I had some bad energy going on in October. Everything just kept going wrong and anxiety plagued me, keeping me from sleeping or ever relaxing completely. I knew in my head that this too shall soon pass, but it sure seemed to be taking its sweet time. Somebody told me once that stress hormones are released from the body in two ways—through crying or sweating. Now, I’ve never been much of a crier. The studies that say women cry an average of once a week never took me into account. I’m more like three or four times a year, if that. It’s a good thing I’m a world-class sweat machine; otherwise, I’m sure I’d have a nervous breakdown annually. From about May through September, I’m usually in a constant state of ooze. With the arrival of fall, though, it’s been chilly, and I haven’t had much time to exercise or work up a sweat. Maybe that’s why I was feeling so off. Luckily, I live near a Russian bathhouse, the Banya, on Coney Island Avenue, where I can pay to go sweat. This might seem like a weird idea, but it really does work. Really.
I was first introduced to Russian bathhouses when my friend had part of her bridal shower at one. We went to the Russian & Turkish Baths on Tenth Street in Manhattan, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’d never been fond of the locker room experience in high school and wasn’t looking forward to it again in my adult life, but I stomached it and got dressed in what I could put together as a swimsuit. All I can remember from that experience is that two hours later, I was more relaxed than I had been in years, maybe even in a decade. I fully intended on getting a ten-punch card so I could return again at a discounted rate, but then I learned that there was an ongoing feud between the two owners, Russian émigrés Boris Tuberman and David Shapiro. Their feud was so bitter that once a card was purchased you could only go on days that Boris staffed the baths or David, depending on whom you had bought your card from.
A year later I watched the movie Eastern Promises with the famous naked knife-fight scene that takes place in a Russian bathhouse, and the one on Tenth Street didn’t seem like the safest place in the world. Plus, it was far from home. I didn’t want to have to trek all the way into Manhattan to get relaxed and then just waste it by getting tensed up in the subway because of angry commuters or what have you.
When I moved to Ditmas Park, a friend told me that there was a Russian bathhouse within walking distance of my house. I hadn’t visited, though, until my stressful time last month, but now that I have, I hope to return at least a couple times a month—especially during the winter. I had forgotten how much stress relief sweating it out in a sauna can provide.
We went on a Monday, and there were hardly any customers, just a few seasoned Russian pros. The man running the counter spoke minimal English, but he made it clear what he wanted: we were to hand over our wallets. He locked them into security boxes and gave us keys for the women’s locker room and one large towel each. The general admission for the Banya is $30, and if any food or drink is ordered in the cafeteria area or a massage, robe, any of the extras, that is charged to your safety deposit box number, and you settle up at the end of the visit.
At the Banya, there are two saunas and one steam room, a cooling pool, and a Jacuzzi. There not as many saunas as the Russian & Turkish Baths in Manhattan and the Banya doesn’t have the ice-cold pool that is cold enough to stop your heart, but I liked it better because there was less traffic and the masseuses weren’t as aggressive about getting customers. (At the Banya, there was one masseuse on duty, and she spent the majority of her time watching Russian soaps on TV.)
This is a DIY spa, and the goal is to go through five or six cycles of sitting in the sauna and then spending an equal amount of time or longer outside of the sauna. In the sauna, your job is to have a full sweat from your head to your feet, which I had no problem doing. I left a huge wet print on the wooden benches each time I went into the sauna, and after my first cycle, I could feel the tension rolling off me as I relaxed in the Jacuzzi. I lay my head back, and I think I would have been able to take a nap if Russian music videos hadn’t been playing on the overhead TV. There are large orange jugs full of ice water so patrons can replenish their fluids between cycles, and next to the jugs is an endless supply of clean towels to keep you dry. After leaving the sauna, you are expected to rinse your sweat off in showers provided before dipping yourself into the pool or Jacuzzi. With all of this water in and out, you are really clean and feel like a new person by the time you’ve finished your visit.
When I left the Banya three hours later, I was in a completely different head space than when I had entered. My body felt loose and relaxed, all the tension was gone from my shoulders and neck, and my sinuses were clear. In the locker room, we ran into a neighborhood woman who asked if it was our first time there. She laughed and said, “It’s better than sex, isn’t it?”