Eight ancient wellness rituals you can still experience today

These therapeutic acts have been honed over many centuries, and testimonies to their alleged benefits have endured to the present day.

Published 29 Jan 2020, 06:00 GMT, Updated 5 Nov 2020, 05:13 GMT
Hammam-e Sultan Mir Ahmad interior details in Kashan, Iran
The interior details of the Hammam-e Sultan Mir Ahmad in Kashan, Iran, built in the 16th century.
Photograph by Getty

Sweating, smoking, beating, bathing and breathing. These are just some of the rituals that have been venerated by leaders, from shamans to pharaohs, for their perceived ability to alter physical states of being. Through such portals as hand-built saunas or volcano-cut cauldrons of bubbling water, these immersive therapeutic acts have been carefully honed over many centuries, and testimonies to their alleged benefits have endured to the present day.

1. Cleopatra’s milk and honey baths
Legend has it that Cleopatra used the soured milk of donkeys laced with honey and rose oil to bathe in on a daily basis. It’s just one of her many purported beauty regimes so extravagant that it’s been debated as to whether the Egyptian Queen became a victim of sexist propaganda, throwing the scent from her efficacy as a powerful and astute politician. Nevertheless, the milk bath has become synonymous with her fabled pharaonic beauty, and luxurious Cleopatra experiences are a staple of spa menus in Cairo, Hurghada and Alexandria. The sour milk is optional, of course.
Key benefit: The lactic acid contained in milk is believed to gently exfoliate dead skin cells revealing supple skin below.
How to do it: Four Seasons Hotel Alexandria and Four Seasons Hotel Cairo both offer milk baths priced from £80-100 for up to 90 minutes. The Devarana Spa in Cairo offers milk baths for £35 for 30 minutes as an add-on treatment.

2. The Mesoamerican temazcal, or Mexican sweat lodge
Temazcales, ochre-hued adobe domes with small, igloo-like entrances have been a fixture of indigenous Mexican culture since the Mayan period, and today, you can still visit retreats in the Yucatan Peninsula, Oaxaca and Cancun. Forming a metaphorical parallel with the womb and rebirth, the ‘Mexican sweat lodge’ invites the bather to breathe vapor infused with aromatic herbs for up to two hours at a time. All the while, you’ll absorb the illuminations of a shaman, or temazcalero, who sermonises the teachings of Mayan beliefs while tending the heat-sizzled herbs. It's believed that you'll emerge from the mists energised and awakened.
Key benefit: It’s alleged the vapour helps to cleanse the respiratory system while the sweating gives the body a detox.

How to do it: The X’Kanha temazcal in Cozumel is a renowned retreat with prices starting from £65 per person. In Cancun, Temazcal Cancun offers a group ritual from £25 per person, and a private experience from £187. 

3. Banya, the Russian bathhouse and sweat ritual
You’ll need to brace yourself for the Russian banya; a collision of the elements where fire, wood, water and stone combine to unleash a triple baptism comprising three rounds of sweating and ice-plunging. The centuries-old Slavic sweat ritual, aided by the use of a venik (a whipping broom used to open pores and boost circulation), is said to detox the body and increase metabolism. Traditionally, nomads in Russia’s rural regions would pitch rudimentary banyas nearby lakes and rivers, using boulders to build the wood-fired oven; native birch, oak or linden trees for the venik; and the skin-prickling icy water of nearby natural pools to plunge in. If you seek opulence, head to Moscow or St Petersburg, home to Russia’s oldest and most renowned bathhouses, where bathers are treated to herb-infused steam and eucalyptus broom.
Key benefit: The ritual is said to boost blood circulation, relieve muscle tension and detox the body through sweating.
How to do it: The historic Sanduny baths are Moscow’s oldest, with prices starting from £19. In St Petersburg, head to the Yamskiye Bani, with prices starting from £4.

4. Nuat thai, the Thai massage
Energy lines are teased and tugged in this joint-cracking massage routine, embodying concepts drawn from Thailand’s long history at the confluence of Indian and Chinese culture. This millennia-old practice attributed to the teachings of Buddhist doctor Shivago Komarpaj was at first observed by monks in temples and monasteries. The massage spiralled in popularity for its alleged effects of increasing flexibility and improving posture. You’ll find variations of nuat thai across Thailand; in Chiang Mai, you’ll come across the northern style, where the emphasis is placed on slower, rhythmic stretches more in tune with ancient yogic concepts. In Bangkok, the approach is more medical in nature. Historic tablets housed in Wat Pho, the temple of the reclining Buddha, advise a massage that focuses on acupressure and muscle compression.
Key benefit: The massage routine is widely believed to improve flexibility and posture, help blood circulation and lymphatic drainage, as well as relieve muscle tension.
How to do it: Massage parlours are widespread in Thailand. Most spas offer the treatment, and prices vary. Try the Samahita Retreat in Koh Samui, or Twinpalms Phuket Resort.

The volcanic landscape of Japan has given rise to literally thousands of distinctly diverse hot springs, including this one in Beppu.
Photograph by Getty

5. Onsens, Japan’s volcanic hot springs
The mineral-rich waters of Japan’s onsens (hot springs) have long been regarded as miracle-healers. Japanese lore depicts hunters trailing wild, wounded animals who, in their divinity led the hunter to the soothing hot springs. You might spot portraits and sculptural works of a white heron in onsen towns including the famous Dogo Onsen of Shikoku Island thought to be 3,000 years old, in homage to one such legend. The onsens are easy to find, too. The volcanic landscape of Japan has given rise to literally thousands of distinctly diverse hot springs. The unique geological cauldrons seethe in a range of mineral-rich hues from topaz-blue to blood-red. In fact, there’s a hot spring named ‘blood hell’ in the famous onsen town of Beppu in the Oita prefecture, the region of Japan with the most numerous springs, where onsen culture is so ingrained it proclaims itself Japan’s onsen capital.
Key benefit: The mineral water is believed to cure a variety of physical ailments, especially eczema, rheumatism and arthritis. Many visit to fast-track the healing process following surgical procedures.
How to do it: Visit a ryokan in one of Japan’s many onsen towns. Try the renowned 19th-century Dogo Onsen Honkan on Shikoku Island.

A spa therapist prepares a Choonaswedna treatment, an ancient Ayurvedic practice that involves the application of hot herbal poultices on the body to relax the muscles and relieve pain.
Photograph by Getty

6. Ayurvedic healing
Ayurvedic holistic healing has become a modern trend and a favourite of wellness gurus, but its fundamentals are drawn from the Vedas; the Hindu spiritual scriptures that date back 4,000 years. Translating from Sanskrit to ‘knowledge of life’, the principles are woven into its treatments, including the Ayurvedic oil massage which focuses on the notion of liberating physical and spiritual channels of energy. Ayurvedic values are widely upheld in India, Nepal and Sri Lanka. The teachings influence every aspect of healthcare in many communities. As such, you’ll find massage, meditation and yoga retreats dotted around the region; the Indian states of Kerala and Goa are home to some of the most luxurious.
Key benefit: Ayurvedic massages are alleged to relieve stress, muscle tension and stimulate channels of energy within the body.
How to do it: Ayurvedic spas and retreats are widespread throughout India, Nepal and Sri Lanka. The Santani Wellness Resort & Spa in Kandy, Sri Lanka, is an award-winning luxury hotel that offers a variety of Ayurvedic treatments.

7. Dukhan, or Sudanese smoke bath
It was the Nubians who gave rise to dukhan, a smoke-bathing routine that’s still widely practiced by new mothers and married women in Khartoum, Sudan’s capital, and Omdurman, its second city. Chopped strips of aromatic sandalwood and red acacia are stoked over coals in the ground; the heady, spiced smoke then douses the blanket-wrapped woman above in a skin-firming process that’s believed to narrow the vaginal cavity and saturate the skin with woody perfume.
Key benefit: The post-natal practice is believed by some to be restorative, while the marital practice is believed to increase sexual desire. Some believe it also assists with rheumatism.
How to do it: Women mostly practice dukhan in their own homes; the wood, burner, blanket and stool can be bought at any city souk. Salons in Khartoum and Omdurman offer the service, especially those aimed at brides-to-be; being a sexualised practice in a largely conservative Muslim country, it’s sometimes simply advertised as a sauna.

8. Hammam, or Turkish bath
Some say that cleanliness is next to godliness, and few other bathing rituals edge closer to this concept than the Turkish bath. Palatial hammams, such as those found in Turkey, Syria and Morocco, both mirror the design aesthetics of Islamic architecture, and borrow the washing-before-prayer routine of ghusl. Sociability is an important aspect of hammam, and it’s perhaps for this reason that the practice has lingered to the modern day. The buildings are easy to spot. You’ll see the bright-coloured glass of their characteristic cupolas beaming from the outside — a small taste of what’s on the inside — vaulted ceilings, ornate stonework and lavish furnishings.
Key benefit: Muscle relaxation, detoxification and respiratory rejuvenation are among the health benefits associated with visiting a hammam.
How to do it: Hammams are widespread throughout the Middle East. In Istanbul, the Cagaloglu Hamam, which was built during the Ottoman period, is among Turkey’s most renowned. Prices start from £50 per person.

Read more from the Spa & Wellness Collection 2019 here.

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