Buddhist monk walking in temple

Ancient examples of wellness rituals

From millenary massages in Thailand to Japanese Zen meditation, through to bathing rituals in Turkey, here are just a few examples of how wellness has become a part of the fabric of a country’s identity.

The home of the Thai massage

In Thailand, wellness is arguably a way of life. There is a reason why Thailand continues to be one of the most sought-after destinations for wellness holidays (and it’s not simply because of the illustrious lure of its golden beaches. Here, well-being is rooted in the history and culture of the place: spas around the world are inspired by ancient Thai traditions and often attempt to recreate their massages and avant-garde treatments that are said to be capable of reviving even the weariest of souls.

The traditional Thai massage

The ancient art of Thai massage is a ritual handed down by Buddhist monks and, at least according to legend, born from the hands of a direct acquaintance of Buddha who was said to use Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine techniques to balance the physical and spiritual. No essential oils or light pressures here: a real Thai massage provides strong and decisive movements, with muscular compressions aimed at stimulating the energy channels. The result? A sense of absolute relaxation and renewed vigour. This ancient technique also benefits the immune system, reduces stress, improves circulation and helps improve posture – a complete 360 ° approach to wellness!

A woman giving a traditional Thai massage
A woman giving a traditional Thai massage

Thai massages can be found across the country; perfect for travellers who are always on-the-go, hopping to their next destination and in need of a little R&R. Bangkok is arguably one of the most popular choices, with its ultra-modern wellness centres and panoramic spas overlooking the city’s skyscrapers. But the true essence of Thai wellbeing is perhaps found next to the sea, in the many island spa resorts that rise among the coconut trees and white beaches that adorn the coast – Ko Samui, Phuket and Ko Pha Ngan are just a few highlights.

Japan: a journey of self-discovery and ancient meditation

On Mount Koya, south of Osaka, there are dozens of Buddhist monasteries. They are known locally as ‘shukubō’ and have always offered lodging to pilgrims and travellers passing through. Today they are sought out by those searching for a new-found sense of inner peace. Whoever finds themselves on Mount Koya’s hallowed ground is preparing for a journey of self-discovery and introspection. Led by ancient techniques from the Buddhist way of life, a stay here will put you well on your way to achieving the ultimate ‘zen’.

Monk meditating in a traditional Japanese monastery
Monk meditating in a traditional Japanese monastery

Meditation in a Japanese monastery

A typical day in a Buddhist monastery starts in the early hours of the morning when the monks dedicate themselves to prayer. The sitting meditation, also known as ‘zazen’, is practised in absolute silence and begins with the tolling of a bell. It’s not for the faint of heart and requires rigour, calm, and immense concentration in order to acquire awareness of oneself and one’s body. It is designed to free you from superfluous thoughts, exclude the external world and allow the mind to untie itself from persistent obstacles. The benefits are bountiful, and as such the discipline of meditation and mindfulness is increasingly being used to challenge anxiety and depression, to alleviate fears and stress, and to rebalance emotions. Meditating is, in short, a life lesson, and a trip to Japan has the power to impart some immense teachings that are necessary to continue on this lifelong path.

Japanese spirituality is plentiful and can be found not only in the traditional temples scattered in rural landscapes but also in the major cities. Kyoto is a great choice for an introduction to meditation and will help combat the whirlwind of sightseeing and tourist activities going on around you. A visit to the Zen garden of the Ryoanji temple declared a world heritage site by UNESCO and considered the most famous in all of Japan, is a must. Sprinkled with gravel raked in waves and characterised by 15 rocks, it is meant to be observed in the classic position of meditation. The reason being; only when seated can you notice that the 15 rocks are never all visible at any one time. It is a physical metaphor for the reality that surrounds us, and how it is impossible to see and understand everything at once.

Turkey: wellness through purification

The ancient tradition of the hammam (or Turkish bath) is inspired by the thermal baths of ancient Rome and is one of the cornerstones of Turkish culture. Once used as a substitute for a private bathroom (not all houses had one), as well as a place for social gathering, today the hammam remains one of the unmissable experiences of every trip to Turkey. Istanbul is littered with historic Hammans all characterised by the typical architectural domed structure of the Ottoman period. Among the most striking is one in Cağaloğlu which dates back to the first half of the 1700s, and that of Çemberlitaş, built in the late 1500s.

The equipment for a classic hammam session
The equipment for a classic hammam session

A classic hammam session

What does a hammam session involve? Inside the Hamman are three passages, each assigned to a different room in the structure. The treatment begins in the ‘camekan’, an atrium for preparation and relaxation. You then pass to the ‘sogokluk’, a transition area that is located before the main room, which is called ‘hararet’. It is in the latter that, wrapped in steam, the actual treatment is carried out: the choice to do it alone or not is up to you. The traditional form of treatment requires it to be carried out by the hands of a skilled professional. The first phase of the ritual is a vigorous scrub with a horsehair glove, aimed at eliminating dead skin cells, which is then followed by an energetic massage and a final rinse of the body with warm water and soap.

The process may be a little less relaxing for novices but try to focus on the aftermath of benefits; in addition to having a calming effect on the nervous system, a hammam session can improve circulation and relieve joint pain. However, it is your skin that will benefit the most which will instantly feel silky and smooth.