I’m face down on a hot wooden bench, in a dimly lit steam room. To my side, a large, hairy man dressed in swimming trunks opens the door of a deep stove that resembles a pizza oven. Inside, red-hot metal glows at 700ºC. He throws in a ladle of cold water, which explodes into steam. Then he begins to lightly whip my back, legs and feet with a bunch of oak branches, forcing down the hot sauna air so that it stings and slightly burns my skin.
As the sweat seeps from my pores, I’m on the verge of crying out in pain – but just when I can’t take any more, he stops and presses the branches onto my skin like a leafy hot water bottle.
“Our therapists keep you on the edge of pain and pleasure,” owner Andrei Fomin had warned me on arrival. Moscow-born Fomin opened Banya No. 1, London’s first real banya (Russian steam bath) seven years ago, and it’s still the only place in the capital where you can experience a traditional parenie (from €35), the fairly extreme treatment I’m enjoying – or suffering – now.
Banya No. 1 has garnered a reputation as London’s most intense sauna experience. The spa counts Justin Bieber, Emilia Clarke and Kate Moss among its fans – in fact, Biebs loved his post-parenie massage so much that he asked the therapist to join him on a three-month album tour. I had to find out what the fuss was all about.
Turns out the whipping is just the first step. Now my banschik (bath attendant) tells me to stand by a wall. Suddenly he pours a wooden bucket of iced water over my head. I scream. He leads me to a tub that looks like a Jacuzzi – except the water is chilled to 8ºC. Reluctantly, I climb in till the water’s over my head. By the time I come up for air, my body is in shock. Shaking and disoriented, I sit on the plunge pool steps while the banschik wraps towels around my shoulders and legs, laughing at my reaction. I feel intoxicated.
They’ve been doing parenie in heated log cabins in rural Russia for over 1,000 years, and those who practise it weekly swear by its health benefits. It’s effectively a cardiovascular workout that also releases toxins through intense sweating.
“If you do it regularly during the winter season, you don’t catch flu or colds,” says Fomin. “When I opened Banya No. 1 it was for Russians in London who were missing parenie. But after a couple of years the non-Russian customers took over. I was surprised at how quickly people got hooked on it.”
The wellness industry (which encompasses nutrition, fitness and cosmetics) is now worth up to €3.3 trillion worldwide. Instagram has gone a long way to drive it with sumptuous marketing imagery and picture-perfect influencers. Londoners aren’t only seeking increasingly novel experiences, they also want to feel and look good while doing it (or at least afterwards).
We’ve seen alternative fitness trends such as disco yoga and circus training. Now profuse sweating, and its associated benefits, is the capital’s feel-good trend – and standard thermal spa treatments don’t seem to cut it any more. London’s Glow Bar offers one-person infra-red pods heated to up to 70ºC for 45-minute solo sweat sessions. Spending the best part of an hour in a personal sauna (from €45), podcast playing over the inbuilt speakers, feels like an almost over-indulgent amount of me-time. After 20 minutes I’m so sweat-drenched that I wonder whether such a long stint is a good idea. However, according to Glow Bar’s owner, Sasha Sabapathy, lengthy sauna sessions lead to better circulation, immune function and sleep. “It also encourages the production of collagen, which makes skin glow.” My post-sauna skin isn’t so much glowing as fire-engine red, but I do feel both energised and relaxed.
Wellness today has nothing to do with floating lazily in the pool. You sweat, you scream, you’re tormented with cold water. These days, feeling good is tough work. But you just might end up looking as good as Kate Moss or Justin Bieber.