By Robin Catalano as featured in Vacations Fall magazine · September 2022
From thermal pools to floating spas, taking advantage of the innate healing powers of water is good for the body and soul.
I float, nearly weightless, on my back in the warm lagoon. The water muffles the sound of nearby conversation and fans out my hair like a halo. Overhead, rain clouds drift across a slate-colored sky. I close my eyes and inhale; salt air filling my nostrils. Here in the water, without a phone or computer or other distractions, time stands still.
I came to Sky Lagoon, a brand-new wellness facility outside of Reykjavik, to experience their signature seven-step healing ritual. Rooted in the centuries-old Icelandic tradition of communal bathing, the treatment includes dry and steam sauna, a salt scrub, and alternating warm- and cold-water therapies. The centerpiece was the geothermal lagoon. Whether standing under the manmade waterfall, reclining on a rock seat with a glass of wine from the walk-up bar, or looking out over the edge of the infinity pool at the Atlantic Ocean, I feel relaxed and at peace.
There’s plenty of science to back up my experience. Wallace J. Nichols, a marine biologist and author of Blue Mind, points out some basics: all life on Earth comes from water and 60 per cent of the human body is liquid. We spend the first 9.2 months of our lives underwater. Without it, we would cease to exist in less than a week’s time.
“When we see, hear, smell, taste, or notice in any way the presence of water, there’s an emotional and biological response,” he says. “Your body responds to the presence or absence of water, or even the idea of its presence or absence. It’s that important to maintaining life.”
While green spaces have gotten the lion’s share of attention for their mental-health benefits, blue spaces – everything from streams and waterfalls to rivers, lakes and oceans – have more pronounced healing effects. Water lacks the visual and auditory stimulation of a green space such as a hiking trail, where its terrain and hundreds of plants, trees and animals command your attention. The sound of the water, whether trickling or rushing in waves, creates a soothing “bubble of silence or privacy,” explains Nichols. There’s also the somatic experience of being splashed by waves, wading into a lake or, in my case, floating in a lagoon.
Cultures with community bathing traditions have long understood water’s ability to boost clarity and promote calm. Viktoria Seavey, a life coach and mentor, grew up in Hungary, where thermal baths are common. On a recent trip home, she spent several hours at Thermal Hotel Visegrád’s Lepence Spa. “The water in the mineral pools was so buoyant that you could actually feel the bubbles on your skin. It was magical,” she says. “I literally had no jet lag. Water just resonates with the human body.”
Resorts are now honing in this connection with a plethora of unique water-based therapies. At Banyan Tree Mayakoba in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, a practitioner of Wave Stretch gently cradles, massages, and stretches guests in the water. Coco Collection in the Maldives offers a unique coral reef gardening program, as well as floating breakfast in the private infinity pool of each overwater villa. At Tofino Resort + Marina in Vancouver, travelers boat out in the Clayoquot Sound, part of a stunning UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, to experience cold plunges and heat therapy in a floating sauna. And ‘Alohilani Resort in Oahu, Hawaii, has a traditional Hi’uwai ceremony, in which visitors immerse themselves in the ocean at sunrise to “purify” mind, body and spirit.
Sometimes these therapies prompt physical and personal transformation. Following cancer treatment, Anne Ilyinsky developed radiation fibrosis and blood clots in her left arm, which led to a frozen shoulder. While on vacation at the Lake Austin Spa Resort in Austin, Texas, she tried AquaStretch, a fusion of myofascial release and massage conducted in a warm pool.
After a 50-minute session, Ilyinsky had full range of motion in her arm for the first time in more than a year. “At different points of the session, I could feel something pop or release,” she recalls. “And with that came a lot of emotion. It was both a release of the tissues and of fear. It became almost spiritual.”
According to Nichols, there’s no specific “prescription” for how much we should expose ourselves to water, but 20 minutes several times a week has shown promising results. Even if you live in a place that lacks blue spaces, he explains, you can substitute with manmade ones – for example, a swimming pool or a bathtub.
“We are water beings on a water planet,” says Nichols. “If the eight billion people on Earth understood blue mind and practiced it somewhat regularly, it would transform our public health and the environment. We would have a different value equation for the river that runs through our town, and for ourselves.”
Main Image Credit: Sky Lagoon