A spa treatment sure to satisfy thrill seekers was the “Banya and Venik Massage”.  It was an adaptation of a Russian bathing ritual called Platza and used to be available at a San Diego establishment that is no longer doing business.

Platza combines steaming in a sauna with birch branch self flagellation.  Beating the skin with the sticks stimulates circulation, and after a sufficient amount of time is spent simulating rosacea and building up a sweat, the ritual ends with a suicidal style run into the frozen tundra for a roll in the snow.

Overwhelmed with curiosity, and against my better judgement,  I booked the first available appointment.

The treatment started out with resting for a few minutes inside of a comfortably warm sauna.   It was dark except for some light filtering in from another room, and the cedar planking smelled really good.   Every few minutes, a woman would pop in and pour water on a rack of large hot rocks.  When the temperature was to her liking, she sealed the door and left me to bake.

At first it seemed that the Slavs had a thing or two to teach us about relaxing in style.  However, it didn’t take long for the intensity of heat and steam to increase to an extremely uncomfortable level.  My lungs felt like torched paper and I feared my skin would permanently fuse to the wooden sauna bench.

I retracted any kindness previously thought about Russian spa style.

The Banya and Venik Experience: Beaten by Eucalyptus

Moments before passing out and rolling onto the floor, a massage therapist entered and brought a few wisps of cool air with her.  Peering at her through sweat filled eyes, I could just make out that she was bringing in a huge pile of leaf covered branches.  The smell was unmistakeably eucalyptus. True to the platza protocol, she bundled them up and began a rhythmic percussion of my skin from head to toe.   With each successive pounding, fragrance leached from the leaves and into the air.

It was unexpectedly relaxing.

Eucalyptus branches used in platza banya and venik massage

Twenty minutes later, I was in an altered state from the heady mix of cedar, eucalyptus, heat and skin stimulation.

The good times did not last long.

Without warning, a huge bucket of ice water was dumped over my head.  It was followed by a second one.  She might as well have punched me in the chest.  I was struggling to breathe and desperately trying to remember what the warning signs are of a heart attack. Shivering through a blue lipped recovery, it was easy to question how the place kept it’s doors open. However, a few minutes later euphoria set in.

The “high” is a normal response to extremes of hot, cold, and stimulation.   All sorts of endorphins had been unleashed by the treatment and the essential oil filled air of eucalyptus heightened the effect.

In a final analysis, the unpredictability of the experience unexpectedly contributed to my enjoyment.   If the massage therapist had warned me about the extreme heat followed by cold water therapy, I probably would have backed out, and where is the fun in that?

The session continue with about 45 minutes of full body massage and no more surprises.  I returned to thinking that we could probably learn a few techniques from Russia.  This time around, I’m not changing my mind.

Here’s link a link to a story about one man’s experience of trying the real thing in Russia.  Click here if you want to learn more.

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