Taking the Waters

couple bathing

“Everywhere in many lands gush forth beneficient waters, here cold, there hot, there both….in some places tepid and lukewarm, promising relief to the sick.” – Pliny the Elder.

The human body is more than 50% percent water and it should be no surprise to anyone that water in various forms is involved in almost every modern Health and Wellness regimen. Since the advent of history, humankind has been about the business of creating localized cultures involved with ‘Taking the Waters’ across the globe from China in the East, to Sweden and Germany in the West. Going to a natural spring ,seeking cleansing and cures for what ails you has been practiced for thousands of years and is on track to continue to be practiced for a thousand more. The setting in which people take to the waters may have changed down thru the centuries but even time has not dimmed the call to do so.

Any history of Taking the Waters would be incomplete without a discussion of dirt and the revelation to ancient humans that cleanliness would promote health and wellness. Some cultures excelled at the idea of creating a community involved in taking the waters for all their citizens and others have embraced it more as an after thought; a symbol of luxury for the elite as well as a reflexive meditation on the past. What is certain, is that there are as many ways to ‘take the waters’ as there are kinds of waters to be taken. Almost all Spas provide some form of water based therapy and even the most humble day spa will usually offer a pedicure that both bathes and beautifies the feet. Spa goers once took to the waters in Roman Baths such as The Baths of Caracalla below, which were in operation until the 6th century B.C. Still others have opted for more natural settings like Forests and open hot springs where it is said one benefits from the presence of phytoncides or natural aromatherapy properties. Forest bathing is also called Shinrinyoku in Japanese and the Forest Ministry of Japan introduced it to the public as a way to combat stress in 1982.

One of the most popular Spas from the Roman era was the city of Bath or Aquae Sulis pictured below. The focus of the city at this time was the spring itself, and the local Celtic deity Sulis became merged with the Roman goddess Minerva Medica. The waters of Bath contain almost 30 minerals, including calcium, magnesium, potassium, iron, lead, and stronium. It is still valued for treating rheumatic patients. Roman engineers managed to create a temple complex that made the most of the three springs that comprise Bath and created a series of indoor swimming pools fed by the thermal springs. By creating a gradient, the Roman engineers were able to feed all three pools from the same spring which allowed for a variation in water temperature that became colder the further away from the main pool you went. Unfortunately for me, the only time I was in Bath, I wasn’t able to visit the site because it was closed for repairs but I was able to walk around the outside.

By the seventeenth century, the French had rediscovered spas and Vichy, Forges and Bourbon were the most popular. It seems taking the waters became the fashion when the reigning monarch Henri III and his wife, seeking an heir to the throne of Valois, began to patronize the spas of France. This happened in the late 1500’s and once the monarch had redeemed spas from the oblivion of history they began to be popular with the general French public who decided they were respectable. In contrast to the temple complex in Bath, the French spas of Vichy, Forges and Bourbon were quite humble. They did not boast elaborate ruins and some pools were not tiled and had only a mud bottom. French spas were rather morbid in this regard and were not centers of conspicuous consumption like the French court. What drew both the privileged and the humble to the French spas were their reputations as places for healing and the fact that enterprising doctors recognized this potential early on and promoted them as such. It is in France that we first find doctors officiating the process of taking the waters and proscribing a regimen of bleeding, imbibing, and immersion. French physicians maintained control of the spas with the agreement of the crown and succeeded in including an area reserved for the poor. They sought to create a center for therapy in contrast to the ancient standard of preventative health for those seeking cures.

By the nineteenth century, Americans began traveling to europe to train in their spas and to take The Grand Tour, which could include a short stay near a spa to rest from the rigors of the journey. With the advent of the industrial and scientific revolutions, many returned with new methods of investigating claims for the healing properties of mineral springs. Recognition of the existence of germs and disease changed the way we understood health and disease and spas began to be replaced by hospitals. Seeking to maintain their influence in public life, spas began to lean toward luxury and offered overnight accommodations and exaggerated claims. In contrast to the medical profession, spas did not require the new methods of medical training and they deservedly lost ground to modern medicine.

man bathing

As time has passed, the public and the medical community have realized that some aspects of the old spa culture still retain their allure and some benefits of spa culture are indisputable, such as increased relaxation, prevention and restoration. These are all conditions necessary for healing and while they are not as potent as the modern medicines prescribed by doctors they still have value and a place in healthcare. It is from this place in history that modern spas find both their weaknesses and their strengths, while providing their guests a temporary respite from the trials and travails of everyday life. In supplying guests with model patterns that can affect changes in their habits for the better, spas combine the best in behavioral medicine with the best of relaxation and rejuvenation, ritualizing the time it takes to rest and renew. This augmenting of the best of evidence based medicine with what we know of solus per aqua or ‘health thru water’ allows todays spas to reinvent the culture of the ancient baths and provide new rituals with which to prepare the public for the future.






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"Every person must choose how much truth he can stand." — Irvin D. Yalom (When Nietzsche Wept)

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