(Around The World)

Immerse Yourself In These Cultures’ Wellness Traditions

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One of the best ways to experience a city or region is to truly immerse yourself in the culture and understand how its inhabitants take care of themselves through rituals and sacred practices. Some of these healing, spiritual, or self-care techniques have been around for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, and they often reflect the ideals and priorities of the cultures they come from. “Local communities have always found ways to heal, using the resources, beliefs, and practices available to them. The variety of techniques you find around the world are truly amazing,” says Laura Montesanti, founder of Synergy — The Retreat Show, the world’s first and only trade show dedicated to the retreat industry and wellness travel.

In other words? Practicing a wellness ritual in the land where it was created is an immersive experience that can not only enhance your physical and spiritual well-being, but it can also help you truly understand the culture at large. “I personally find that connecting to the local culture and discovering local healing practices has always been deeply impactful in all of my travels,” Montesanti says. “I wholeheartedly encourage everyone to explore and learn what resonates most with them thereby growing as a human being and society at large.”

Whether talking about saunas or chakra alignments, nearly every country has its own signature practices. Here, a sampling of some from around the world to try the next time you find yourself in one of these regions. And if you can’t, embracing the practice at home is a great way to attune yourself to other world views. (Plus, who doesn’t love a moment of self-care?)

Turkey: Turkish Baths

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Turkish baths have been around since the fifth century, with the height of their popularity in the 15th century. It’s a traditional wellness practice rooted in the ancient Roman and Byzantine baths, which were later refined and popularized by the Ottoman Turks. It has been a social and communal activity for centuries, serving as a place for people to gather, relax, and rejuvenate. It involves steaming, a scrub or exfoliation treatment with a specific glove called kese, and a relaxing cleansing soap massage.

“This practice holds significant cultural value as it combines physical cleansing with mental relaxation, promoting overall well-being,” says Çiğdem Subaşı, spa manager at The Bodrum EDITION in Bodrum, Turkey. “A common misconception is that [Turkish baths] are purely for cleansing; in reality, they are holistic treatments that address both physical and mental well-being. The use of natural ingredients highlights the nourishing aspect of the ritual,” says Subaşı.

Fiji: Kava Ceremonies

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Kava, or “yaqona” in Fijian, is a traditional drink made from the roots of the kava plant, a medicinal herb that has been proven to aid in anxiety, stress, and even insomnia. It holds deep cultural significance in Fiji, being often used in ceremonies to mark important occasions, welcome guests, and seal agreements. “Kava consumption fosters community and social bonds, reflecting the values of respect, unity, and hospitality that are central to Fijian culture,” says Tomasi Turukawa, general manager of Nanuku Resort in Fiji. “Its calming effects are also valued for promoting relaxation and stress relief, making it a key component to Fiji’s wellness practices.”

In this ritual, where travelers can partake in many villages, you’re asked to sit around the chief or host as the kava is prepared, and the ceremony continues often with a welcome chant and perhaps a blessing. You are then given the chance to drink the kava from a small bowl (and you should drink it in one sip so as to empty the contents). Once that is done, and after everyone has had a turn, participants socialize or tell stories. Something to note is that this isn’t just a laid-back hang session. “Kava ceremonies are deeply rooted in Fijian culture and spirituality,” says Turukawa. “Participants should approach the ritual with respect and reverence, understanding its significance beyond being just a social activity.” This includes covering one’s shoulders, and for women, wearing a long skirt or a sulu (Fijian sarong).

Japan: Onsen

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Onsens are Japanese hot springs, and what categorizes it as such is the source of the water — geothermal H20 heated by the Earth’s interior. “There are strict guidelines to be called an ‘onsen’ in Japan,” says Shizu Okusa, founder and CEO of Apothékary, a holistic health brand rooted in Japanese herbal medicine. According to Okusa, the water temperature must be at least 77 degrees Fahrenheit and 19 types of minerals must exist in the waters of onsens. “Because of the quantity as well as quality of minerals, onsens are unique from other bathing cultures around the world and have existed for thousands of years back to the Edo and Samurai period (even longer than the Romans and their baths).” Both locals and travelers seek out onsens for their natural healing properties — the detoxification that comes from the natural mineral salt, cleansing of the skin from the hot steam, and relaxation from being within nature, says Okusa. She notes that one of the most important minerals is silica, which smooths and softens skin, and sulfur, which helps with skin problems such as acne, eczema, and psoriasis.

“As an integral part of Japanese culture and tradition, hot springs provide a rejuvenating experience for both body and mind, especially when enjoyed in stunning natural setting,” says Junya Hanada, current chairman of Beppu Hatto Onsen-do Meijin kai, an onsen and guesthouse in Beppu, Japan. (Fun fact: Beppu City boasts the largest volume of hot-spring water in Japan.) It’s important to note that not every bathing facility or experience in Japan is an onsen. Sentos are commonly found in busy cities, and these are public, manmade baths. (Outdoor sentos are called rotenburos.) They don’t contain the rich minerals like natural onsens do, and they’re not a place of rest and relaxation.

Also, it’s important to know that there are protocols for onsens, and some do not allow tattoos (due to their association with criminality and gangs — so make sure to check with property staff or your travel guide if you plan on visiting one). Lastly, bathing in a hot spring or onsen doesn’t have to take a long time or long exposure to make an impact. “A good guideline for the length of time to bathe in the hot springs is around three to 10 minutes,” says Hanada. “Beginners should be aware that the effects and benefits from bathing vary depending on the type of hot spring.” After you’ve figured out your own tolerance or built it up, you can go for 15 to 20 minutes. Three times a day is the maximum recommended frequency for bathing in hot springs.

Finland: Saunas

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Finland is the land of saunas. While the whole of Scandinavia (Sweden and Norway included) focuses on sauna culture, Finland is known as the birthplace of the sauna — dating back to 7000 B.C. And with 3.3 million saunas in the land of 5.5 million inhabitants, it’s a cultural movement that can take place in home, private, and public spaces. “Almost every Finnish home has its own sauna, and it is customary to use it regularly,” says Valerie Khayutin, head of North America for Badesofa, a company that makes bathing products including its most popular bath back pillow. Heidi Luukkonen, Tom for Finland Foundation’s CFO who was born and raised in Finland before moving stateside, agrees and adds that even student housing and apartment buildings will have a communal sauna. “It’s a place where you can let your guard down and be at your most vulnerable and connect with yourself and those you share the experience with,” says Luukkonen. “It’s a place where I feel most at peace with my thoughts and can reflect or just take a breath.”

“It is not only used for physical cleansing and relaxation, but also to promote well-being and social interaction,” says Khayutin. “Emphasis is also placed on natural elements, such as wooden structures and the use of essential oils to enhance the beneficial effects.” Other things that characterize a Finnish sauna? The process of löyly, which happens when water is poured onto hot stones to create steam. This steam provides an intense heat that is perceived as particularly cleansing and relaxing, says Khayutin. Occasionally, fresh birch branches are used to gently drum on oneself (known as vasta or vihta), increasing circulation and promoting a type of somatic therapy (aka connecting mind and body, in this case with rhythmic, gentle tapping). Lastly, Finnish sauna culture emphasizes a cooldown, either by taking a cold plunge in snow or icy water or by taking a cold shower, which alleviates pain and reduces inflammation in the body. (And coupled with the hot sauna, helps blood flow.) “These elements make Finnish sauna practice a unique and important part of the Finnish way of life and contribute significantly to physical and mental well-being,” says Khayutin.

India: Ayurveda

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India is the birthplace of Ayurveda, a natural, holistic system of medicine that originated some 5,000 years ago and focuses on preventative treatment. It centers on the idea of whole-body consciousness and the belief that any physical and mental ailments in the body are often associated with an imbalance. “Ayurveda, the ancient holistic healing system from India, focuses on balancing the body, mind, and spirit to promote overall health and wellness,” says Dr. Sudhi Suresh, an Ayurvedic physician and director of spa and recreation at the St. Regis Maldives Vommuli Resort. While the Ayurvedic traditions started in India, they’re practiced throughout the world, with high concentrations of popularity in Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and of course, the Maldives, along with other Asian countries. “One common misconception about Ayurveda is that it is solely a form of alternative medicine,” says Suresh. “In reality, it is a comprehensive lifestyle practice that emphasizes preventive health care and longevity.”

The basis of Ayurveda is largely predicated on three body types, or doshas — once you identify your dosha, you can begin to give your body the health routines it needs. At the St. Regis Maldives Vommuli Resort, you can participate in an Ayurvedic treatment plan by getting your dosha assessed. Based on this assessment, a customized treatment plan is crafted, which may include abhyanga (therapeutic oil massage), shirodhara (pouring of warm oil on the forehead), and various herbal treatments. “First-timers should note the importance of open communication with their in-house Ayurvedic doctors and Ayurveda therapist to ensure comfort and effectiveness of the treatment,” says Suresh.

Mexico: Temazcal Sweat Lodges & Copal

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Temazcal is, essentially, a sweat lodge, but it is so much more than that to those who experience its wonders. “Translated as ‘house of heat’, temazcal is more than a technique; it’s a spiritual expedition into Mother Earth’s womb,” says Rubén Muñoz Elías, a therapist and temazcal ceremony guide at Palmaïa: The House of AïA in Playa del Carmen. The practice of sweating in a “little” space was originally imagined to cleanse the body, purify the soul, and restore balance to the individual and the community, says Ana Muñoz, certified health and well-being coach at OMM Wellness and co-founder of Two Travel. “While it is a ritual that has been passed down from generation to generation among the cultures where its origin dates back, it was not until the mid-1980s that it was opened up to share this knowledge with the modern world for its beneficial health purposes.”

With a guide (aka a “temazcalero”), participants are invited to connect their emotional and physical, and purify the body, while setting an intention for the session. The experience involves a “sort of meditation” that works to “spiritually cleanse,” says Muñoz. At the heart of this ceremony at The House of AïA lies “a heated bed of volcanic stones radiating warmth, while a cascade of water infused with medicinal herbs gently flows over them, enveloping participants in a fragrant steam,” describes Muñoz Elías. Almost all temazcals will have stones that are the genesis of the heat and steam, and they’ll be replenished throughout the ceremony. Sometimes there will be chanting, sometimes there will be drinking of herbal tea, and sometimes there will be fragrant herbs that are wafted throughout the air and over the heat source.

One thing to note is that a temazcal is not a steam bath or sauna — it is not supposed to be a comfortable place to relax but rather an experience of sweating and becoming focused on the ritual and your body. Like a deep-tissue massage, it may not always be the most comfortable, but it should feel great after.

Thailand: Vipassana

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The newer trend of silent retreats can credit their origin to the Buddhist practice of vipassana. “The vipassana deep meditation ritual is a 2,500-year-old Buddhist practice that teaches mindfulness, self-awareness, and concentration through the observation of breath and bodily sensations,” says Soontaree Sriwichai, the wellness operation manager at the Aleenta Retreat Chiang Mai. “It is considered one of the most profound and transformative meditation techniques, helping practitioners achieve deep states of peace, clarity, and insight.”

In essence, it is a type of silent meditation. You sit in a comfortable position (usually cross-legged) and instructors typically guide participants through a progressive series of meditation exercises, starting with simple breath awareness and moving toward more advanced techniques, like body scanning and mental noting, says Sriwichai. “It’s important for first-timers to be patient with themselves, as the mind can be quite restless at first. Consistent practice is key to reaping the full benefits. (The Aleenta Retreat offers vipassana retreat programs lasting for three, five, or seven days.)

Bali: Chakra Rituals

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Chakras, or various focal points throughout the body that connect to specific feelings and experiences, and the “unblocking” of them is largely related to Hinduism and Buddhism, which makes Bali the perfect place for chakra alignment. “Balinese Hinduism is a blend of Hinduism, elements of Buddhism and the wisdom of the Vedas, the oldest texts of Hinduism,” says Luisa Anderson, Four Seasons Resorts Bali’s regional director of spa. Through meditation, sound baths, smoke ceremonies, and massage, one can unblock or realign one’s chakras. For example, the root chakra (located in the base of the spine) is seen as the center of security and the foundation of emotions and actions, says Anderson. “When balanced, it brings inner peace and helps free full potential,” she says. (The Four Seasons Resort Bali Sayan offers seven chakra ceremonies, which correlate to the seven individual chakras.)