face down, with my head resting on damp, warm birch leaves, covered by eucalyptus (the Smurf hat was to prevent my head getting hot too quickly). There was some rustling be-
The Russian massage therapists who’ll beat you with veniki over the course of your parenie in the banya. Vy ponimaete? (do you understand?)
BE NOT A-FLAYED Tom Ough with Janis, main, and a bucket shower, right