It is said that at the ancient Roman baths of Caracalla, citizens could choose from twenty types of soaks, including steams and massages, mineral water and oils, friction rubs and saltwater brews. All were designed not only to cleanse, but to heal and beautify.
While it’s true that the ancient Romans lacked the convenience of hot water from the faucet, they were onto something with the healing bath. Herbal soaks can turn your bathtub, whether humble in its setting or ornately constructed, into a spa— a place to relieve tension, soothe aching joints, stimulate circulation, or chase away a cold. All you need is a little herbal know-how and thirty minutes of happy solitude.
8 Basic Bath Steps
1. Reserve the bathroom for yourself when you’re sure you won’t be interrupted, or obtain family support for your thirty minutes of bath time if your only chance for an uninterrupted soak is between midnight and 6 in the morning.
2. Prepare your herbal bath treatment using the instructions below.
3. Shut the door behind you and begin filling the tub with comfortably warm water.
4. As the tub fills, add your herbal bath treatment; if you’re using a diluted herbal essential oil, wait until after you begin your soak to add it to the water (see below).
5. Light a candle or two and turn off the lights.
6. When your tub is ready, immerse yourself in the healing water. Sit back, relax, close your eyes. Roll up a hand towel and place it behind your neck for soft support. Breathe slowly and deeply, inhaling the scent of the herbal bath treatment you’ve chosen.
7. Stay in the bath for as long as you feel comfortable, or no longer than twenty minutes if you’re ill and worried about dehydration. When you’ve finished, pat yourself dry with a clean towel.
8. Put on a clean robe or pajamas and slippers or warm socks. Make yourself a cup of calming herbal tea and relax in an easy chair or in bed, indulging in the effect your herbal bath has had on your body.
5 Basic Baths
Bath Bags: An herbal bath means more than tossing a few sage leaves or lavender flowers into your water. Indeed, this would be a messy way to take an herbal soak. Instead, make an herbal bundle, or “bath bag.”
Select the herb or herbs you wish to try (see the list at left to help you choose). Use dried herbs sold in bulk at your natural food store. Wrap a half-cupful in cheesecloth, securing the bundle tightly with a fairly long string. You can also buy little muslin bags with ties at natural food stores; they’re usually sold near the bulk herb section and cost as little as 35 cents. Hang the bundle from the faucet as you fill the tub. Let it steep for several minutes after you turn off the water, squeeze the bag dry, and discard. If you’re using more than one herb, combine equal parts of each herb before encasing them in the cheesecloth or muslin bag.
Bath Decoctions: For a stronger herbal bath and to use herb roots, barks, and other woody material, make a decoction before you’re ready to take your bath. Place the plant material in a small saucepan, adding enough cold water to cover the herbs, then bring the water to a boil. Remove the pan from the heat and let the material steep for thirty minutes. When you begin to fill the tub, strain the herbal water from the saucepan into the bath, taking care not to let the plant material escape into your bathwater.
Bath Oils: Herbal bath oils are nice when you want to benefit from an herb’s medicinal effects as well as to moisturize your skin. Once you’ve decided on the herb or herbs you wish to use, you can purchase essential oils at your natural food store. Essential oils should be packaged in dark glass bottles and are usually sold in the beauty products section. Use them cautiously because they can irritate when applied directly to the skin (for more about the safe use of essential oils, see page 50). Because of this, you’ll need to mix the essential oil with a carrier oil; sulfated castor oil is good if you want the essential oil to disperse through the bathwater, rather than rest on the surface.
Use three parts carrier oil to one part herbal essential oil and stir gently. After soaking for several minutes, add a little or a lot of the herbal oil to your bathwater, depending on the effect you’re seeking. Adding the oil before you’re in the tub risks letting the oil seal your pores before the bathwater has a chance to dislodge dirt lying just beneath the skin surface.
Click here for a list of the best herbs to infuse in your bath soaks.
Steams: You need to be cautious when the aim of your soak is to ease certain conditions, including a full-blown cold. Soaking can deplete fluids needed to help carry germs out of the body. Steams, however, can help relieve sore throats and other minor respiratory problems without dehydrating.
Prepare an herbal bath bag. Hang it on the faucet of the bathroom sink, then fill the sink with hot water. Let the bag soak for a minute or two before removing it (or let it stay in the water, depending on the strength of herbal scent you desire). If you prefer, add a few drops of diluted herbal essential oil to the water instead of using the bath bag. Sit on a chair or stool, drape a towel over your head, and bend over the herbal steam, inhaling deeply. Let yourself relax in this position for several minutes. Repeat as necessary.
Foot Soaks: Perhaps you’d like to linger in the tub, but you’d also like to spend time relaxing in the recliner. Preparing an herbal foot soak is one way to do this. Beyond being fairly portable, foot soaks can provide as much comfort as a full-body soak as well as herbal healing therapy. In winter, when our feet tend to be bundled in warm socks and tight-fitting shoes all day, fungal infections can occur, including athlete’s foot. Herbs such as tea tree and witch hazel bark and leaves offer an antidote for such minor skin inflammations.
Prepare a tub of water big enough to fit both feet. Add a teaspoon of diluted essential oil of tea tree or a cup of a witch hazel decoction to the water. Get comfortable and let your feet soak; have a towel close by. Be sure to thoroughly dry between your toes because moisture in those areas encourages the growth of the athlete’s foot fungus.