Saturday, July 31, 2021

Rhode Island hydrotherapy: A new twist on an ancient practice

Image from Bodhi Spa Facebook page

Hydrotherapy today seems divided into two distinct modalities: rehabilitative therapy used for recovering from injuries and spa treatments dedicated to relaxation and rejuvenation. The Safety Harbor Resort and Spa, once a hotspot for health treatments using water, now bills itself as a "tranquil sanctuary to relax, rejuvenate, revitalize and reconnect the mind, body and spirit to enliven the senses." But the Pinellas County resort near Clearwater is perhaps the state's best connection to a spa of the past – water from one of the the mineral springs is still utilized and the history of the facility is on display in the spa's "History Hall." 

I've written about experiencing hydrotherapy and two of the most famous watering places in the world: Hot Springs, Arkansas and Bath, England (in Florida's Healing Waters).  And in addition to the spa at Safety Harbor, I've bathed at Florida's other vestiges from the state's Golden Age of Bathing: Green Cove Springs and Warm Mineral Springs

When researching things to do for a recent vacation in Rhode Island I came across the Bodhi Spa in Providence and their product called the "Water Journey." So when I had the opportunity to try it, I jumped right in.

Heat Up. Cool Down. Relax. Repeat.

Hydrotherapy is the art of healing through the application of water in any form; hot, cold, steam or ice. Hydrotherapy has been used by cultures around the world for thousands of years. Many historians believe Egyptian royalty were the first to indulge in its health benefits, while others believe it dates back even earlier to Asia, where therapeutic waters were used to cleanse the body and soul of impurities. – from the Bodhi Spa website

The Water Journey is a hydrotherapeautic system consisting of the following regimens:

• Therapeutic 104˚ Epsom Salt Pool
• Mineral Rich 98˚ Dead Sea Salt Pool
• Stimulating 55˚ Cold Plunge Pool
• Aromatherapy Steam Room
• Detoxifying Infrared Sauna
• Traditional Finnish Dry Sauna
• Relaxation Area
• Outdoor Zen Garden Space

The order with which one proceeds through the Journey is printed on large sign over the Dead Sea Salt Pool. The principle is similar to the ritual seen in Scandinavian countries where after a session in a sauna, individuals jump into icy cold water. For this Floridian, jumping into the 55˚ Cold Plunge was something I pondered with great trepidation; most of our springs are a 72˚ in comparison, and that feels icy-cold. So I approached my experience with a mixture of excitement, interest, and honest-to-God fear!

Image from the Bodhi Spa Facebook page

New Age Ambiance

I made reservations the day before and we found the location in what seemed to be an up-and-coming neighborhood near Providence's Federal Hill. My wife, who took the waters with me in Hot Springs and in Bath, chose to sit this one out  – perhaps the 55˚ Cold Plunge freaked her out too!

A contemporary-looking facade fronted a waiting room decorated with rock crystals and Buddha statues – typical decor one might find at a yoga studio or new age book store. I was given a robe, flip flops, and locker and then escorted to the dressing room, which was considerably fancier than what I experienced at the vintage bathhouse in Hot Springs. I changed into my bathing suit and entered the door into the hydrotherapy area which was occupied by maybe a dozen other bathers, mostly women. I noticed quickly that I forgot to remove by glasses but I decided to keep them on in order to be able to read the sign detailing the order of the Water Journey regimens. That was a mistake.

Image from the Bodhi Spa Facebook page

Plunging Ahead

I started with the 98˚ Dead Sea Salt Pool, which looked like a large Jacuzzi and was already occupied by about four women. I observed immediately that the whisper policy stressed on the website, was not being observed and that there was a lot of talking going on. The water temperature was very comfortable and I noticed that the jets in both salt pools were stronger than what might experience in a typical hotel jacuzzi; they were strong enough to knock you out of your seat! I couldn't notice any discernible difference between the 104˚ Epsom salt pool and the  98˚ Dead Sea salt pool. But soaking in both of them were very pleasant. 

Like the powerful jets in the salt baths, spray "douches" in traditional hydrotherapy
administered powerful jets of water believed to have restorative benefits.

Balneotherapy is the practice of immersion into mineral water, historically originating from "hot springs, cold water springs, or other sources of water, like the Dead Sea," according to wikipedia. The ancient Greeks built temples over springs, the Romans erected elaborate baths all over their empire, cultures all over the world have been taking the waters for thousands of years. The salt pools at the Bodhi Spa are the latest version of this ancient tradition. 

The Baths of Caracalla

In Florida, the Gilded Age spas at mineral spring advertised healing a long list of ailments including consumption (tuberculosis), gout, rheumatism, dyspepsia (indigestion), skin disorders, and a wide assortment of other ailments. According to the Bodhi Spa website, their Dead Sea Salt Pool offers relief from fibromyalgia, skin conditions, and Type 2 Diabetes. The Epson Salt Pool helps sore muscles recover after work outs, reduces pain and inflammation, and reduces anxiety and depression. 

After soaking for about 10 minutes, I showered and headed for the Aromatherapy Steam Room.

Steam Room and Sauna

Steam baths origins go back to the ancient Romans; I remember seeing the remnants of the thermae in Bath, England, at the Roman baths there. According to wikipedia, a Hammam or Turkish Bath is steam bath or place for public bathing found in the Islamic world using hot dry air for cleansing and therapy. Steam baths or banya found in Russia and Finland, traditionally create steam with a wood stove.

Advertisement for the Turkish Baths at the Hotel Alcazar in St. Augustine

The Aromatherapy Steam Room at the Bodhi Spa has an overwhelming smell of eucalyptus. When I was a kid and had a cough my mom would rub Vick's VapoRub on my chest and put a humidifier in my bedroom. It was a similar sensation, but amped up quite a bit. I've been in steam baths at Hot Springs and Safety Harbor, but this one seemed hotter. I'm not sure I made it the entire eight to ten minutes on any of my circuits through the Water Journey. It was just too hot. 

The traditional sauna was hot, too, and I made the mistake of keeping my glasses on. It was hot enough to actually start melting the emulsion on the lenses and make the frames almost unbearably to wear. When people compare Florida to a sauna, they aren't even close. 

But the purported benefits of both rooms are impressive: they relieve stress, remove toxins from the skin, clear up congestion, help heart health, improve sleep and basically sweat out all the bad stuff from your system. I did find that my sinuses seemed to clear up .... until I took a hydration break and drank the icy cold infused water. It was cold enough to make me congested again. 

Plunge pool at the Roman baths in Bath, England

The Big Chill

My family has a history of bad heart health and I must admit, although I am in perfect health (aside from allergies), that I was afraid that going from extreme heat to freezing cold water might make my ticker explode. Again this notion of bathing in icy cold water goes back to the ancient Greeks and Romans who thought it was good for one's health. An expert in an article on says that experts claim that a good cold plunge releases hormones and adrenaline and is even a good heart workout.  But other experts in the same article say that benefits are imagined at best and it could even be "potentially dangerous."

So I stepped into the frigid, icy, freezing, way-beyond-chiiiilly water, very gingerly (at best.) Did I mention that the water is 55 degrees? That's almost twenty degrees colder than a spring in Florida. Pain. That's how I describe the experience. Needles poke your muscles which begin to hurt. I tried to stay in the recommended 30 seconds but it was hard because it's human nature to avoid pain. Each circuit I tried to make it deeper into the pool and I must admit I never made it all the way in. Other bathers were able to submerge their entire bodies but I rationalized the they must be native New Englanders, used to icy-cold water. But not for this Florida boy. Nope. No way. 

Image from the Bodhi Spa Facebook page

The Water Journey

Other spas I've visited have had similar regimens, but this was the first spa I visited that had no historical connection to famous baths. In a way this was merely an updated version of what Roman senators could have experienced at the Baths of Caracalla in the year 221.  I think I expected a zen-like, restorative session, but the whole time I was thinking how I might write about the Water Journey and I never completely let down my guard. I felt relaxed, but I think it could have been a different experience if it had been quieter and more peaceful inside the spa. 

But there is something to recreating an ancient ritual performed by different cultures across the globe. In other parts of the world, many still believe that water in all its forms has the power to heal. I am fortunate to live in Florida, with largest array of first magnitude springs on the planet and the opportunity for a dip in a cold spring is just a short car ride away. And it's a glorious 72 degrees year round. 

Ginnie Springs

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Celebrating Sacred Ground

Although Dr. Franklin Branch sought to build a health spa near the healing waters of Manatee Mineral Springs, conflict during the Third Seminole War kept that dream from coming to fruition. But the cultural and historical value of the spring was so great, I included it in my book "Florida's Healing Waters." This account of my visit to the Angola Festival at the spring did not make it into the final manuscript. 

On a steamy weekend in July 2018,  a three-day festival commemorated Manatee Mineral Spring’s connection to the community of Red Bays in the Bahamas. Residents of Red Bays, which is located on Androse Island, the largest island in the Bahamas, were on hand to give the gathering a distinctive Bahamian flair with island food, music, crafts, and performances by a colorful junkanoo band. it is very possible that these Bahamans were the descendants of Blacks who fled the area in 1821 when forces led by Andrew Jackson destroyed the settlement. 

Speakers from the different organizations who helped create the Angola Festival took turns at the microphone, expressing gratitude and taking a noticeably spiritual tone. A local politician marked the occasion as a new beginning built from the adversity of those who came before.

For me, the highlight of the event, however, was a panel discussion by the archeologists and historians who had worked so hard to uncover Angola’s past.  Historian Cantor Brown, Jr. set the tone for the discussion by proclaiming that the location of the festival should be considered sacred ground and that the Angola settlement was once a bright “beacon of freedom” for people fleeing persecution. Cultural anthropologist Dr. Rosalyn Howard offered observations from the year she spent in Red Bays while working on her book “Looking for Angola” – a study of the residents of a tiny town in the Bahamas that was created by fleeing residents of Angola. Anthropologist Sherry Robinson Svekis talked about the process of applying to the National Park Service for official recognition as an Underground Railroad site and New College Archeologist Uzi Baram revealed the discoveries made in the park that led them to the conclusion that the area surrounding Manatee Mineral Springs was the location of the Back Seminole settlement of Angola. The panel was skillfully moderated by “Looking for Angola” project director Vickie Oldham, who helped reveal that the discovery of Angola was a combination of high-tech science and providence. An underground mapping method called radar tomography was used to determine the “ground truth,” so that the archeologists knew where to dig. They found postholes that indicated they were in the right spot, and previous digs had discovered items from the early nineteenth century such as shards of British pottery and clay pipes. This was physical evidence of a settlement before settler Josiah Gates arrived. But the identification of Angola might not have occurred had Tampa-based Witten Technologies, the company that donated the radar tomography service, not been looking for a place to show-off its high-tech equipment. Their offer to demonstrate their services was “total serendipity” according to Svekis.

Dr. Brown asserted that early Seminole communities in Florida acted as trading posts for other Native American tribes who came south in the winter, much like modern-day Snowbirds. The colorful plumes worn in headdresses seen in portraits and photographs of other tribes were often collected from birds in Florida. It was fertile hunting grounds, rather than the healing waters that attracted these early visitors to the region.

I learned a great deal from this panel, but perhaps my greatest take away was that we have just scratched the surface in our understanding of this community located near present-day Bradenton. It will be exciting to watch for new developments at this small, out-of-the-way spring in Manatee County. Perhaps one day the spring itself will be restored, revealing the role this sacred water has played in our state’s history. 

Archival photograph from the Manatee County Public Library

Archival photograph from the State Archives of Florida

Archival photograph from the Manatee County Public Library

Archival photograph from the Manatee County Public Library

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

The Chalice Well, Glastonbury’s Sacred Red Spring

Note: This account of my visit to the Chalice Well in Glastonbury, England, on my 2018 visit to the UK, was originally written for my book, "Florida's Healing Waters."

One of the first things my wife and I did when arriving in Bath, England was book a day trip to Glastonbury, a nearby village that is setting for legends about such monumental figures as Jesus Christ and King Arthur. Healing waters are prominent in this ancient mythology and I was excited to visit the Chalice Well, described as a sanctuary of “pilgrimage, healing, and peace.”

The sacred well and gardens was an option on the tour, and three of us hopped off the motorcoach while the rest of the group explored the village of Glastonbury. After paying a small admission to the non-profit that maintains the grounds, we entered a lovely landscaped space of extreme tranquility. The water from the spring descends the length of the garden over a series of terraces and is collected in small pools at various points before exiting the site via a serpentine conduit stained red by the chalybeate waters. Benches surrounded the small basin at the lowest level, called the Vesica Pool, and I noticed the other visitors engaged in quiet meditation around the water. As I headed up the hill following the water’s course, I passed under “Guardian” Yew trees, and entered an area called King Arthur’s Court and its “Healing Pool.” Steps led down to a level wading pool, and if I had more time I would have loved to remove my shoes and experience the waters. Around the path were niches and nooks full of silent meditators, and the smell of incense wafted over the grounds. 

At the next level water poured out of a lion’s head and filled two small drinking glasses, and the brochure provided stated that this is the only place in the garden where the water is safe to drink, although moderation was urged. I found the water to have a subtle taste of minerals, and after a quick sip I headed up to the well, the source of the sacred water. The well’s cover was a circular wooden block framed in decorative wrought iron with a symbol of two interlocking circles called a Vesica Pisces – said to represent the “union of heaven and earth” – intersected by a sword (perhaps representing King Arthur). Visitors sat in silence on stone benches around the spring, and the shady glen surrounding it retained a peaceful energy despite the presence of a couple kids who appeared unmoved to be in the presence of this sacred water source. It is at this spot where legend has it that Joseph of Arimathea “buried or washed” the Holy Grail from Last Supper, and the iron-stained waters “miraculously” sprang forth representing the blood of Christ.

In the well-appointed gift shop near the entrance to the gardens, I noticed a painting on note cards and posters of a semi-transparent, mystical-looking goddess figure hovering over the wellhead, her arms lifted forming the shape of a chalice. This rendering of the “Deva of Chalice Well”, a spirit being said to “guide and protect the forces of nature” reminded me of how the hot springs of Bath were first associated with goddess Sulis, and then the Roman Goddess Minerva. For thousands of years, cultures have associated sacred water with feminine energy. That tradition continues in the present day at the Chalice Well.