By Karrie Osborn
Originally published in Body Sense magazine, Autumn/Winter 2004.
In utero, the unborn child lives in a floating state, breathing the nurturing fluid that surrounds him. He tumbles and rolls, all the while being suspended weightlessly and without strain. It’s this “small” biological miracle that protects human life during its most fragile of times.
Taking a lesson from Mother Nature herself, it’s no wonder we’ve made water the medium for so many forms of nurturing therapy. From our love affair with the home jacuzzi to a spa professional’s intricate application of water, salts, and other detoxifying elements in thalassotherapy, water is an incredible tool for health.
Ancients Knew Best
Many ancient civilizations appreciated the therapeutic value of water, says spa historian Jonathan Paul De Vierville, owner of the Alamo Plaza Spa in San Antonio, Texas. Egypt, India, Crete, China, and Mesopotamia all “utilized the waters, especially for religious rituals and healing rites,” he says.
The Greeks, and then the Romans, understood water’s therapeutic value and incorporated it into the earliest versions of healthcare. While ancient Greek society built public baths in conjunction with gymnasiums to facilitate sound bodies and sound minds, Romans largely utilized baths as a social and political activity.
Most cultures created traditions of health or spirituality that revolved around water at one time or another. Look at the Russian bath with its Siberian shamanic origins, which involved a hot vapor soak followed by a cold plunge. The Dagara people of West Africa
partake in an annual reconciliation ritual that involves being dunked in the local river by a healer as a means of cleansing away negative energy. And, of course, Christianity has long looked to water for the cleansing baptismal.
De Vierville says global discoveries are proving that water has been a healing tool for thousands of years. For example, at sites of ancient mineral springs in France and Germany, archeologists have found Bronze Age artifacts, including drinking cups and votive fragments.
At the Spa or In the Home
While the large public baths of old exist only in miniscule pockets in the Western world today, there are many other avenues for water therapy, including spas, physical therapy centers, sports clubs, and most commonly, private homes.
And don’t forget the ocean itself. Rosita Arvigo and Nadine Epstein say a great body of water like the ocean can create healing energy within us. They have a simple exercise for rejuvenation when life gets overwhelming and over-scheduled.
“Go to an eastern-facing stretch of ocean shore at dawn,” they write in their book, Spiritual Bathing. “Facing the rising sun, sit at the water’s edge, allowing the waves to flow over you, but not knock you down. Each time a wave washes over you, say or think to yourself: ‘The sea wave is now carrying away my exhaustion and frustration and leaving me renewed.’ After several minutes, walk into the sea, face the rising sun, and take a dip, bidding farewell to the old feelings. Repeat this often, especially if you live by the sea. On a western-facing coastline, you can perform the ritual at sunset.”
Whether it be wading into the sea, the meditative process of floating, being massaged in a warm pool, or sitting in a long, hot, well-deserved bath at home, there are a great number of options for incorporating water into a daily health routine.
Also known as balneotherapy, hydrotherapy is the use of water to seek out health. Baths and showers are the most popular types of hydrotherapy, with spas often offering their own signature to these treatments. For example, at the Olas Spa and Health Club in San Juan, Puerto Rico, guests can enjoy the Ocean Potion, which is a hydrotherapy tub treatment with a “magical seaweed potion” to uplift the senses, re-mineralize the skin, and ease away muscle pain.
According to Sara Slaving and Karl Petzke, authors of The Art of the Bath, the therapeutic benefits of bathing historically included relief from fatigue, restored vitality, improved respiration, a sense of calm, and a detoxified body and mind. From a modern, practical perspective, baths are also helpful in loosening stiff muscles before a deep tissue massage or chiropractic adjustment.
And, as all “bath” people can confirm, a long, hot soak can literally wash away the worries. That’s just what spas are looking to replicate in their hydrotherapy treatments.
At the same time, researchers are trying to legitimize what civilizations have been practicing for thousands of years. A small study published in The New England Journal of Medicine reports that diabetes patients lowered their glucose levels after soaking in hot baths for a half hour each day for six weeks. Other studies have looked at the benefits of hydrotherapy on asthma and pulmonary disease, to name a few.
One caveat with hydrotherapy: It’s important to disclose any and all health conditions to therapists administering hydrotherapy treatments before you begin. People with diabetes and pregnant women are just two of the populations who should approach hydrotherapy with extreme care and caution.
Sea Salt and Such
Coming from the Greek word thalassa, meaning sea, thalassotherapy is a hydrotherapy treatment utilizing sea water and marine by-products.
Bathing in sea water is a time-honored purification ritual, Arvigo says. “Sea water and its spray are charged with negative ions and magnetically charged elements that balance our emotions.” That is certainly one reason the oceans seem to cleanse and restart the rhythmic clocks that are our bodies.
While sea salt baths are highly popular with the spa crowd, there are a host of other thalassotherapy applications. According to the Day Spa Association, one of those is algotherapy — a water therapy that can reduce pain and act as an anti-inflammatory. The treatment involves applying thin layers of heated seaweed to the skin and then using infrared lamps to maintain the warmth of the prepared seaweed.
Floating Away the Stress
One of the newest therapy trends to enter spas is floating. Despite being somewhat globally introduced to the film-going public in the early ’80s via the cult classic Altered States, floating as a mainstream therapy is relatively new.
Today’s technology can help place flotation tanks in private residences, and the float tank itself has improved to include internal lighting, emergency alarms, sound systems, and regulating thermometers. There is often less than a foot of salt water acting as a soft cushion in the tank, keeping recipients buoyant and strain-free.
The benefits of floating are said to include physical and mental relaxation, rejuvenation, clarity of thought, an integration of the left and right hemispheres of the brain, and a quickened process for healing injuries. One of the biggest advantages reported by those who’ve tried this therapy is the quiet that’s achieved with complete sensory deprivation and the resulting sense of peace and calm that remains.
Wading into Watsu
Some people call it being cradled, others can say nothing more than how wonderful the experience is. Watsu is a body therapy based on Zen shiatsu that has the practitioner holding a client in a warm pool while at the same time massaging their muscles, mobilizing their joints, and stretching their bodies to release and open energy pathways. Warm water and the buoyancy it provides are ideal for freeing the spine. Some clients of this therapy have called it “Percocet in water.”
While maybe overstated, watsu clients continue to report that like floating, this particular technique allows them to quiet their minds, an important step toward introspection and self-actualization. This therapy has also been successfully used for children with a variety of disorders and injuries, including orthopedic issues, congenital and birth defects including spina bifida and autism, brain and spinal cord injuries, and a range of neurological disorders.
There are so many options for “taking the waters” and enjoying their therapeutic value. Start with a long soak in a tub filled with rose petals or some other “recipe” to your liking. Then confer with your massage therapist for recommendations on where to seek out professional water treatments with even longer lasting effects. Water is an invaluable resource for all of us; discover what benefits it can bring to you.