A look at this ancient ritual and its radical healing power.
By Rachel Marlowe
Since ancient times water has been revered and ritualized. A symbol of purity, renewal and transformation, bodies of water have long been recognized as sacred places, from the Ganges River, which is said to purify the soul of negative karma, and Lake Titicaca, which Incan myths describe as blessed by the sun, to the Nile, which the Egyptians venerated as a deity. “The waters symbolize the universal sum of virtualities; they are fons et origo, ‘spring and origin,’ the reservoir of all the possibilities of existence,” wrote historian Mircea Eliade.
Throughout the centuries, peoples of every culture have taken the waters, seeking to be cleansed, purified and sanctified as a means of accessing sacred spaces. The ritual of bathing is universal and timeless, and water the panacea. The Romans built complexes of public thermae across Europe, North Africa, and the eastern Mediterranean, establishing balneotherapy as a healing practice for both the mind and body. In the medieval period, Byzantine baths became an integral part of community life, serving as both a space for socializing and for ritual purification, and the sixth century saw the introduction of Buddhist purification rituals to Japan, which gradually evolved into the proliferation of sentō and onsen bathing culture.
But as bathing has become more routine, the ceremony has fallen away, along with the symbolism of immersion followed by reemergence, of transformation. The ritual bath, channeling the ancient and creating a sacred space for not just physical healing but also mental, emotional and spiritual regeneration, is worth reclaiming. Carving out time to create a mindful bathing practice, to recognize the radical healing power of water, which serves as a transporter of energy throughout the body, is a wellness ritual that can elevate the everyday and instill magic into the ordinary.
Ancient Indian Ayurvedic texts speak of therapeutic baths with rose petals, honey, milk and turmeric to restore calm and balance to the doshas. Peruvian shamanic Jain Póiti floral baths cleanse the body and mind of heavy energies and blockages, clear negative thoughts and emotions, purify and strengthen. Hippocrates, the founder of medicine, espoused the simple power of salt baths to heal and soothe the body. Floating in water brings us back to the womb, the beginning, suspends time and transports the body to a state of relaxation and the mind to a meditative state.
As the moon rules the flow of water, bathing in alignment with the lunar cycle has long been a means of imbuing the ritual bath with symbolism and intention. The New Moon signals a time of rebirth and renewal, the Waxing Moon a time of gathering energy and strength, the Full Moon is a time of abundance, and the Waning Moon a time of reflection and release. Bathing at dawn or dusk, times during which the focus upon transition and change is most dominant, is a time-honored practice found in ancient cultures around the world.
Where there is water, there is alchemy and, says Leonard Koren, the founder of WET, a magazine dedicated to bathing,“… every bathroom, no matter how crude or sophisticated, comes equipped with all the elements of primal poetry”: