Relaxing Bath Rituals Have Been Quietly Healing For Centuries
The art of getting clean.
Bathing as a gentle act of self-care often inspires a state of meditation. It is a chance to withdraw from the world and lay back while the water pampers and lulls your body into proper relaxation. With a conscious and mindful approach, a simple bath can be a powerful healing tool both physically and spiritually. In fact, if you need a little help adopting a more mindful approach to bathing, try a simple stroll through history and across the globe. For centuries, cultures from all corners of the world have each adopted their own ways of practicing bathing. And, more often than not, these methods involved awareness and deep intention.
And, to be clear, the idea of bathing can run the gamut from a communal, social activity with nutrient-rich mineral pools to detoxifying sweat lodges and steam rooms. While different in execution, all of these practices involve connecting the act of physical cleansing to holistic wellness that caters to the mind and body equally.
Ahead, a few of the most popular and traditional methods of bathing, as well as tips on how to adapt these practices in your own bathroom.
Ritual Bathing Across the World
Baths & Mineral Pools
Some of the first bath houses can be traced back to 2nd century B.C., in Ancient Rome. These were said to be a true indulgence for all the senses, experienced in spectacular mosaic buildings and exquisite pools, utilizing herbs, oils, and minerals. These bathhouses typically featured a wide diversity of rooms with varying water temperatures, swimming pools, and spaces designated to simply relaxing. It was the ultimate cultural center of all social activity. Sometimes people could even spend days at the bathhouse, solving problems over a glass of wine and a feast. While we can only see the ruins of Ancient Roman baths today, their splendor is one for the books and one that has prompted the bath houses of today.
“We think of Bathhouse as an oasis to be fundamentally human,” explains Jason Goodman, co-founder of NYC-based Bathhouse. “Communal bathing, at least the way we do it, is a deep, uncomplicated, and almost primal experience that connects people to their bodies.” Today, places like Bathhouse in Williamsburg, Brooklyn or AIRE Ancient Baths (which has locations in major cities around the world including NYC, London, and Barcelona), offer an immersive wellness experience that includes traditional spa and massage treatments. A modern bathhouse will usually feature several pools with varying water temperatures as well as steam rooms and treatment rooms for specific services.
In Japan, bathing has often been correlated with natural hot springs, or onsen. Japanese culture views bathing just as important as sleeping and eating. And the act itself deserves equally meticulous attention — for example, Japanese tradition requires individuals to enter the bath already clean. A prelude ritual of scrubbing and washing prepares them for proper bathing.
The original hot springs date back to the 6th century when they were only to be enjoyed by emperors. Today this popular bathing style is available at outdoor natural hot springs and indoor man-made facilities. The focus is on the water temperature and its mineral composition as well as the water vapor that evaporates from the baths. These days, this sacred tradition is kept alive in establishments like the Shibui Spa at the Greenwich Hotel in New York. Here, custom water temperature and botanical rituals are paired with a massage. The goal is a synchronization of body, mind, and soul.
Sweat & Steam Bathing
For the countries prone to colder climates (and some not so much,) a sweat lodge has proven to be an effectively therapeutic form of cleansing. The heat and steam opens up the pores and expels the toxins out of the body through sweating.
The Russian banya is perhaps the hottest (literally) of them all, offering a true steam bath of rejuvenation. It is essentially a wooden sauna with fired stones which are further splashed with water to raise the temperatures inside and create more steam. Bathers are known for hitting themselves with bunches of birch twigs called venik, to better their blood circulation. (These are often made with distinct branches for different healing purposes.) A felt hat is often worn to protect the head and hair. A final showdown for the bathers is a cold plunge into a freezing pool, a jump into the snow, or a cool shower. This polar bear act is meant to revitalize the body.
“My two favorite ways to celebrate the winter and start a new year is to heat my body extensively for a prolonged period of time, and then follow up with a cold plunge in the ocean or a river,” explains Bathing Culture co-founder Spencer Arnold. In fact, “The New Mind-Body Science of Depression” book by Charles Raison and Vladimir Maletic explores studies that prove that heating and cooling the body can result in antidepressive effects.
The Finns aren’t as extreme as the Russians, but they do have a population of about 5 million and about 2 million public and private saunas in the country. Now that’s a love for bathing. Saunas are part of Finnish life from birth to end, with some women even having saunas in their birthing rooms. It is a familial tradition shared between friends and family and often even in diplomatic acts. (Finnish and Russian politicians have more than once met in sweat lodges.)
But the way of the Middle East is one of the hammam or Turkish bath, recognized by a domed roof and a unique heating system, where the heat is radiated through the floor and walls. It is primarily used as a place of socialization, where a bath massage attendant called a tellak takes care of your relaxation activity. There are no pools. Instead, the water flows freely over the marble troughs and the steam is generated naturally when the hot water meets the hot stone floor.
And yet another type of sweat lodge is the temazcal, an Ancient Mayan ritual of sweating that requires willpower through a four-part ceremony practiced in Mesoamerica (modern-day Mexico.) Mayan village leaders often figured out their differences in the temazcal, sometimes continuing for days while they found peaceful ways to coexist. The ceremony is carried out within a small dome shaped igloo with burning coals at center often infused with herbs, copal, and other offerings, explains Maricarmen Rojas Corro, the head therapist at the Maya Spa at AZULIK hotel in Tulum. The process is one of the ego at first, bending the mind to truly give into the uncomfortable temperatures and sweat out its worries. The ritual is accompanied by chants and breathwork directed by the shaman. A cold water dunk as well as sweet fruit are used to recuperate energy and hydrate post-ceremony.
Today each of these practices is still widely available to the larger public, offering a true dive back into the medicine of our ancestors and the healing power of steam, breath, and water. If you’re looking to experience a traditional ceremony, seek experts whose cultural backgrounds are rooted in the tradition to ensure true understanding of the practice. Offer humble respect to the culture where the ritual stems from and consider its history. Most of these rituals are welcoming to all, as bathing is an activity we all share on a daily basis as humankind.
How to Adapt Mindful Bathing Culture in Your Life
Bathe With Intent
Historically, cultures have always focused on intentional bathing, one with a clear purpose, sometimes because they didn’t bathe as frequently. While modern society is lucky to have bathing as a regular activity, try to consider your intent as you enter the water, be it a bath or a shower.
“Before you set your intention, tune into your more subtle energies,” explains Reiki master Serena Poon. “You can do so by asking yourself questions such as ‘How do I feel?,’ ‘Where am I holding on to tension?,’ ‘What does my body and mind need to thrive?’ Once you have a sense of what your body and energy fields need, you can set an intention for your bath — it might be to cleanse and renew or it might be to energize.”
Use Natural & Sustainable Bathing Products
Many bathing essentials on the market include chemical-filled washes, petroleum byproducts, unsustainable ingredients like palm oil, and feature pervasive synthetics that are bioaccumulative. Traditionally, however, bathing incorporated natural herb- and mineral-infused remedies.
“We ask people to be mindful of what they are using to make sure their bathing isn’t contributing to the degradation of the environment,” explains Arnold. Try opting for more naturally sourced products and look out for formulas with synthetic fragrances as well as palm oil, petroleum, and coloring (sorry, neon bath bombs).
Try Therapeutic Ritual Bathing
“We have to remember how to bathe,” says Rojas Corro. Consider making the ritual of bathing your own, by gathering the herbs that speak out to you. Rojas Corro recommends starting with basil, rosemary, and rue. “Its purpose is to clean and it will remove negative energies,” she says. Infuse them whole in a bath like a soup (or try them in essential oil form). If you don’t have a tub, consider putting a boiling bowl of water or a diffuser with oils in the bathroom as you shower for a true herbal bathing experience.
Poon’s recommended ritual includes Himalayan bath salts in the tub surrounded by crystals that speak to you and/or to the astrological world situation. Use an abalone shell to smudge a stick of choice and create some calming smoke, or to cleanse yourself one bit of water at a time. This repetitive act is like a mantra to the soul, and the accompanying elements act as its nutrients.
“You have to be very conscious in thanking the water element,” explains Rojas Corro. And while she means it in a spiritual manner, it is also one that is an important element today with droughts, pollution, and simply a huge percentage of the world without access to clean water. Shower length and frequency should be seriously considered, and opt for baths when possible as it is a chance to better regulate the amount of water being used. Additionally, when the opportunity presents itself, take a plunge into the river, a hot spring, a cenote, or whatever your nearest (and cleanest) water source is to truly appreciate the wonder of this element that is a true healer.