Wellness Traditions Across The World: From Japanese Forest Bathing to Germany’s Sauna Subculture

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The human quest for wellbeing spans history, crossing all cultures and boundaries. Today, these traditions become the foundations of a truly mindful philosophy of life.

Humanity is diverse. From cultural rituals to deeply held beliefs, it seems our species is as inventive as it is heterogeneous. Yet, while such differences can sometimes give rise to conflict, they equally offer us an infinite pool of wisdom, creativity and inspiration. Just as travel enriches us as individuals, so traditions themselves travel, infiltrating and elevating the cultures they come into contact with. That’s certainly true of approaches to wellbeing: no matter what part of the world we come from, humans strive for good health—whether that’s physical, emotional, spiritual, or all three. Each culture has its own unique set of systems and techniques we can draw from in our quest to master the mystery of wellbeing.

Uniting body, mind and spirit

Relaxing moment after an ayurveda treatment – image courtesy of InterContinental Fiji Golf Resort & Spa

Originating in the Indian subcontinent, Ayurveda is an ancient approach to health. According to classical Ayurveda texts, wellbeing knowledge was transmitted from gods to sages, and then to human physicians. Holistic in nature, Ayurveda puts lifestyle and diet at the forefront, and emphasises the connections between body and mind. Ayu is Sanskrit for ‘life’ and veda for ‘knowledge’. Taken together, the words capture the meaning of the concept: self-knowledge; knowing what is good for you in all aspects of life.

As a discipline, Ayurveda is dense and multifaceted. The practice is based around the concept that a person’s physical, mental and personality traits are interconnected, able to influence each other. Each individual is comprised of three elements, or ‘doshas’, called vata, pitta and kapha. The doshas are, in turn, related to five physical elements: earth, fire, water, air and space.

The qualities of vata, for example, are related to the air and space elements. Ayurveda says that people with high levels of vata are have dry skin and hair. They are typically slim in build and suffer from bad circulation. Anxiety, restlessness and stress are also associated with vata. Pitta is a fiery element, and people with high levels are hot—both in temperature and temperament. Their skin and hair is more oily and they have an athletic build. Kapha, both an earthy and watery element, is characterised by heaviness and slowness, and physical and mental stability.

According to Ayurveda, everyone is composed of all three doshas, with most people a combination of two dominant elements—for example vata-pitta. In rare cases, a person can be dominant in just one element, or exhibit an equal balance of all three. Your dosha dictates the type of food you should eat, which exercises you should do, and even how long you should sleep, for optimal overall wellbeing.

Having survived and thrived in the modern world, Ayurveda has travelled to Europe. In spas across the continent, the approach today plays a central role in therapies such as massages, which use essential oils to balance the doshas. Bhringraj oil, for example, works on all three doshas and is said to aid a tranquil mind as well as glowing skin and hair. Neem, on the other hand, is a cooling oil that cleanses and detoxifies, and is especially recommended for soothing pitta, which can cause overheating and skin irritation when out of balance.

The restorative power of nature

The Swiss Alps have been renowned as a restorative place of villegiature for centuries – image courtesy of InterContinental Davos

Spending time in nature makes us feel somehow better—and science is beginning to show that the effects are measurable. A revealing 2015 study found that workers in office environments with natural elements, such as greenery and sunlight, reported a 15 percent higher level of wellbeing.

In Japan, the therapeutic power of nature has long been acknowledged. Known locally as shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing—the simple act of being among trees—has been part of the national public health program since 1982. More recently, the Japanese government spent 8 years and $4 million dollars looking into the physical and psychological benefits of forest bathing. They discovered that human natural killer (NK) cells, a type of white blood cell associated with a healthy immune system, increased in individuals who spent time in the forest. Many trees and plants give off a type of natural essential oils called phytoncide, as protection against insects and other natural threats. When humans breathe it in, however, it has positive effects on the immune system.

But it’s not just about the biochemical reaction. Nature provides a welcome respite from our predominantly urban and constantly connected lifestyle. Forest bathing is more (or perhaps less) than just taking a hike in the woods. The key is to stop doing, and just be. Leave your phone and your fitness tracker at home, and focus on accepting things as you find them, rather than trying to accomplish something.

This fusion of meditation and immersion in nature has spread beyond Japan, and begun to be embraced in the West. Though most opportunities in Europe are less organised or official than the oriental original, the beauty of forest bathing is that it can be done anywhere: All you need is a few trees and an attitude of awareness and acceptance.

Sweating it out

Saunas are an integral part of a healthy lifestyle in many Nordic countries, and increasingly elsewhere too – image courtesy of InterContinental Ljubljana

The sauna may be synonymous with Scandinavia, but—in part due to a propensity of natural thermal spas—Germany has its own sauna subculture that reveals much about its national character.

German spas generally include both wet and dry saunas. The dry version is typically borrowed from the Finnish style, with wooden walls and seating, and very high temperatures—around 70 to 80 degrees celsius (158–176 °F). Wet saunas, also known as steam rooms, are hotter and tend to be tiled inside. The intense heat makes the heart beat faster, resulting in increased circulation and metabolism. The warmth can also improve joint stiffness and open pores in the skin to release toxins.

As well as a wide variety of types of sauna and steam room, there are particular rules and processes in Germany. A full sauna session, for example, takes at least two hours, and involves repeatedly warming your body up and then rapidly cooling it down. Like the Finns, the Germans shower or bathe in ice cold water immediately after each sauna. This is thought to build resilience in the heart and immune system, and improve the skin by closing pores once toxins have been released through sweating.

German sauna culture insists on nakedness, as swimwear is said to be unhygienic and counterproductive to the prophylactic effects. This approach is rooted in the tradition of Freikörperkultur (FKK), or ‘free body culture‘, a naturist movement that seeks to decouple nudity and sexuality. Similarly, saunas offer a place to be, a moment out of time, where the constraints of everyday life can be shed.

At the heart of Europe, Germany’s relationship with the sauna reveals a nuanced approach to wellness that we see repeated elsewhere. Beyond pure science, ideas of wellness have a complex, entwined relationship with culture and tradition, and many paths may lead us to it.

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