How the world bathes, soaks, and steams.

By Katie Stone

Reading time: 13 minutes

Stressed? Sit in a room heated to 93°C and whip your naked body with a piece of birch. It’ll do wonders.

Bathing and steaming are among the most popular – and oldest – ways to relax, alleviate stress, and release physical tension. Humans have been doing it since around 2500 BCE, and we’re still addicted. Throughout history, cultures around the world have embraced the power of water and steam to cleanse, heal, and socialise.

From spas and springs to hammams (a type of steam bath or a place of public bathing associated with the Islamic world) and onsen (a Japanese term for hot springs and the bathing facilities and traditional inns around them), our love of thermal therapy has taken innumerable forms. And it’s not all about rinsing off.

By Katie Stone

Reading time: 13 minutes

Stressed? Sit in a room heated to 93°C and whip your naked body with a piece of birch. It’ll do wonders.

Bathing and steaming are among the most popular – and oldest – ways to relax, alleviate stress, and release physical tension. Humans have been doing it since around 2500 BCE, and we’re still addicted. Throughout history, cultures around the world have embraced the power of water and steam to cleanse, heal, and socialise.

From spas and springs to hammams (a type of steam bath or a place of public bathing associated with the Islamic world) and onsen (a Japanese term for hot springs and the bathing facilities and traditional inns around them), our love of thermal therapy has taken innumerable forms. And it’s not all about rinsing off.

The history of the spa and sauna

Spas may be a product of technology, but bathhouses are not. Some tens of thousands of years ago, Neolithic tribes were the first to discover that soaking in hot water helped to cleanse the body and relax the mind, along with many other health benefits.

As civilisations progressed, the practice of public bathing became both a means of maintaining hygiene and a hub for socialising. Societies developed elaborate rituals around bathing that were as much about spirituality and communal exchange as about cleansing the body.

The Indus Valley is thought to be home to one of the earliest constructed public baths. Built in around 2500 BC, this “Great Bath” was a pool made of baked brick, and possibly used for religious reasons as well as for washing.

Later, the Greeks began the bathing regimens that would become the spas we know today. Public baths were built into their gymnasium complexes, and it was common for both men and women to bathe together. For many labourers, the public bath was the only place to wash off after a long week at work.

Public baths were a staple of Roman life and have been found throughout the Roman empire from Europe to North Africa and the eastern Mediterranean. These baths usually included an apodyterium (reception room), which led to a caldarium (hot room), a tepidarium (warm room), and a frigidarium (cold room). Patrons moved from room to room to stimulate blood flow and induce natural detoxification through sweating. The process of sweating, exfoliating, and cleansing would be completed by plunging into a reviving cold-water shower, and sometimes followed by massage.

The hammam

Roman bathing culture is understood to have inspired the hammam steam baths in around AD 600. The prophet Muhammad is also said to have endorsed the hammam, and the baths often served as an annex to the mosque, complete with arched ceilings and intricate decor. Istanbul is home to one of the world’s oldest hammams: Cağaloğlu Hamam – an elaborate marble bathhouse built in 1741.

Believed to purify the body and soul, hammams became a prominent feature of Middle Eastern and North African culture, serving as meeting places where people could relax and socialise.

Although several aspects of the hammam ritual were similar to the Roman baths, the Turks felt that bathing in cold water was unclean. Instead, they chose to use bowls of running water. They also preferred the cold room be at the end of their cleansing ritual rather than the beginning.

Men and women usually bathed separately, either in single-sex hammams or at allocated times.

Today, the hammam is still a way of life in Morocco and Turkey and can be enjoyed in many other parts of the world, too. In the traditional hammam, the visitor will put on a robe, then be escorted to a warm/hot room to sit and relax. Next, a special black soap called savon beldi is rubbed all over the body and rinsed off. An exfoliated hand mitt called a kess will then be used to scrub the body thoroughly to remove dead skin. The entire process takes 30-45 minutes. Nudity is usually optional.

The onsen

Fukuoka hot spring, Japan

The Pacific Ring of Fire has provided Japan with an active volcano system and centuries of thermal hot spring rituals. Rich in natural minerals, these springs are assumed to assist in healing, beauty, and general relaxation. With over 25,000 hot springs in the country, onsen have become synonymous with Japanese culture.

Bathhouse Japanese style

To be certified by the Japanese government, an onsen must adhere to strict regulations as per the Hot Springs Act 1948. The onsen must be fed by spring water of at least 25°C in its natural state, and contain one of 19 specific minerals within a certain parameter, such as free carbon dioxide, radium salt, and bicarbonate soda.

There are 19 different types of onsen, and around 3,000 onsen resorts in Japan – no two are alike. Each onsen differs by its mineral content, which is said to provide health benefits for a particular ailment. Many onsen advertise the specific mineral content of their water as part of its accompanying healing effects. For example, the Sulphur Spring (io sen) is best for those with chronic bronchitis, diabetes, and high blood pressure, while the Sodium Bicarbonate Saline Spring (tansan suiso ensen) is believed to help smooth the skin.

Onsen have strict etiquette. Belongings must be placed in a locker upon arrival so that you enter the spa with nothing but your locker key and a small towel (usually purchased from a vending machine). To keep the onsen free of impurities, all users must first wash their body thoroughly with soap and water at the allocated faucets or washbowl. Swimwear or underwear is not permitted. Tattoos are also prohibited due to their association with Japanese gangsters (although some establishments will now make allowances for tourists).

The banya

Long considered an important bonding place in Russian culture, the banya (originally a Russian-Eastern Slavic steam bath with a wood stove) predates even the Tsar himself. Banyas continue to be an integral part of Russian life, and public banyas are commonplace in the cities.

The word ‘banya’ is derived from the Latin word ‘balneum’, which loosely translates as “something that makes pain and sadness go away”.

The two types of banyas – white and black – differ mainly by their form of ventilation. Black-way banyas are heated with birch wood and have only a small hole to allow smoke to escape. Over time, the walls and ceilings become black from the tar of the birch smoke, which is regarded as an effective antibacterial for skin conditions. In fact, the black-way banya is believed to have saved the Russians from the plague of the Middle Ages. The more modern white banyas, on the other hand, are fitted with pipes that ventilate the smoke.

Russian banyas usually include an entrance room, a washing room, and a steam room. Users sit on wooden benches in the steam room and water is poured over the heated rocks in the stove.

The banya temperature will often exceed 93 degrees Celsius, and users often wear felt or wool hats to protect the head from this intense heat. They may also hit themselves with bunches of birch twigs called veniki to boost circulation. It is then customary to cool off by stepping outside, or by jumping into a deep bath in an iced lake or snow. This steaming-and-cooling-off process is repeated up to three times. In between, patrons will drink beer or tea in the antechamber to the steam room.

The sauna

The Finns are credited with inventing the sauna, with the earliest versions tracing back to 7000 BC. These were, apparently, fire pits dug in the ground, usually covered with animal hides and branches. As saunas evolved into more solid structures, they became an important part of Finnish national identity.

Saunas were not only a place to steam-bathe, but also to cure meats, prepare the dead for burial, and for women to give birth.

The word sauna itself is, in fact, Finnish (pronounced SOW-na), and there are an estimated two million saunas in Finland catering for a population of 5.3 million. Most Finns enjoy a sauna session at least once a week – traditionally on a Saturday.

Finnish saunas are heated by a wood-burning stove. Like the banya, the smoke-sauna (savusauna) has no chimney, allowing smoke to fill the entire room. When the desired temperature is reached (around 75 to 85 °C) the fire is put out and the smoke is ventilated. The embers keep the heat constant for the sauna session itself, providing the aroma of woodsmoke. Steam (löyly) is created by throwing water onto a basket of hot rocks, which increases the humidity and induces sweating.

Whipping one’s body with a silver birch branch helps to stimulate the blood flow and create a pleasant aroma. Nudity is preferred by the Finns, but visitors can make their own decision about disrobing. Depending on the location, the ritual may be completed by plunging into a cold pool or leaping into a pile of snow. Many, however, prefer to simply relax in a cooler room.

As well as its health benefits, Finnish sauna sessions are very much about socialising with others. Friends and colleagues regularly meet in the sauna to catch up, and it’s even claimed that many of Finland’s political and business decisions have been made in the sauna. Inviting someone to your sauna is a sign of respect.

The healing power of hot water and steam

It’s no accident that spas and saunas have persisted for thousands of years. While culture has shaped the rituals of bathing, the health benefits of steaming and soaking the body are more or less the same. Scientific research has shown that regular use of the sauna may reduce the risk of an enormous range of ailments, from heart disease and neurocognitive disorders to skin conditions, arthritis, and respiratory conditions.

The rest and relaxation of the bathhouse environment – and the social interaction – is also shown to provide significant benefits for mental health. Getting into the steam once a week can help lift depression and promote a general sense of wellbeing.

The perfect excuse to install your own?

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