Bathing rituals and the restorative effects of water

Bath or shower? Both have a necessary and hygienic purpose, but there’s an undeniably added sense of indulgence that comes with running a bath. 

Of course, this is partly due to the fact that one generally devotes more time to a bath than to a shower, luxuriating in a tub, rather than dousing oneself under running water. But there’s a deeper significance to the act of bathing, which helps to explain why it has such a positive impact on our well-being. 

Bathing has existed, in a ritualistic sense, for thousands of years, and across countless cultures. These rituals have had a social function – for example, the famed Roman baths, where people gathered to meet and mingle, as well as to cleanse and relax, in much the same way as people approach contemporary spa days. They have all encompassed a spiritual function, in terms of purification, religious rite and mental re-balancing. Interestingly, despite the vast distances, geographically, between the countries in which bathing has been culturally embedded, there are frequent similarities in the process – for example, the use of scent, herbs and steam. 

While we may be accustomed to enjoying a few minutes in a steam room at the end of a gym session, saunas are so integral to Finnish culture that around 99% of Finns experience a steam at least once a week, as a place of both mental and physical cleansing. Furthermore,  there’s believed to be around 2 million of them in the country, which only has a population of around 5 million – approximately one per household. A type of ladle, called a löylykauha, is used to pour water onto heated rocks, which releases löyly, steam and temperatures typically reach anywhere between  70-100 degrees celsius. Bundles of twigs and leaves, called vihta, are used to gently stroke and beat the body, which is thought to boost metabolism and circulation, with bathers alternating between the steam room and a cooler multiple times over the course of their session. 

The Russian Banya is not dissimilar and, indeed, is such a vital part of Russian culture that it features in proverbs – such as, ‘the day you spend is the banya is the day you do not age.’ In the steam room, people recline on wooden benches, choosing the height of the bench according to their desired temperature, since heat rises. Their version of the Finnish vihta is called venik and, while they serve the same circulation-boosting role, they are usually made of trees, such as birch and oak, known to have healthful properties. The social aspect of bathing is key here, as well, with friends and family all getting involved in slapping each other (gently!) with the venik and enjoying the sensation of dousing in  shockingly cold water – or rolling around in the snow – at the end of the banya. 

Bunches of herbs are also used to beat the skin in the Mexican Temazcal – as is the practice of pouring water on hot rocks. The use of herbs has a multi-sensory effect, since the scent released combines with the feeling of their application to the skin, and the circulatory stimulation this promotes. With deep roots in cosmology, the Temazcal usually has a shaman conducting the procedure, eventually throwing cold water onto the face of each participant, in a call back from whatever mental and emotional journey they’ve gone on during the course of their experience. 

As a country known for its approach to etiquette, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Japan’s onsens come with certain expectations – tattoos, for instance, are frowned upon, while nudity tends to be mandatory. As a volcanic country, Japan has thousands of hot springs, which is what the word onsen means; to qualify as such, the water has to have certain chemical elements and have a minimum temperature of 25C when it rises from the ground. Because of the minerals found in these waters, onsen bathing has long been believed to have positive effects on skin condition, circulatory function and the nervous system. 

Nudity is also a part of hamman, which is integral to Muslim culture, where cleanliness and the role of water are held in the highest regard. Men and women bathe in separate sections, and socialising is a key component of the activity, although this may range from light hearted gossip to important decision making. The hammam experience takes the bather from room to room, alternating between dry heat and steam, and applying oils, exfoliating dead skin, coating oneself in impurity-drawing clay and,  finally, sluicing oneself in water to wash everything away, both literally and figuratively. 

In India, where the movement and flow of water is seen as a reflection of life itself, rivers are special places. Hindu culture takes many forms, but the role of water is present in all of them, as is the importance of spiritual and corporal cleanliness. The Ganges is the most revered of all waters and most Indian people will make at least one pilgrimage there in their lifetime. One especially revered event is Kumbh Mela, which takes place every three years, alternating between the banks of the Ganges; Nashik, on the Godavari; Ujjain on the Shipra, and Prayag, the confluence point of the Ganges, Jamuna and Sarasvati rivers. The ritual – in which around 100 million pilgrims participate, in an effort to cleanse themselves of sin and achieve spiritual enlightenment – is grounded in a Hindu myth, in which Lord Vishnu delivered droplets of an immortality nectar into the four places where Kumbh Mela takes place. 

Given that our own bodies are made up of such a high percentage of water, as well as being dependent on water to survive, it’s little wonder that immersion in water – in whatever form – has such significance for spiritual and physical wellbeing. Whether using the addition of other substances or aromas, whether hot, cold, vapor or liquid, and whether in a structure built for the purpose of bathing or in a naturally occurring body of water, there’s no doubt that bathing has a restorative effect on both body and mind.

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  • Sarah Rodrigues

    Sarah Rodrigues is a Sydney-born freelance journalist, now living with her family of teenagers and a Greek rescue dog in London. With a degree in Law and a qualification in nutrition, she writes on health, wellness, family and travel for national and international publications. Follow her at @sarahrodrigues_writer on Instagram.

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