Soaking in Hot Springs – a Relaxing and Restorative Ritual

Without water, life can’t exist. Water is essential to life. In ancient times, humans rapidly learned this, and the first civilizations often settled near the ocean, rivers, or other bodies of water. Due to its importance, water was often believed to be sacred and in many cultures bathing in these holy waters could heal and purify one’s body and soul. For example, the Ganga river is very important in Hinduism and is a place where many people come together to bathe and meditate. We’ve done meditation practices in the Ganga river ourselves when we were in Rishikesh, a town in the foothills of the Himalayas, where the river just descends out of the mountains and where it is still crystal clear and ice cold. Those meditation exercises were up to this day still one of the most transcendental experiences we’ve ever had and the cold water energized our bodies and quieted our minds. 

The History of Healing with Water

 In both Ayurveda and traditional Chinese medicine, hot and cold water (sometimes infused with herbs) are an essential part of many healing rituals. In ancient Egypt water was used for maintaining hygiene and beauty, and herbs were also often added to baths to infuse them with therapeutic components. The studying of the healing qualities of water began in ancient Greece, where philosophers like Plato and Hippocrates studied the benefits and called it hydrotherapy (water cure). Later, the ancient Romans followed in their footsteps, and bathing became of great importance to their culture too. Since the beginning of the Roman empire, they made use of baths which they called balnea. These could be private in their homes, which was mostly for the elite, or communal. After the building of aqueducts and gaining the ability to move water from the outside to the inside of the city, these baths became huge centers called thermae and these became a major destination for social gatherings, often having gardens, libraries, and so forth. These baths were not only meant as a place for a social or relaxing experience but were also used for their therapeutic benefits and served as a place where wounded soldiers could come and rest. In modern times, bathing in hot and cold water is a big part of all cultures around the world, both for hygienic and therapeutic purposes.

Hot Springs

On our journey through the mid-west and western United States, many things brought feelings of wonder and joy. The astounding views on the open road, the music, and of course, the numerous hot springs. From the Californian high desert to the magical Oregon forests, we visited as many hot springs as we could. They provided the warmth and relaxation that was often missed on a cold winter night, sleeping in a van. Many hot springs that we visited were secluded and quiet and we often had moments where we were soaking alone in sacred waters on a full moon night. 

Hot springs were of great significance to many Native American tribes, who thought of it as sacred grounds and often as a place where the Great Spirit lived. The healing waters were used by tribes as a place to retreat and rest. Tribes that were at war ceased fighting when entering these neutral grounds, honoring the sacredness of the land and the Earth.

Hot springs, picture by Matt Palmer.

Healing Abilities of Hot Springs

There are plenty of reasons why one enjoys being in a hot spring. It is a natural pool provided with warm mineral-rich water from the Earth. Relaxing and restorative. But it is not only the comfort or beauty of taking a hot bath, in the middle of a forest or desert, that makes it a wonderful experience. Many health benefits come with enjoying the waters of a hydrothermal spring. 

Soaking in hot springs can relax the body and mind and at the same time, (thanks to the heat) our pores open, and the minerals that are present in the water get absorbed. Calcium, sodium bicarbonate, sulfur, magnesium, silica, lithium are just a few of the minerals that can be found in natural hot springs.

The heat of the water, and the weightlessness the body has while in it, may relieve musculoskeletal problems such as tense and sore muscles, symptoms of arthritis, and more. Many of these minerals can improve blood circulation, carrying more nutrients and oxygen around, and eliminating toxins from the body. Minerals such as magnesium, potassium, sulfur and silica can help nurture the skin and relieve symptoms of skin issues such as eczema. The steam of the hot water may relieve nasal congestion.

If there is no natural hot spring to be found near your home, but you do have a bathtub, you can find many things to make your own healing bath at home. There are various herbs, salt, clay, or essential oils that all provide therapeutic effects and have the ability to soothe your body and mind, and unwind from your day. 

The Powers of Relaxation

In modern society, being able to relax is often a problem with work, school, or other obligations that worry the mind. Long-term stress can weaken the immune system and cause high blood pressure, anxiety, depression, and more. It is essential to find a way to let go of these worries and unwind, and finding your way to do this can be different for each individual. You might want to listen to calming music, meditate, go for a walk in Nature, do breathing exercises, or soak in hot, healing water. Allow yourself to have these loving, quiet moments to tune in and be aware of your body and mind.  

Resources:

History of the Baths and Thermal Medicine https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5535692/#ref1

John W. Lund – Historical Impacts of Geothermal Resources on The People of North America https://oregontechsfstatic.azureedge.net/sitefinity-production/docs/default-source/geoheat-center-documents/quarterly-bulletin/vol-16/art2.pdf?sfvrsn=4b3f8d60_4


Native American Healing Traditions

While traveling through the United States, we often thought about the native tribes who wandered freely through the forests and plains, just a few centuries ago. We wondered how they lived, traveled, what they ate and how they maintained their health throughout all of this. Luckily, we met people who could give us an idea about their way of living, their beliefs and their traditions, and thanks to the vast amount of knowledge on the internet, we could explore their traditions even further.

Healing and Balance

According to Native Americans, everything in our world is connected and to maintain well-being, in oneself and the community, it was important to find balance. An imbalance was often considered to be the reason why one was ill. During healing rituals, they sought to regain balance between the spiritual world, the community, the environment and oneself.

Rituals

Ceremonies were held for various reasons such as birth, death, or the success of a harvest. There were also important healing ceremonies, used to restore balance in the community. During those ceremonies, the community came together to sing and dance, and they were often accompanied by drums and the use of sacred (sometimes psychoactive) plants.

Purifying the body was a part of the healing process, and therefore building a sweat lodge was an important ritual in many tribes. A sweat lodge is a small structure, made of pliable young trees or branches and covered with blankets or tarps (earlier, they used animal skin). A pit inside the lodge was filled with hot stones, and water was poured over them, filling the lodge with steam. It was a ritual to purify and release, to sing, to pray, to connect with the spirit world, and the other participants.

Another tradition in some tribes was the use of a moon lodge, a structure build for the women of the tribe who were in their Moon Time (menstruation). A place for them to rest and regenerate, where they could be alone or together with their sisters of the tribe. Their family obligations were lifted from them, for as long as they retreated inside the lodge, and men were not allowed inside. It was a place for healing, connecting to each other and to the moon and the earth.

These beliefs and traditions vary from tribe to tribe, but a lot of similarities can be found between them. A great deal of these methods are still used today by several tribes, often combined with modern, allopathic medicine.

The Use of Healing Plants

The healers of the tribes combined the healing powers of plants with their connection to the spirit world. Plants were viewed as brothers and sisters and treated with respect. The healers asked permission to use the herb and expressed their gratitude when harvesting and preparing the medicine. These sacred herbs were used as herbal remedies, or as part of ceremonies, where they were smoked or burned.

It is said that Native Americans learned about the medicinal powers of certain herbs by observing animals such as deer or elk. They noticed that these animals ate specific plants when they were ill, and recovered after. The Native Americans understood that the plants must have some sort of medicinal benefits and started experimenting with them. Herbal wisdom was passed on from generation to generation until extensive knowledge was gathered on more than five hundred healing plants!

Balance of body and spirit is something very important in native healing traditions, and often forgot in modern medicine. An illness is seen as just that, and medicine is taken to suppress symptoms as quickly as possible, instead of listening to the body and working together towards healing. But times, they are a-changing! More and more people are interested in the wonders of traditional medicine and are learning to listen to what their body is telling them. After all, our body carries us wherever we need to go, bears the burden that we often put upon it and supports us throughout our lives, and it is something wonderful to honor this.

Resources:

Kathy Weiser – Native American Medicine https://www.legendsofamerica.com/na-medicine/

Mary Koithan and Cynthia Farrell – Indigenous Native American Healing Traditions https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2913884/

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