Taking a beating

Being "beaten" with twigs is an essential part of the banya experience. Source: PhotoXPress

Being "beaten" with twigs is an essential part of the banya experience. Source: PhotoXPress

Going to the banya is one of the most popular Russian traditions – and choosing the right switch to use in the bany is a complex process.

The Russian custom of being beaten with twigs in the sauna has unfailingly puzzled foreigners for centuries. In “The Fencing Master,” Alexandre Duma wrote:  “Then he opened the door and pushed me into the second room. I thought that some modern Mephistopheles had conducted me to his revels, without my suspecting it. Imagine three hundred people stark naked, of all ages and of both sexes, men, women, children and aged folks, of whom one half were buffeting the other, with cries, shouts of laughter and strange contortions.”

The French writer’s words are no surprise to Maria Ivanova. “You tell foreigners that it is a pleasant thing to have a switch used on you in a sauna, that it is good for the health, but they won’t believe you – you see in their eyes that they think it is some sort of practical joke,” Ivanova said. She is a mail carrier, but she also runs a roadside produce stand selling pickles, jams and sauna switches near her village, Berezovka. The name comes from the Russian word for birch, which is no coincidence. Birch twigs are popular sauna switches.

Going to the forest to harvest switches

There are some secrets to the switch business in Berezovka, which, as befits a really remote Russian village, include some aspects of witchcraft.

“To get yourself a good switch, choose an even day of the month during the full moon. Don’t even go near a double-trunk birch or single trees. The twigs must be dry, then the steam will be light,” said Leonid Kazantsev, who has been in the business for seven years to support his family. Switch harvesting is a family business – men gather the twigs and women sell them. Kazantsev has a finished product warehouse in his garret, like everyone else in Berezovka. Switches must be kept in a dry room without sun exposure, or they will be spoiled. Around Berezovka, it’s not very difficult to find birch switches, but for juniper twigs, you have to go deep into the mountains to find the spots where juniper grows. “There are places in Gorny Altai, but you need to climb hills,” said Lada Zyablitskaya, a switch vendor. “Juniper switches are procured by men, whereas women can get birch switches fairy easily.”

To distribute the twigs, they must be tied into a bunch. Tying them so that they stay together is a tricky thing that requires skill and experience. Zyablitskaya admitted that equal rights do not work here, and men are unparalleled switch-makers. “I can tie up to 40 switches a day, but my son-in-law makes 100 by noon. You’ve got to be strong for this.”

Switch recipe

Just like you need a whole set of golf clubs for various shots, there are various switches in a banya for a variety of purposes.

“Fir-tree switches have bactericidal properties,” Zyablitskaya said, adding “licorice switches are excellent for tackling cellulite if you add herbs – tutsan and marjoram. Licorice switches will also help a cough. Fir-tree switches are also good against colds, but the best one is the birch switch, which is a cure for everything.”

The prices are quite affordable – birch switches retail at 50 rubles ($1.75) apiece and fir-tree switches are available at 75 rubles ($2.25). However, the turnover is sufficient to support a family with four children, according to Zyablitskaya.

Different problems, different switches

- A birch switch helps muscle aches and sore joints resulting from physical exercise. It also cleanses the skin. Birch leaves contain ether oils, tanning agents, vitamin C and pro-vitamin A.

- An oak switch is best suited for people with oily skin. The smell of oak prevents the blood pressure from rising in the steam room. This switch calms your nerves and helps cope with stress.

- A lime tree switch is an excellent cure for headaches and has diuretic properties, which help “exercise” the kidneys. Also, it stimulates sweating and has calming, wound-healing, bronchodilatory and antipyretic effects.

- A conifer switch (fir-tree, juniper) stimulates perspiration and increases blood circulation deep inside the muscles and even in the internal organs. Such a switch is an excellent massage tool helping spine aches, neuralgic pains and radiculitis.

- A eucalyptus switch contains 1-3 percent ether oils and is an excellent cure for colds and sore throats. You should press it against your face and breathe for up to 4-5 minutes.

- A nettle switch is used after physical exercise, when your muscles and joints are sore. Once you are switched with nettle, your pain will subside.

How to use a switch

1. Use the switch in the steam room, a small room with seats and an oven. Inside the oven are hot stones, and water (often with conifer, eucalyptus and other additives) is poured on the stones to heat the steam to 60-70 degrees centigrade and increase humidity to 80 percent

2. Then you soften the switch in a small tub full of boiling water.

3. Then you whisk yourself lightly, rather than LASH.

4. Have a partner in the steam room so you can switch each other.

5. Take a shower after the steam room (or simply have some water poured on you), wrap yourself in a dry sheet (towel) and drink a mug of beer or kvass in the anteroom.

6. Repeat steps 3-5 until you are completely exhausted.

A switch is not intended to be disposable. After a banya session, wrap it in a piece of paper or a towel and let it dry at home without heating or blow-drying it.

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