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 vows of their alleged merits have endured to the modern 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.