Water. Heat. Time. These three elements form the basic foundations for bathing. Taking a bath is one of the simplest and oldest human rituals. Bathing has been done for cleanliness and community, for health and healing, for solitude and solace.
As indoor plumbing shifted bathing from a public to a private practice, the significance of soaking also became a topic more personal than communal in Western cultural conversation.
Seeking the sublime experience of bathing in the natural world has brought me to steep in mountain-top mineral water, relax in rainforest hot springs, and soak in pools perched on ocean cliffs. I realized I had become a full-on bathing devotee when I signed a lease on a Manhattan apartment with a claw-foot tub but no full kitchen, opting to cook on a hot plate in order to have limitless bathing access.
But a full tub of water is not required to bathe. Recently, I discovered the delight of a stovetop steam, where boiling a pot of water, adding some fresh herbs, creating a small tent with a towel, then allowing the steam to circulate around one’s face achieves a similar effect to marinating for an hour. From the face to the feet, bucket baths can create an easy end-of-day retreat. Last year, I picked up on a Russian folklore practice someone had related to me, where one fills a small tub with warm water for a foot bath, releasing stress and toxins at the end of a day. The water is then poured into the garden, so that the earth can absorb whatever negative energies were stored in the body—it’s a greywater system that benefits both person and planet.
Every bath, from the stovetop steam to the hot-spring steep, is a chance to connect with the power of this simple ritual; drawing a tub of warm water and taking the time to bathe creates the space for us to reconnect with ourselves both as individuals and as humans. We summon at once the public bathhouses of ancient Rome, the Native American sweat lodges, and the steam of Finnish saunas, joining for a moment in a global cultural practice.
No other writer and artist has transformed thinking around bathing more than Leonard Koren, author of Undesigning the Bath, a short mediation on bathing in natural places and uncommon spaces, and publisher of Wet: the Magazine of Gourmet Bathing, which printed several dozen issues on the topic in the late 1970s. Koren philosophically distills bathing down to its personal nature, writing that “bathing, from an undesign point of view, is a comprehensive aesthetic experience concerned primarily with non-objective, unquantifiable, unquantifiable and unique sensations… the bathing experience is fundamentally subjective.” We sought Koren out and asked him a few questions about bathing and its boundaries.
In your book, you write about the “constellation of elements that create a great bath.” Can you briefly explain some of these elements?
I described some of the subjective qualities that I think all great baths elicit. Among these are:
– Absolute safety. A feeling that you can let go, mind and body, and completely relax.
– Cleanliness, and its more rigorous cousin, purification. Both are subtle but real sensations. Cleanliness lightens the body. Purification lightens the mind.
– Timelessness. Conventional, mechanical time becomes irrelevant and biological rhythms come to the fore. The in and out of breathing. Heartbeats…
– Pleasure. On a sensorial level, this means the enjoyment of skin interacting with water steam and other thermally activated substances. There’s also the emotional uplift. You do better during and after a bath than you do before.
– Transcendence. Your sense of “me” expands to encompass everything in your perceptual purview.
Yes, you also articulate that bathing creates a quietness that allows us to bring our fundamental sense of self into focus. Do you find the clarity on this focus differs according to the type of bath?
Personally I find the most clarity when soaking in small, contained bodies of hot water. The box-like Japanese soaking tub is a favorite. The buoyancy of the water creates a sense of ease. Because the tub is so confining, the body is constantly receiving feedback about its boarders and limits. Counter-intuitively, instead of feeling uncomfortably constrained, you feel a kind of psychological liberation.
When was your first transformative bath?
Probably when I was in my mother’s womb. But I don’t remember that… I do remember first going to a Russian-Jewish bathhouse in New York when I was nine years old. I was visiting from California. I was taken by one of my uncles. The place had an exotic, other-worldly quality. There was hot, intense steam. People were beating each other with small brooms made of branches and leaves and soaked in soapy water. There was the smell of Eastern European delicatessen food in the air. Everyone had a different personality. So many different body types. And everybody seemed to be in a good mood. It was eye opening.
Throughout the past several decades, you’ve explored baths made in tire ruts and pools at the edges of the natural world. Are there any uncharted territories in the world of bathing?
I’m always on the look out for maximal bathing experiences with minimal bathing means. Ask me the same question next year.
Wonder if you’ve dipped into a sound bath yet? Here are a few more of our favorite bathing places:
– The monastic environs of Vals, Switzerland
– Indian Brook Falls in Cold Spring, New York
– Arabic-style tiled soaking rooms in Grenada, Spain
– Pamukkale Thermal Springs in Turkey
– The cliff-hugging pools of Esalen in California
– A sand sweat in the Sahara near Merzouga, Morocco