Bathing, the daily chore or indulgence we've come to know as a way to wake up and scrub ourselves clean, is actually much more than a simple hygiene regimen. In many cultures, it's seen as the final step in a detoxifying process that can begin with circulation, digestion, breath, sleep, or even thoughts and emotions.
Nowhere is this approach more evident than with Ayurveda. Ayurvedic "bathing" goes beyond soaking in a warm tub. It essentially consists of nurturing the body inside and out by balancing within ourselves the forces of the five elements: water, air, earth, fire, and space (which encompasses all of the others).
One way this is done is with several types of internal cleanings. For example, an air bath consists of deep breathing and focused awareness of the breath. "Air bathes the lungs, while feeding oxygen to the whole body and purifying it," says Sudhakar Selote, a visiting consultant at The Raj, an Ayurvedic health center in Fairfield, Iowa.
A space bath uses deep meditation to extend purification to all areas of the mind and body, according to Pratima Raichur, author of Absolute Beauty (Harper Collins, 1997). A fire bath involves consuming spicy, warm foods and beverages to stimulate the digestive system and increase circulation, while a water bath—drinking water and herbal teas—hydrates and detoxifies the body.
Another aspect of Ayurvedic bathing involves the three doshas—vata (air), pitta (fire), and kapha (earth)—which are said to govern all mental and physical aspects. Everyone has a predominant dosha, and keeping that force balanced means following a certain lifestyle, including diet and exercise. For traditional bathing, Melanie Sachs, author of Ayurvedic Beauty Care (Lotus Press, 1994), suggests bathwater temperatures should be suited to one's dosha. For example, vata types fare better in warm to hot water; kaphas gravitate toward warmer temperatures, too, but the already fiery pittas might want to run a cooler bath.
Doshas are also balanced by certain essential oils. In Ayurveda, oils are recognized for their ability to anoint the body and harmonize the mind. In fact, Ayurveda prescribes an oil massage before bathing, says Selote, as the warm water will allow the oil to penetrate skin tissues more deeply and help mobilize toxins in the body.
As for adding essential oils to bathwater, rose, rosewood, rose geranium, and neroli work well for exuding calm and warmth with vatas. For pitta types, calming and soothing oils for the skin and mind include jasmine (for women) and vetiver (for men), as well as mint and lemon. Kaphas can be stimulated and uplifted by rosemary, juniper, orange, and bergamot oils. However, soaps are generally discouraged in Ayurveda, says Sachs, "as they can be too scouring for dry types, causing dryness for vata and skin irritation for pitta."