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  • Writer's pictureDesign for Leisure

“Taking the Waters” – A Brief History of Hydrothermal Bathing

For thousands of years, people have been harnessing the cleansing and healing power of water and heat. Both were considered luxuries in ancient times and, as access was often difficult, civilized societies sought to find creative ways to “bathe the great unwashed”.

The inhabitants of Northern Europe are the early inventors of the sauna. Pictured here, a KLAFS sauna with uniquely curved benches at the Faena Hotel & Spa in Miami Beach, FL.

A simple solution was to construct buildings around or right on top of a natural hot spring – resulting in what we now know as public bath houses. Geo-thermally warmed waters bubbling up from the earth’s core not only cleansed bathers, but “taking the waters” was also believed (and subsequently proven) to impart minerals that improved certain skin conditions and relieved pain from arthritis and other musculoskeletal ailments. Chinese history books as far back as the 7th century B.C. mention “springs which contains sulfur to treat disease."

As private baths were virtually unheard of in ancient times, the most efficient means to wash was by gathering in public bathing spaces. The Romans’ advanced technology and grandiose architecture (not to mention their geographical domination of Europe and Asia) made them forerunners in hydrothermal bathing, but there are plenty of other cultures that can take credit for some of today’s most popular hydrothermal applications.

The most obvious being the Finns and their Finnish sauna. With warmth a prized resource in freezing Finland, the Finns devised a way to heat a wooden cabin to the highest temperatures possible. Occupants would leave the cabin sweating profusely and then take a "roll in the snow," wiping off the sweat and dirt from their skin—and then repeat the process several times until fully clean. This is the first example of hot/cold contrast therapy, a practice that become one of today’s most well-regarded detoxifying rituals. It not only relieves stress, promotes overall wellness but also strengthens the immune system and helps to reduce blood pressure.

Though Finland might be considered the birthplace of the sauna, the whole of frozen northern Europe came up with similar forms of bathing—for example, the Russian banya is almost identical in design and purpose.

On the American continent, there is also early evidence of “sweating” as a form of cleansing, including the use of aromatic herbs and flowers (or “aromatherapy”). Aztec tribes were particularly influential in their creation of two-story wattle-and-daub sweat rooms, while Mexico brought us temazcals or “sweat lodges.”

In the 16th century, the Ottoman Empire gave rise to the now-famous hamam (or Turkish bath). Once again using sweating as a form of cleansing, the traditional hamam became particularly popular before a visit to the mosque. The old hamams of Istanbul boast beautiful interiors, including fantastic examples of traditional Muslim ceramic and mosaic art with inscriptions from the Koran often present on the walls. You can also find fine examples of hamams in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Tunisia, Libya, Algeria and Morocco. (Note: The Turkish hamam has a single central “m,” while the Moroccan hammam is spelled with two.)

Turkish hamams feature a heated belly stone (gobek tasi) as their centerpiece. This is where the traditional soap massage takes place.

Japan is also known for its extensive bathing culture. As far back as the 3rd century, references to the Japanese habits of cleanliness surfaced in writings, and, in the 6th and 7th centuries, the rise of Confucianism and Buddhism further solidified the virtues of cleanliness and the ritual of bathing. Japan’s more than 20,000 natural hot springs formed the original onsens and the Japanese also developed a form of steam bath called the sento, a type of vapor bath that used aromatherapy elements and included body scrubbing.

In the Middle East, another type of thermal bathing­—mud bathing—originated. More medicinal and beautifying than cleansing, they put the mineral-rich silt of the Dead Sea to work treating skin conditions. While the French figured out how to harness the restorative properties of the sea—not only rich in sodium chloride (salt) but also other minerals and trace elements. “Thalassotherapy” treatments, the use of warm seawater, algae, seaweed and alluvial mud, are now be found throughout the world.

So we can thank human ingenuity and the need to cleanse the masses for the creation of some of the most well-regarded and popular wellness experiences we have today! And, as more and more people seek authentic, natural ways to positively impact their long-term wellbeing, hydrothermal bathing’s benefits, including an improved immune system, regulating blood pressure and detoxification, is now sought out not only in spas but also in private homes.

Roman Baths, Caesar’s Palace, Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S.


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