The Art Of Bathing
Bathing is a universal activity. Its naming can’t be traced to one single source, but the Old English bæð – “an immersing of the body” – fits. It’s done in a number of ways: a warm, indulgent wallow; bathing in the dappled light of the forest, or plunging into the quiet depths of the river. But its essential element remains the same. It’s a cleansing, not just in a physical sense but a metaphorical one, too. Olivia Laing writes that bathing can be “a way of slipping the superficial self… and ducking down into a deeper, nameless realm”. When we emerge, we’ve found ourselves anew.
For Leonard Koren, the ideal bathing environment is “simply, or rather not-so-simply, a place that helps bring my fundamental sense of who I am into focus. A place that awakens me to my intrinsic earthy, sensual, and paganly reverential nature. A quiet place to enjoy one of life’s finest desserts amidst elemental surroundings. A profoundly personal place, even when shared with other people, suitable for the most intimate sacraments of bathing.” The author of Undesigning the Bath rooted his bathing philosophy in the Californian counter-culture, but his exploration of its practice led him back to 2500 BC in the lost city of Mohenjo-daro, Pakistan. The site of the Great Bath.
Much of our bathing wisdom comes from these ancient cultures. We associate bathing with relaxation, as promoted by Japanese sentō (bathhouses), which cleanse mind and body, while bathing in onsen (hot springs) is a form of mindfulness. Health connotations come from the French curistes visiting for thermalism treatment, while this sense of the communal can be found in hammam, which means “spreader of warmth” in Arabic. Across other cultures, from the Korean jimjilbang to the Finnish sauna and the Russian banya, there’s no better elixir than a soak.
We often bathe – in the widest sense of the term – in areas of exquisite natural or man-made beauty. Take the Vichy Célestins natural springs, or the Dōgo Onsen on the island of Shikoku. As 4.2 billion of us live in cities, bathing in natural environments feels deeply restorative. As the late author Roger Deakin writes: “Being embraced and sustained by the light-green water seemed not as much a pleasure as the resumption of a natural condition.”
Deakin’s book, Waterlog, spurred the wild swimming revolution in the UK when he wrote about discovering the wonders of old, wild England. But he also promoted another idea: swimming in nature is a subversive act. Today, half a million people in England are regularly going wild swimming – nearly twice as many as reported doing so just three years ago. That trend was buoyed by Covid-19 as many took to the water to escape the stress of lockdown. In her essay for the collection At The Pond: Swimming at the Hampstead Ladies’ Pond, Lou Stoppard writes that iced water nullifies and soothes anxiety.
Being at large in the natural world has proven benefits, generally. In the 1980s, Japanese researchers promoted a physiological and psychological exercise called shinrin-yoku: “forest bathing” or taking in the forest atmosphere. Their studies showed that 50% of the beneficial health effects came from trees releasing antimicrobial essential oils called phytoncides. It provided a solution to Japan’s rapidly developing technology burnout, and encouraged resident bathers to care for their increasingly endangered forests. With the majority of Japan’s population living in urban centres, its popularity has boomed.
In modern “grind” culture, taking time for ourselves is vital. And the wonderful thing about bathing is that it can be done within the sanctum of our bathrooms. Hot water increases blood flow and aids the lymphatic system, but it also allows our skin to release endorphins. Then there are the accoutrements: a fresh bundle of earthy eucalyptus to steam above the shower, Epsom salts to detoxify or lavender essential oil to soothe insomnia. The restorative qualities of the bath are limitless. A scented candle or bath-side seasonal flowers always help too.
But the true art of bathing lies in its meditative qualities. As we soak, we relax our conscious thoughts and our mind is set free to dream. The Japanese might consider this the state of yudedako. Translated as “boiled octopus”, the term describes the process in which our bodies flush scarlet pink and our minds float into a state of transcendental bliss. A neuroscientist might call this the default mode network – a state of resting engagement. That’s probably what led philosopher Alain de Botton to write: “Baths are ideal places to think.”