By Rebecca Altman, chief herbalist, mischief maker and curator of fine plant matter atKings Road Apothecary.
Water both scares and excites me. Unlike my husband who can't stay away from the stuff, I have a healthy respect for it due to a. being a not-so-strong swimmer and b. two almost drowning incidents on the sea shore. I grew up on the water, some of my earliest memories are of the smell of boat, of the sound of water lapping against the hull as I drift off to sleep, of the sounds of halyards tinking against masts and seagulls squawking as the wind picks up. Of sea spray, and of the terror that overwhelms me when land disappears from sight. Even now, when the depth radar goes to 'too bloody deep' and there's no land, I start thinking about being swallowed. Of things like the Marianas Trench with its crushing darkness. Of what exactly is and could be down there, and of the crushing fluidity of it all. Out on the sea, one is truly and absolutely subject to the elements. Water and air, colliding on a surface, and us, tiny people, on the frontier.
Water is in us and water is outside of us. Water that seeps through our skin and water that we drink to quench thirst. Water, life provider, water as the primordial ooze that we emerged from billions of years ago. Water as our great ancestral mother and water as the soothing coolness that fills our bodies from the inside. Water heals. Water is sacred. Water is one primitive drive that we all have both towards and away from, in longing and in fear. Water is gentle, water can kill in no time at all, and water can heal. From the salt that dissolves in it to the blood in our veins, to the healing springs that bubble forth from deep below the earths crust, to a handful of herbs sprinkled over a hot pot and left to infuse as the water ekes out the goodness, and then there it is, the beauty of the elements: they are as powerful as the hand that wields them.
And water can be medicine. Alone, its hydrotherapy: the use of hot and cold water to draw circulation to and from places. Got an injury? Jump in the shower and blast the area with water as hot as you can bear for a couple of minutes, and follow that with 30 seconds of cold. Repeat, a couple of times, and you'll stimulate circulation to the area. I'd almost guarantee swifter recovery (especially if you use Busted Joint Ointment at the same time ;)).
There's the cold sock treatment, and the cold wet rag on throat treatment*. There's hot springs and cold springs and plunging oneself into an ice cold lake after a hot sauna. And then there's my favourite: the bath.
My old apartment lacked a bath tub. I would curl up on my side onto the floor of the shower, blasting the hot water, pretending. It didn't work. One of the reasons I moved in with Jam was that he had a bathtub. True story. In our bathroom, we have a few big buckets: Epsom salt (available in bulk here); Mustard salt bath. And then we have a shelf with bath scrubs-- I like to take a big scoop, scrub myself down and then let the oils float to the top of the bath. My all-time favourite, however, is the herbal bath. With a big pot of water on the stove and a handful of herbs simmered until the water is dark and fragrant. There is magic in these baths, deep and powerful.
Skin is absorbent, and its our biggest organ. Like a giant waterproof lung creating a permeable barrier between our bodies and the world. Everything you put on your skin is absorbed into your blood stream. Absolutely everything. Sitting back into a hot kava bath, for example, and within minutes the effects of the kava have penetrated your skin. You feel relaxed, you feel slightly woo-woo, and you feel, well, good. I add meadowsweet, and do the two in combination. The kava relaxes and unwinds your mimd, while the meadowsweet eases aches and pains, and the result is a pretty darn relaxed, social and all around good-feeling night.
Conifer baths are a glorious thing- simmer fir, spruce or pine needles until they've made a strong brew, and add to your bath for a fragrant, anti-inflammatory and somewhat expectorant bath (really, if there's grunge in your lungs, after bathing in the stuff you'll hack it up). Lavender baths relax the liver, until you're so comfortable with the present moment that you don't remember what you were worrying about in the first place. Ginger and mustard baths warm and stimulate the circulation making your fingers tingle and your toes feel on fire which, in the middle of the winter, can be a beautiful thing. Chapparal baths smell like the desert, especially with a sprinkling of desert lavender in there. Its anti-fungal and kills anything it comes into contact with (jock itch, athlete's foot, you name it), and I'm not sure how it'd smell to a non-desert lover but to me its glorious. Rosemary stimulates circulation and smells good to boot (though careful if you tend towards high blood pressure because it can give you a nasty headache), Bladderwrack is pain-relieving, slimy, good for the skin and chock full of iodine (and bathing in it is a lot more pleasurable than drinking it, in my opinion). Eucalyptus for your respiratory tract, Arnica for joint pain, linden because its sweet, relaxing, heart-opening and beautiful, and mugwort, for the aromatics, for the blood-moving, for the crazy dreams you'll have afterwards and for the ache-easing of both body and heart.
Favourite combinations include kava+meadowsweet for either joint pain or stress relief or both (and if the pain is really bad a dropper of arnica tincture); Eucalptus+Rosemary for feeling like you're full of grunge; Douglas fir + pine for inflamed and sluggish and desperately in need of some fresh air; Chapparal + Desert lavender for missing the desert so much my heart hurts; Bladderwrack for sore joints and wanting to play Siren for the night (it is, however, required to lie in the bath and sing); Ginger + mustard for the kind of cold that seeps to your bones and makes you think that you're never going to be able to move properly again; Linden + lavender, for the kind of sweet relaxation that makes you smile dreamily all evening; and mugwort + motherwort for achy moon time when you just want to sink into the earth and close your eyes and bite the head off anybody who tries to disturb you.
Simmer the herbs in a big pot on the stove for at least 20 minutes. I do about 2 cups of herbs per 2 gallons of water; you can find your own amount as you might like more or less. Then strain through a sieve and add to the bath.
Candles and a dark room are, of course, a must.
Almost all the above are available from Mountain Rose Herbs; I recommend buying equal quantities of whatever you're using, putting them all together with big labels in big jars in whatever blends you so desire.
And in April, for my Monthly Herbal Surprise Box I'll be sending out a herbal bath infusion, so if you'd like to receive a special bath, you can sign up.
And if you've made it this far, tell me please, what are your favourite herbal baths?
*For flu: wet socks, covered with dry wool socks, to stimulate fever. For sore throat: cold wet rag over the throat until it warms: stimulates circulation to the area; works wonders.