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