Nestled in the heart of Hoxton, East London is Banya Spa, a Russian wellness centre and spa that is set to change the way that we view spas in the UK. From its unique parenie treatment, to ‘ice bucket esque challenge’ when it comes to spa days, there was something intriguing about the idea of having a thermal massage which uses leafy and fragrant bundles of fragrant bundles of birch, oak or eucalyptus twigs (called Venik) to detoxify your mind, body and soul. After all when conjuring up an image of what we see as a ‘spa day’ what usually springs to mind? To me, a spa day consists of being pampered through facials, massages, before having use of the spa’s facilities, plunging your face into an ice fountain, the cubes melting down your face, sipping bubbly in the jacuzzi. But at Banya Spa, things are a little different. Describing Parenie as a great way to release adrenaline and stress hormones, as well as boosting your blood circulation, Banya Spa believes that the uniqueness of their ‘treatments’ and overall experience , attests to their star clientele , such as Sorry Hitmaker Justin Bieber and Game of Throne’s Emelia Clarke, who are regulars at Banya. Conveniently located in East London, a 10 minutes walk from Old Street station, we were welcomed into Banya’s fold on a pleasurably warm balmy day and were optimistic about our Russian Wellness experience, craving a relaxing tranquil treatment that could transport us into a reality removed from our own. Unfortunately for me, Banya Spa was far from relaxing, and there were a number of issues from poor communication to dismissal of allergies, that impacted my experience negatively.
For a start comments were made about us taking photos, and while the team member did take our photos, it seems like digs were made, trying to rush us into the treatment, when the purpose of us ‘reviewing Banya Spa’ was to get content, so of course we needed to take photos. We understood that the whole experience was of course timed, but we needed some time to take photos. There wasn’t an issue persay as much in the beginning but taking photos in the ice bucket/ice pool room before our Parenie treatment seemed to cause a little bit of ‘discontent’ and when I brought this up, among other issues, I was ‘talked down to, felt patronized by their condescending tone and felt that there was a real issue with miscommunication, but more on that later. The manager who ended up talking to us about the issues and concerns we had was actually very helpful and was keen to address staff that had made comments or been dismissive. In regards to the photos we were told that comments were made as people were complaining about us taking photos in case they were in them, but as we reiterated to her, we were mostly taking photos when noone else was there, and if they were, we were careful to not include them in the photos. Of course I understood the point they were making here, but what upset me more was how some staff members were quite rude to us, especially when it came to the ‘relaxation area’ which unlike the name suggests was anything but.
I hate to come across as overly negative but unfortunately the first half of my experience at Banya was not positive, and I, as well as the other Love Pop Up London’s members felt belittled, at points were spoken to condescendingly and felt like there was a massive communication breakdown. But back to the narrative, once we had put our clothes in the locker and changed into our swimsuits, we were asked to prepare for our Parenie experience in a traditional Russian Banya, which generates superheated steam as water is splashed onto a tonne of cast iron heated to 700°C inside an authentic brick furnace. This is where the Parenie experience takes place, but the first step is to sit in the steam room with our ‘special Banya Hats’ for 10 minutes to open your pores and get your body ready for the experience, as it is a lot warmer than a sauna or traditional steam room. This initial process was ok, while I did find the heat quite uncomfortable, at the start it was ok, and it did feel like my pores had opened up, which as someone who has oily skin, meant that I could sweat out all the bad oils, making my skin feel slightly softer once we had exited the steam room. I have to admit I only lasted 4 minutes in the Banya, instead of the recommended 10 minutes but the heat was starting to trigger my anxiety and claustrophobia so I knew that it was time to leave.
We were asked to then stand under ‘ice buckets’ where we needed to pull a rope lever, before the bucket shower (which is wall mounted and plumbed in oak) poured fresh cold water over us. The bucket shower would definitely be something I would say I enjoyed the most treatment wise because it felt refreshing and was a welcome contrast to the stifled heat of the Banya room. We were then told that there was a plunge pool which we would enter after our Parenie treatment which was at 2 degrees, which sounded like it would be a welcome relief after the heat of the steam room but as I’ll explain later on, the parenie treatment was not one that I enjoyed so I wasn’t able to do the plunge pool, since I was so shaken up. Once we had exited the steam room we were shown to the relaxation area, where we were told we would be given ‘teas and food’ that were an essential part of Parenie treatment, featuring traditional Russian salted foods such as Russian Pickles and buttered potatoes which would help keep your electrolytes in balance after exposure to the Banya which can be overwhelming for first time users. Here we were presented with a pot of Herbal tea mix No.1 chosen by the staff, as well as a Seaberry tea chosen by us which was like a warm version of orange juice and was surprisingly delicious to drink. However as I have quite a few allergies as well as being a vegetarian which I had made them aware of beforehand, I needed to check that the herbal teas were ‘caffeine free’ as I can’t have caffeine.
This is where things became stressful for me because the server was rude and to be honest quite catty, sarcastically commenting that ‘no its tea not coffee’ and that its a ‘herbal tea why would it have caffeine in’, when white, black and green tea all have caffeine in, so it is of upmost importance that I checked that I was able to drink the tea without becoming ill. I replied that actually a lot of herbal teas do have caffeine in them, and as I am allergic I have to make sure I wont be making myself sick. This was met with eye rolls and more condescending comments which I did not appreciate and thought was rude and she repeated that it was ‘tea of course it has no caffeine and that it is herbal so it does not have caffeine’. Eventually we established that it was caffeine free which I was delighted to hear as the teas were super refreshing, and the Seaberry tea especially was a welcome delight. Who knew that something that tasted like warm orange juice could titillate our fancy quite as much?
We were then brought of food which included salted buttered potatoes, Russian Pickles, herrings, boiled hams and salted cabbage. Obviously given that I am a vegetarian, which they were aware of, I was dismayed that the only vegetarian condiments I could have were mostly touching the fish and meat, and politely asked if I could have a separate plate to eat from, which wasn’t a big ask by any means. The server said that she can’t give me a separate plate as this what we are being given as part of the experience and then went on to say that there was fish. I patiently explained that I am a vegetarian not pescatarian and was not comfortable with meat and fish touching my vegetarian items and she seemed to be very hesitant to acknowledge me being a vegetarian stating that I could eat the pickles and potatoes. Again I reiterated that I have allergies and also am a vegetarian. I replied is it not possible to just get me a bowl of potatoes at least so I can have something to eat, and eventually she said that was fine and she would get me potatoes although not without some further comments.
I definitely was not feeling relaxed to say the least and the way that I was spoken to as well as the others with me was unacceptable and most definitely unprofessional. The fact that I could hear them talking about us was not great customer service either. A senior staff member came to talk to us after and asked if everything was ok, and then we highlighted the issues that we had been facing, mentioning that there was poor communication, lack of understanding, a dismissal of my allergies and dietary requirements and above all general rudeness that contributed to a negative experience. In regards to the food she stated ‘why didn’t you just tell them you were a vegetarian’ and I said I did, and also asked if they could bring me a bowl of potatoes, which I was waiting for. And she said i’ll make sure you get them soon, but stated that if I wanted other food I would have to pay. It hardly seemed fair that the others got a whole plate of food, when there was other vegetarian options that they could have given me so I had a proper meal but I appreciated that they did bring me a plate of potatoes and boy were they delicious, doused in a generous sprinkling of salt and butter. We also brought up other issues such as the poor communication and she actually understood where we were coming from, although we weren’t offered any apology which I would have really liked given that we were spoken to like we were children. Regardless I was grateful that we were able to communicate the issues that had arisen during the experience and that she took it upon herself to address the staff, which made the customer service from there on out a lot better than it had been to start with.
While we were drinking our tea and eating our food, we were called one by one to begin the next phase of our treatment at Banya Spa, although it was unclear at first what was going on, seeing as we hadn’t been told what was happening. The manager came over and gave us a ‘treatment book’ that outlined how the treatment process worked, with us each taking turns to go for our parenie treatment. While I was initially beckoned to go first, I ended up going last as my plate of potatoes had just arrived, so I wanted to be able to enjoy my food. The server from earlier then came to me again, and while she did not apologize she did ask if everything was ok with the food and said she didn’t know exactly what we were being offered, which sounded like an indirect apology so I was ok with that and thanked her for the food. The other members began to explain to me how the treatment worked, and hearing that my body and face would be covered with leaves started to psych me out as I am claustrophobic and was worried that I would have a panic attack, feeling like I was in an enclosed space where I couldn’t breathe. However I tried to keep an open mind, as reading the health benefits surrounding the Parenie treatment, made me hope that the second half of the experience was going to be a lot more positive.
Parenie is lauded as a great way to relieve tension and stress, through an invigorating thermal massage with venik, oak and birch leaves and as someone who has anxiety, I was hoping that the treatment would leave me feeling refreshed and rejuvanated, watching all that pent up stress just melt away. Upon research I discovered that each of the types of leaves had different health benefits; the birch leaves would release essential oils as well as vitamins A and C, which are absorbed by the skin, giving it a youthful and glowing experience. This is believed to help heal rheumatism, asthma, arthritis and other conditions.The eucalyptus is used for inhalation. Eucalyptus is also well known for the relief of nasal congestion and coughs associated with a cold. And finally the Parenie is particularly good for oily skin, as it has an anti-inflammatory effect, which calms nervous system and helps reduce high-blood pressure.The process is quite intense and it’s not about slapping you with oak and birch leaves, but rather working the steam around you to warm you up so deep that you feel the need to plunge into the chilled water afterwards.
Banya’s have been around for centuries and remain very popular in Russian culture, with some families even having a Banya installed in their summer cottages, with Banya Spa hoping to make Banya’s as popular in the UK as they are in Russia. Armed with those facts I headed into the Banya and was asked to lie on my front, before being covered with the aforementioned leaves, with the high humidity in a traditional Banya being created by splashing water on to a tonne of cast iron which is heated to 700°C, although this wasn’t the case in our steam room. The first lady who started the treatment did not speak much English and it got to a point where I was feeling claustrophobic as the leaves were covering my body and face and I was starting to feel like I couldn’t breathe. I tried to lift my face up so that I could move the leaves in a way where my mouth was uncovered so that I could feel less anxious but she put me back down and my anxiety heightened.
A few minutes into the treatment a male banshik held the venlik within his hands and started to wave the bundles of leaves above me helping pull the rising heat down onto my body which would apparently help to clear my pores and ease up my muscles. While I was trying to focus on the health benefits, the overwhelming desire to escape the steam room was incessant, and my claustrophobia was most definitely rampant. Yet unlike the female banskik, the guy doing my parenie treatment could see that I was struggling and told me to not worry, to not be scared and that I was going to be ok. Unfortunately by this point I was having a full blown panic attack, but I was really touched that he was constantly checking in and at my request he removed the leaves from my mouth at least, applying less pressure so that I could feel like my breathing wasn’t restricted. Re-positioning the leaves did help me feel a little calmer but I was still very much shaken, especially as the heat was prickly and seemed to get warmer and warmer. Eventually the leaves were removed from my face and body, and I was told to sit up while he wafted the wet venlik in the air, as the water dripped over me. He then began to gently slap the leaves up and down my body, before transitioning into a more vigorous flow which was meant to aid a good level of blood circulation as well as drawing out the negative toxins.
By this point my claustrophobia had taken over so I was very much shaking, engulfed with sobs and after the parenie treatment was actually physically sick but this was because of the after effects of my panic attack and were not symptoms that are usually associated with parenie treatment. While I thought the idea was novel and unique, if you are claustrophobic like myself, I would not recommend trying Parenie, but would say that it would suit those who don’t mind the heat, are open to trying new things and are not scared by closed in spaces. If I was not claustrophobic, I would have been more adept at handling the treatment, but the leaves covering my face and body, alongside the heat made me extremely anxious. I think I would have been alright if there was less heat, but regardless I am proud of myself despite my intense fears that I stuck through the whole treatment and saw it the entire way through. I then exited the steam room, and was asked to go into the plunge pool. I dipped my toe, but the cold water was a shock to my system, and being told that I would have to dunk my head under, when I was shaking from my treatment made me ask if there was an alternative way of counteracting the heat of my treatment. Thankfully I was ushered to the ice bucket shower once more, and boy did it feel glorious.
Ushered to the R&R room, after some time I felt calmer than I had, sipping on seaberry tea to soothe my nerves which worked a treat. Once we had changed we were given our Banya Spa hats as a souvenir, and taken into a private tour of the Taiga where you can seat up to 9 of your other friends, families or colleagues. Very much feeling better after my experience, I marvelled at the tour guide’s passion for Banya Spa and what Pareneie meant to him, stating that he would do ‘Parenie’ two times a week to recharge his mind, body and soul and that he never had any serious illnesses or even had colds or flu’s, a bold claim which he put due down to regular Russian treatments. He also regaled us with stories of star clientele and how whenever Justin Bieber was in the UK and craved a spa day, he would come into the Taiga, to be at one with nature. It was eay to see why Bieber loved the Taiga so much; plush green velvet chairs and leatherette sofas, combined with paintings from traditional Banya’s as well as a Russian steam room, a hot stone room, a massage room for two and a private lounge area. In the massage room you can enjoy a variety of treatments from Russian, Deep Tissue, Remedial or Reflexology, which admittedly would have been more my cup of tea, while the steam room is unique with a traditional constructed log cabin (srub) . A srub is a cabin which is built of interlocking wood logs, requiring no other bolts or fixings to maintain its form.
Banya Spa’s taiga cabin is made of Kelo timber logs which are imported from Russia’s taiga in the northern region of Karelia and it is built on site by highly skilled craftsmen using age-old traditional methods. The Kelo logs, also known as suhostoy, is a 150–200-year-old Karelian pine which remains standing upright for a further 50–60 years after it has stopped growing. It dehydrates in the arid, cold climate, giving the timber a unique silvery grey hue. Utilising the sawn edge of the wood enhances its natural splendour and the aromatic pine scent, creating a unique and amazing ambience. Also like the main part of Banya Spa, the Taiga also offers a selection of wellness and spa treatments, with ingredients strictly natural and organic and prepared on the premises from organic treatments such as Honey & Salt Scrub, Coffee Scrub, Body Wash, Aloe Vera Body Mask, Mud Wraps and Russian Healing Massage. Their key signature treatment is of course the parenie. And thus our tour had come to an end and we bid goodbye to our hosts, reflecting over the spa day that we just had. I feel bad having such a negative review, but the Banya experience was not for me, and my visit was of course negatively impacted by the communication, although this was improved half way through the spa visit. I will say that I want to thank the manager for her willingness to listen to the issues that we had, to the tour guide for given us a private tour of the Taiga and to the Male parenie treatment specialist who saw that I was impacted by the treatment and did everything in his power to make me feel better. Again I want to reiterate that the majority of people would like the parenie treatment, but if you are claustrophobic it is best to sit this one out.
Please note we were offered a complimentary ‘spa day’ in exchange for this post but all thoughts are my own and is not affected by complimentary services.