Providing a relaxation ritual most Westerners would peg between extreme and adventurous, Seattle’s Banya 5 offers an urban spa experience unlike the rest. “I call it ‘proactive relaxation,” says Drew Shelton-Stewart, Director of Operations and Client Services at Banya 5. By proactive, he means clients sitting in a 240 degree oven while flogging each other with oak branches before plunging full-body into an icy 40 degree pool. And for what? For a level of physical and mental exuberance that has them coming back again and again. Having recently completed a Banya 5 experience, I can attest that they’re on to something. Relaxation never hurt so good!
From time to time Luxus Spas encounters a spa so unique in nature that, though it may not be categorically “luxury,” we feel compelled to offer a review for readers seeking a truly incomparable experience. LS
Not entirely a spa, and not just a sauna, steam bath, and cold pool, the Russian banya is a unique combination of these elements infused with an emphasis on health and community. For centuries Russians have observed the banya tradition, attributing the practice to maintaining good health and preventing sickness.
“The function of extremes and the heavy social aspect separate us most greatly from similar hydrotherapy spas,” says Shelton-Stewart. “We are undoubtedly a social experience…and we’ve fostered a community that we’re very proud of.” As a rule of thumb, plan to bring a friend when trying out Banya 5.
While many Russian cities have several communal banyas, the custom is slowly being adopted in the West. The most notable Russian bathhouse in the U.S. is the 120 year old Russian and Turkish Baths on 10th Street in New York City. In some capacity, Banya 5 is modeled after the NYC baths, where Developer and Managing Partner, John Goodfellow, frequented while at college. Drawn by the old-world sense of community, John brought the benefit of the banya back to Seattle when he returned home.
Banya 5 is named after the number of charter partners eight years ago, and is located only one block away from booming Westlake Avenue in Seattle. Effectively a bathhouse, Banya 5 maintains a devotion to cleanliness. The lobby, the pools, and the locker rooms shine with pristine spotlessness. “Our motto is ‘Clean, safe, and friendly’”, asserts Shelton-Stewart. The spa is coed and bathing suits are required at all times, as are sandals, which are freely provided at the front desk with towels. Any fear of encountering a seedy and ill-mannered bathhouse of times past is instantly quelled after stepping mere feet into the spa.
Impressively decorated in modern, industrial materials, the space exudes edgy sophistication. You’ll find no pastels in the color pallet here, nor will you hear Enya playing in the background. Banyas are especially popular with men, and the aesthetic of Banya 5 pays respect to this demographic. The raw steel, wood, and cement features and the gritty abstract art are intentional nods to the elemental ritual that is the Russian banya. Here, natural is attractive and cleanliness is king.
Hope to avoid a crowd? Download the Banya 5 App on iTunes to view live data on the number of bathers using the banya at any given moment. The app also provides directions and current specials.
Averaging 142 clients a day last season, the spa’s growth has been strong but not explosive; surprising given the excellent location. Banyas remain a subculture in the health and wellness world, but why? The benefits of contrast hydrotherapy (alternating temperature through an application of heat followed by cold) are well documented, but according to Shelton-Stewart, people remain ignorant of the practical applications. One recently enlightened group is the growing number of CrossFitters who descend upon Banya 5 on Sunday evenings. “All it takes is a few trainers seeing the difference in their bodies when they come here and it becomes a steady [practice]. As CrossFitters become more of a main culture…we’ve seen a huge increase. There are a lot of good bodies here on Sunday nights.”
As for the practical applications, applying heat to the skin significantly enhances blood flow and the body’s supply of antibodies. The muscles relax bringing noticeable pain relief. With the application of cold water, blood flow constricts with a corresponding decrease in tissue metabolism and soreness. Alternating hot and cold for short durations improves circulation, increases oxygen supply to muscles, skin and organs, and significantly boosts the immune system. The mental clarity and heightened focus experienced post-banya is but an added bonus.
Want to give the gift of a memorable experience with huge benefits? Banya 5 Gift Certificates are wildly popular. Purchasing a certificate from the website is remarkably straightforward and can be delivered instantaneously via email.
My own rookie visit to Banya 5 was a mix of anticipation and trepidation. I was excited to experience the effects of the banya, but unsure what to do and for how long. Was there a sequence I should follow to optimizes the benefits? “At the end of the day, it’s very self-directed,” hints Shelton-Stewart. Even so, there is an order he suggests if it’s your first time.
Begin in the eucalyptus infused Turkish steam room. With temperatures less extreme, this experience allows the body to gently ease into the banya process. Once you’re calm and feeling brave, proceed to the dry sauna oven. Start on the middle of the three sauna benches so you can drop down a bench if you’re overwhelmed by the temperature. There is roughly a 20 degree difference in heat per bench, with the top averaging around 240 Fo.
While in the sauna you may encounter men wearing Soviet style hats, complete with sickle and hammer. No, they’re not Banya 5 Security. They are likely banya regulars who wear hats for insulation. The head, as the primary thermostat, will experience the effects of overheating before the rest of the body. With a hat, the heat is more tolerable, the experience is more enjoyable, and frankly, you just look more awesome.
There is no clock in the sauna. Staying in the oven should be self-directed and no one should push themselves unnecessarily. You may, like me, be astonished at how quickly your body accommodates the heat. The temperature has a way of luring the mind to stillness and in this place you experience a profound mental release. Stretch your comfort level slightly, but when your body communicates that it’s time to leave, leave.
Next comes the awfully fun part, and I do mean “awfully.” Upon leaving the sauna and without stopping to allow for panic to set in, step right up to the cold plunge pool and jump in like you mean it. Don’t ease in. Immerse yourself - head and all. Consider that there may be native Russians relaxing in the banya so try to save face and refrain from high pitched screaming at this point. Your first reaction to the icy sensation of needles and pins will be to frantically check if anyone is obstructing your route to the exit ladder. Still, the longer you stay submerged, the better you’ll feel by the time you get out.
Your reward for polar plunging is a soak in the salt water pool where the temperature is a comforting 87 degrees. The 650 gallon pool holds approximately 150 lbs. of salt, making the salinity comparable to neighboring Puget Sound. This pool relieves muscle tension, detoxifies the skin, and balances the body’s pH level. Consider this the reset stage.
Lastly, rinse the salt off your body by standing under the warm drench showers and you’re ready to start the cycle over. At this point, you’ll know if the banya experience is for you. If it is? “It’s a beautiful thing to work somewhere where you can see a remarkable difference between someone when they come in and when they leave,” beams Shelton-Stewart. “Watching someone plunge for the first time and get that look on their face…that’s awesome and that never fades. That’s been great since the day I started.”
Personally, I had no hesitation in wanting to repeat. My senses were acutely alert, my pulse was pounding, and my body had switched from functioning to thriving. My husband, brought along as my “community,” was still traumatized from the cold plunge at this point, but willing enough to go another round. I had to physically block the exit ladder in order to make him stay in the plunge pool longer than 5 seconds as we continued, but even so, he raved about the effects of the banya for days.
Conveniently located next door to Banya 5 is Venik Lounge, featuring seasonal vodka infusions and specialty cocktails using fresh juices. Show your Banya 5 receipt to receive 50% off your first drink.
And for those yearning for the total banya experience, there’s more. Tuesday and Sunday evenings are “platza” nights at Banya 5. Dried bundles of leafy oak twigs, imported from Russia and called veniks, are soaked in tea tree oil and offered outside the sauna. In full community spirit, clients then beat each other with the branches on the top bench of the sauna. “Members uphold the culture of the veniks”, mentions Shelton-Stewart, and it’s not uncommon to see a member offer to apply the venik treatment to a newcomer for the first time. Venik treatments increase circulation and exfoliate the skin while the tea tree oil acts as a powerful immune stimulant, helping to fight infections and promote clear skin.
In addition to the sauna and pools, Banya 5 offers exceptional spa treatments – which should be conducted after a client has rejuvenated their body in the banya. This was a blooper I made as a first timer, booking the signature massage as a way to ease into the spa. Even so, my extraordinary massage from Jeff was a perfect initiation into the specialized culture of Banya 5. His innate understanding of structural massage was immediately apparent as was his background in physical therapy. So much more than a standard rub, this was truly one of the most intelligent and rewarding massages I’ve received. Scrubs, featuring restaurant grade clover honey, cocoa butter, and sea salt, are also available to compliment the effects of the banya.
Incredibly unique, highly effective, and oddly enjoyable, visiting Banya 5 for the first time is an experience you can’t stop mentioning to people. You’ll respect yourself for stepping outside your comfort zone and, perhaps, you’ll unearth a capacity to try other venturesome therapies in the future. Banya 5 more than earned our stamp of approval at Luxus Spas and we highly recommend both the experience and the benefits. If you’re looking for a new old-world pleasure, it might be time to consider proactive relaxation. Five stars.
Banya 5 Specials
In addition to early bird specials on Wednesday and Thursday mornings, Banya 5 offers an ongoing Community Discount to students, military, EMTs, firefighters, and police officers who receive 20% off entry with valid ID. For folks in the restaurant business, Sunday after 5pm is Industry Night. Receive 40% off entry with proof of employment.