Those seeking alternative forms of medical treatment as well as overall health benefits have expanded their gaze to many non-western alternatives. One of these which is increasingly gaining popularity and notoriety is Banya. While the word is sometimes literally translated as “public bathhouse” it is also the name of a treatment involving dry and wet heat that can include a number of different approaches performed by a “steam master.” A highly respected and accepted part of Russian culture, Banya has a different approach from thermal bathing in Finish, Roman, Turkish, and other cultures. Cameron Clair of London’s prestigious South Kensington Club enlisted steam master Alexander Baybarin to custom design a Banya for this fitness and social center located in the heart of London. South Kensington Club may be at the forefront of this new approach as some of the most popular fitness centers in the US have expressed interest in the benefits that Banya offers to a public that seeks a more organic approach to health and fitness.
Cameron Clair has had numerous successful ventures in London, New York, and Los Angeles. As project manager at the South Kensington Club in London, Clair contacted James Larkin to create a Banya for SKC. Larkin, also British, is famed for his success with numerous Banya locations in Russia. One of the key components of Larkin’s success is his steam master Baybarin with whom he has been associated since his early venture with Banya Land in 2003. Recognizing Alexander’s immense talent both as a steam master and in Banya design, James has utilized his abilities for a number of years. Although he resided in Russia, Baybarin was in charge of developing the SPA program, developing all associated documentation, and training of the staff. The main focus was concerning how to adapt the treatments for SKC clients and how to integrate them with other treatments offered in the club, especially the watsu pool. Baybarin trained a full staff of steam masters in Russia that would offer the treatment at SKC. This team of five steam masters were trained for months before the soft opening. In addition to their adept skills, all steam masters were required to be highly fluent in English as well. Because Alexander embraces innovation with tradition, the staff of steam masters needed to have experience but also be able to learn a new approach in doing the treatments.
Clair confirms that the reaction to Banya by SKC’s clientele has been overwhelming. He notes, “We pride ourselves at South Kensington Club in offering exemplary service as well as a variety of avenues to health and wellness. Not everyone chooses the same course and we want to provide a wide variety. Banya has proven to be one of the services we provide which seems to appeal to everyone. It is beneficial, soothing, and somewhat exotic to those unfamiliar with it. Thanks to Sasha’s sensational work, SKC has become the most elite Russian bath house in London that offers the highest level of service imaginable. In fact, his work has led to many incredibly high-profile celebrities and influential people from all around the world visiting the fine establishment built on Sasha’s extraordinary developments. I can’t thank him enough for his contributions.”
The success of the approach to Banya which Alexander created for SKC is due both to the actual program as well as its implementation. The main challenge in adapting the Russian Banya treatments for SKC was not to frighten Londoners off with the treatments. In its native Russia, Banya often involves extreme heat and beating (with leaves). Because steam masters are highly trained and deeply respect the tradition of the art, it was challenging for Baybarin to find candidates who were willing to temper their approach for westerners who might have trepidation about the normal process of Banya. This was one of the main influences of the program that Alexander developed. Once people experienced the treatment, they were so enthusiastic about the benefits received that they returned regularly for more treatments and encouraged others to try it. From his experiences working with foreigners in Russia that the banya treatment, Baybarin knew the staff would need to start off very gently with SKC members to start them on the path.
Another way of making Londoners more comfortable was with attire…their own. Traditionally in Russia, Banya treatments are done completely naked. In London this issue was resolved by allowing the clients to wear whatever they felt comfortable with. When a certain amount of trust was developed between client and therapist they would do the treatments naked. The obvious difference in social decorum between London and Russia in Banyas is evident but the benefits of it are universal. In Russia the main Banya customers are nicknamed “Ironworkers”, a comment on their affinity for extreme heat. In Russia, Banya is a means of testing ones’ self; a bit like fight club. In London it’s utilized more as a SPA oriented experience. The task of the doing the treatment is to enable the client to achieve a deep state of relaxation. The thermal treatments aid in achieving this. However, different individuals need a different level of intensity; If too much heat is used it will produce stress. While Russians are fond of the intense heat, it is prohibitive for those not accustomed to the process.
The success of Banya at the South Kensington Club has confirmed to Alexander Baybarin and many others that the process is appreciated outside of Russia. It’s not easy to break the culture barrier when it comes to what is deemed valid in regards to health. SKC’s embrace of Banya is yet another indicator that many people the world over are searching for natural ways to live healthier lives. Alexander notes, “It was very challenging but very satisfying sharing this traditionally Russian treatment with another culture. It challenged them to consider a different means in the same way that it challenged me to change my approach to introduce Banya to them. I feel that I was a small part of making history. It’s my mission in life to share this wonderful experience with the rest of the world and SKC was one of my first and profound stages in doing this. There’s an exchange that takes place when I work with someone or some company from another country. There’s a sharing of ideas which informs us both. I learn about them and they learn about me. Of course, I’m passionate about health and Banya as a means of living a better life so it excites me when I get to share this with anyone.”