An Aquatic Immersive Prayer To The Body
For some, bathing is a basic necessity, part of an amenity. To others, a luxury. For all, an archaic way of saluting hygiene through a potentially sacred practicality. For me, a pleasure, a central nervous system survival mechanism, and discipline of self love.
Last year, when looking for a new place of residence, I had two non-negotiables; a bathtub and limited to no road noise. I guess both of these elements are synonymous to my now ritualised practice of bathing. For over fifteen years, I have revelled and turned this hygienic necessity into an art, a ritualised practice. Thats the thing with ritual… It doesn’t have to involve complex and complicated occult craft. It doesn’t have to include mantra of ancient language or tools of rare feather and stone. There are times for this kind of structured ritual but ritual can be as simple as breath, it can have just one or two elements and no words at all.
Through my observation of her, my mother taught me about the simplicity of ritual. I would sit and watch her moisturise her naked body after a shower or notice the precise ways in which she nurtured her cup of coffee in a particular way, in a particular mug at a particular time of her day. I noticed through her unjustifiable mindfulness that any basic activity that infers meaning to your life can become ritual; an activity with personal meaning; a salut to the very physical world that we perform within every day.
For me, bathing became that simple ritual.
Warm water, vessel, time. And Silence (if available). Bathing became that salut to this physical body and its sometimes overlooked cleansing aids.
I remember, as a fourteen year old, coming home from a twelve hour school day after lots of travel, stimulation and teenage social politic. The first thing I would do as twilight became of our surroundings was run the bath. The bathtub in the home I grew up in is still vital in my bodily and visual memory. It was deep, it was porcelain and it was a light blue/aqua colour. The taps were old and the tub filled quickly. It was a time I remember vividly because now as a twenty nine year old, I travel back there often through memory to witness a time that I loved and respected myself in purity and innocence as a budding woman, a budding adult. It was before I had my first boyfriend and a time before the penetration set in; the penetration of what others think a body should look like.
As humans in a socialised world, we all have versions of this precipice in perception. For me, it was before the invasion of a gaze telling of what a female body should look like. With the innocence of my own gaze; a gaze that did not include the lens of others, I would lie as a young woman, exhausted, in the warm bath. I would admire my skin, my legs, and then smaller artful shapes like the way my thigh bent into my calf at the inside of the knee. I would admire my stomach, my breasts and my olive feet looking back at me. Most of all, I would relax and experience the absolute joy of sensation as the hot water permeated the resistances of a body that had spent the day in a world, in others worlds. I would read, drink tea and be so very quiet.
Sometimes, I would invite friends into my bathing world.
One winters day when we were fifteen, a friend and I had a bath before going to see a movie. We laughed and chatted and she shaved my legs for me ! Fifteen years later, we still look upon this bath time - this intimate act of shared body maintenance - as a foundational experience of our depthy friendship. In the past, I have been known to run the bath at friends’ houses before or after a night out.
A memory of running a bath at a friend’s after a night out- she sat on the floor next to me while I immersed into my own bit of sublime oblivion. I read her my most recent poetry and she showed me images that she loved from an Egon Scheile book. Nudity was the least exposing element. Another memory is of a friend coming over on (another) winters day. We bought cake, placed it on nice plates, ran a bath and then ate the cake in a bath.
Many years later, I would watch this same friend birth her first baby in a warm bath leaning back into her husband.
My Mother used to send my younger sister and I to the Japanese Onsens in Melbourne. This first experience of collective bathing was heartening and made a lot of sense. We loved the rawness of the scrubbing, the hot water and the unselfconscious group nudity. Once, my oldest sister came home from a trip overseas and recounted her almost exalted experience in an all female Turkish bath house. She told us about the older woman who roughly scrubbed every inch of her naked body in a loving, dutiful and maternal way. A deep part of my spirit leant in. A whole part of me leant in to this story of a bathing culture that did not exist here in Australia but a culture that I yearned for in its sudden archaic bone-deep familiarity.
Once, housemates and I threw a house warming party and about three quarters in to the party, I got that bathy feeling and ran the big beautiful tub. I recruited two friends and we kept refilling with hot water for about three hours while various other friends popped in to bring us fresh cold beer.
A former boyfriend and I used to bathe near-daily in his upstairs bathroom overlooking a large Autumnal Tuscan olive grove. He didn’t quite understand my near-daily bone-warming bathing needs but would join me nonetheless. When he didn’t join me, he would arrive with deliveries of gelati and/or wine. Because of the plumbing of the house, to simply run the bath would take an hour. We would undress together and just lie there submerged, talking and relaxing, looking into each other’s eyes and at each others bodies. There was a silent post bathing oath: He would let me wear his comfy bath robe if I partook in the duty of towel drying his whole body (the effort of post bath drying was stressful and strenuous, negating bath effects). That same bathtub would help me heal with its warm immersive waters as we parted ways the next Spring, in the presence of the climbing-blooming fig tree outside the bathroom window.
There are times to bathe alone and times to bathe with another. With water as a powerful conductor, it makes sense that a lot of integrative and healing capacities are available bathing both alone and together. The symbiotic somatic vibrations of sharing yourself with water, sharing your water with another are resonant to our own physiological watery makeup.
Like many versions of ritual activity, bathing can become void of time and space. As well as a sensorially pleasurable experience, bathing can offer an opportune time to carve out a watery excuse to just exist. I rest the my occiput, that bony base of my skull, on the edge of the bath and literally unwind through relieving the resistances, the tensions of this busy mind, these busy minds. The unwinding, the resting, gives permission to that strained organ, the brain itself, to find its rightful place again, floating in cerebrospinal fluid- floating in warm water.
Currently, my bathing ritual has many variations depending on time, mood, and available accessories. Magnesium bath salts for strained muscles, candles, incense, self prescribed essential oils, books and, when my farm grown roses are wilting in the vase, a cover of fresh rose petals. Another bathing routine is to use the ash from the Vedic science of ‘Agnihotra’, a sunrise/sunset fire actioned to cleanse the internal and external environment of distorted energies. Floating in a black ash bath has its own archetypical resonances that I haven’t quite identified but always leaves me bright-eyed and clear-minded. My toilet seat has become a platform for many a bath infused Netflix series. Every time I travel a strenuous or long distance, the full, calm and warm bathtub is my first port of call. Bathing after travel has a soothing and grounding effect on the nervous system, making it a special tool in adjusting to new timezones.
As life has become and traveled on, I have witnessed, read about, explored “reasons” as to why warm water immersion and bathing is good for the bodymind. Though the reasoning is not necessary to an already meaningful part of mine and others’ lives, it shows some kind of primitive equation, a collective comfort that we all find in bathing, alone and together. Allowing a time to incubate and integrate soul through relaxed musculature in the warmth of post-amniotic waters.
Because of the amniotic memory of warm water, I do believe that through mindful bathing, there is a chance to use the bathing process to be reborn again and again; to let our bodies remember that original immersion, the peaceful and sometimes not so peaceful times in which we lay growing and surrendered to our mother, the broader force and her broader forces and tides.
Just before releasing the plug and stepping out of the bath, I notice the water holding my body, I notice myself inhabiting my body. I notice my choice to bathe and how the water now holds a memory of my body’s experience. I thank the water for its cleansing properties and I release all that has been washed.
I thank myself for the simple ritual of activism; the activism of truly inhabiting a body and for truly inhabiting a body of water.