Water connects. Water nourishes. Water heals.
For millennia, humans have sought physical relief, emotional healing, and even spiritual renewal by immersing themselves in water and sweating intensely in heated enclosures.
Public bathing – in cold or hot water, dry or humid saunas – then became a cultural norm in some countries, a community practice housed in town centers. As a gathering place, these communal baths were efficient and effective for everything from shared water use to negotiating business deals to spreading relevant news.
Inspired by the ancient traditions of bathhouses, we see the bathhouse as a place for collective nourishment where we can celebrate the naturalness of being together.
In the U.S., we’re often taught baths are to be taken privately, secretly, alone.
So why then do we insist on keeping this ancient wisdom hidden in our bathrooms all alone with our pooping?
For 30 years, Dr. Bruce Becker has been putting people into warm water. His work as a clinical professor of rehabilitation medicine at Washington State University has shown what Saint Augustine wrote more than 1,600 years ago and every parent at bedtime can confirm: bathing calms us. Or, as Becker puts it, warm-water immersion balances our autonomic nervous system, allowing the brain to make free-form associations, improve working memory, and foster creative thinking.
Due to developments in clinical research and the rise of prescription medicine, we no longer view hot springs as we did when, in 1776, George Washington established the young nation’s first public mineral-water spa at Berkeley Springs, West Virginia. Or in 1927, when FDR, who’d found relief from polio at Warm Springs, Georgia, bought the site. During World War II, thermal spas at Glenwood Springs, Colorado, and White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, went into active duty as commissioned military hospitals, and up to the mid-1900s, ordinary Americans traveled to curative springs. By the mid- to late 20th century, Becker says, “health professions had lost the tribal memory of the healing power of water.” For most of us, balneotherapy had moved to the fringe: pleasant, even luxurious, one-mineral-fits-all R&R—but not medicine.