SNothing perks up a lazy Wednesday afternoon like a little mortification of the flesh, a bout of flagellation using bundles of tree branches, administered by a guy named Alex from Belarus. That is, if you’re into that sort of thing.
I know what you’re thinking: Oh, no, not another kinky, only-in-San Francisco “activity” undertaken by consenting adults and best left unreported in a family newspaper.
But it’s not like that at all. Really.
Sure, I’m lying, naked and prone and sweating profusely, in a 185-degree Russian sauna, while Alex wails on my bloated carcass with oak twigs like Charlie Watts pounding out a back beat. (Check that: I am wearing something, a jaunty felt “banya” hat shaped somewhat like a Shriner’s fez, sans tassel.) Sure, I’ll be following up this Dantean circle of hell by taking a plunge into a vat of icy water, 45 degrees and dropping. Sure, I’m also being soaked to the tune of $60 for the privilege.
But this ritual is entirely for my health – strictly diagnostic, folks, akin to a 50,000-mile car tuneup – not something partaken for lascivious gratification. So get your mind out of the gutter, will you?
The procedure is called venik platza, a staple of Russian and East Slavic saunas (“banyas”) since about A.D. 900, and its health benefits have been touted by everyone from Ivan the Terrible to Vladimir Putin. Google it, people; this form of therapy is on the up-and-up.
Until 2012, San Francisco had been sadly banya-less, unconscionable for a city that prides itself on diversity – not to mention whipping people for fun and profit. But a Russian expat, Mikhail Brodsky, president and rector of Oakland’s Lincoln University, finally ended the banya drought by opening Archimedes Banya in India Basin, making a bit of a splash in a milieu that embraces trendiness like a wool sock attracts static cling.
Initially, I shied from the banya, just as I have Westernized “spas,” since sitting around naked and sweating in front of people is not exactly my idea of relaxation. But several friends, long-distance runners, have touted the effectiveness of the banya’s venik platza therapy, saying their trail-weary legs felt revitalized after a session or two of being pounded by a bundle of oak, or birch, or eucalyptus – your choice. Their proselytizing reminded me of an old joke. Question: “Why do you hit yourself over the head with a hammer?” Answer: “Because it feels so good when I stop.”
Now, runners often are attracted to quirky, quackish things (remember that whole Vibram Five Fingers craze?), but this sounded just strange enough that I had to bury my preconceptions and branch out, as it were.
So, there I sat on a bench outside the sauna at the appointed hour, wearing just a teary-cloth robe, waiting patiently to get beaten.
In came Alex, cradling two bunches of branches in the crook of his right arm. He was not at all the burly, hirsuite “Borat” type character I envisioned. Tall and wiry, with sympathetic brown eyes, he went to a basin and turned on steaming water into a tub, then immersed both venik bundles.
He then turned and gave me a quick appraisal.
“You sure you want to do platza?” he asked with a heavy Slavic accent.
Three times he asked me that. Three times, I swallowed hard and said, “yup.” Once assured I was game, he said the venik needed to “steep” in the water for 20 minutes, “like tea for your whole body,” and that I should do several intervals in the sauna room “for as long as you can stand it” to acclimate myself to the heat, since the treatment would last 15 steamy minutes.
Stupid me, I hustled over to the Finnish dry steam sauna, set at 220 degrees. The longest I could last in there was four minutes, sweat cascading off my body and my lungs feeling singed, before I exited and gulped water. I had no idea how I’d last 15 minutes of Alex’s lashing and thrashing. It turned out, I was acclimating in the wrong sauna. I needed to be in the Russian suana, a comparatively mild 185 degrees.
Once the leaves were thoroughly steeped, Alex led me to the banya, added some water to increase the steam and had me lie face-down.
“We start now,” he said, sounding bored.
I could hear the shaking of leaves, like so much wind through a forest, then the steady drip-drip-drip of hot water on my shoulder, my back, my bum, my hamstrings and calves, even the bottom of my feet.
That was followed by a vigorous brushing of my skin — not swatting, more like pushing a whisk broom along a floor – with the softened oak leaves, starting this time at the arches of my feet and steadily rising until every exposed inch of my epidermis was exfoliated.
Then the intensity increased. The twigs came down harder, but not painfully so. It was as if Alex was tenderizing a steak with syncopated thwacks, each stirring the hot air so that my pores were as wide open and flowing as the American River. That lasted all of a minute or two, before he rested both venik bundles on my hamstrings and pressed down, hard, as if trying to drain every drop from a Lipton tea bag. That compression, radiating heat deep beneath my skin, moved to the small of my back then up to my shoulder blades.
“Turn over, please.”
Like a burger being flipped on the grill, I turned, and Alex repeated the procedure. He didn’t miss a patch of skin or a crevice, I’ll have you know. I had been feeling a little light-headed throughout, but nothing serious, until Alex began the compression with the bundles around my clavicle and, yes, my throat. It loosened my shoulders, all right, but also briefly gave me the sensation of being strangled.
“Now we go to the cold plunge,” he said.
I rose and followed him out. The wooden bench was strewn with shredded oak leaves and broken-off twigs. I put my banya hat on a peg and flung myself into the tub.
“Make sure you get head immersed,” he added. “Very important to get your whole body in cold water.”
Down I went, the transition from hot to cold bracing and eye-popping. My heart rate soared, my blood vessels constricted. I felt I had mainlined cocaine, with an epinephrine chaser.
When I emerged, Alex smiled.
“How do you feel?”
Later, I asked him to explain what he’d done.
“The treatment you got was oak branches,” he said. “They are better at manipulating the skin. Thus, they are better for warming up particular parts of the body, like joints, muscles, back or whatever problem areas you have. The therapeutic effect is that it makes all the liquid in your body move and helps the joints. Also, if you work out and have lactic acid in your muscles, the hot temperature and the branches help dissolve or decrease that.
“So people who do a lot of sports come here for that. It reduces muscle pain and inflammation. Your joints wear out eventually but this treatment allows you to heat them up and they expand a little and regain their natural shape.”
I was too tired at this point to ask him about blind, peer-reviewed studies proving platza’s benefits. I just nodded and kept listening.
“The other effect is on the cardiovascular system,” he added. “The whole thing about warming up and then going in the cold water right away is for your cardio system. I tell people this is more like a skydiving experience than a ‘spa’ experience. It’s intense but in a controlled environment.”
Recovering a bit, I asked him about his wicked-fast wrist action with the venik.
“I kind of make a slightly beating motion,” he said. “But not really beating. More like massage. A lot of Russians, actually, do the treatment wrong. They actually beat the hell out of you. Even though the treatment is Russian, many don’t do it right. I’m from Belarus. I know the proper way with leaves.”
I took my leave shortly thereafter. And I did feel better, invigorated. Why? Because it felt so good when Alex stopped.