Spa: Health & Wellness History of Spa and hydrotherapy

What is SPA?

While spa services and environments differ, what they all have in common is that they offer the consumer HEALTH & WELLNESS services.

What does this include?

Massage Therapy / Body work / Shiatsu / Thai Massage

Body Treatments: facials, wraps, salt glows, scrubs, muds, paraffin, brushing, etc

Exercise & Fitness regimens

Programs: nutrition, weight loss, smoking cessation, illness treatment, detoxification

Spiritual Renewal: yoga, meditation, labyrinth walking, spiritual awakening

Cosmetic Treatments: skin rejuvenation, cellulite treatment, cosmetic surgery

A $10 Billion Industry

In 2005, there were over 130 million spa visits in the United States alone!!!

Why is this industry growing and what part do massage therapists play in it?

Whether or not you as a therapist want to work in a spa setting or just augment your own practice, the therapies we will learn will be very beneficial! You will be able to make yourself more marketable, add more experience to your resume and most importantly... care for your clients health and well being!

The History of Spa

The origin of the term "spa" is unknown, but there are a couple of theories floating out there about it's origins. The letters S-P-A were often seen as graffiti on the walls of the ancient Roman baths and may be an acronym for a Latin phrase meaning "healing through water". There was also a small village named Spa in the mountains of Belgium that was well known for it's natural mineral springs. Roman soldiers used to stop there to rejuvenate themselves and cure ailments. Either way, the work "spa" has become synonymous in the English language and around the world with relaxation, restoration and rejuvenation!

Water as Medicine

Water has long since been considered a source of healing. Without it, we as humans, can not survive. All throughout civilization, archaeologists have found evidence of hydrotherapy and baths as used for health and wellness.

Water, or hydrotherapy has been and is still being used to treat both physiological and psychological disorders. The spiritual aspect of water and healing has also been a key aspect in many cultures. We as massage therapists know that the body works in harmony with itself, and so as we learn about these therapies, we can make that body/mind/spirit connection.

Hot springs, mineral springs, and ocean water have all been an integral part of the communities that surround them, as people for centuries have used these as not only a way to bathe, but also supplied it's patrons with vital minerals and vitamins.

Origins of Organized Spas


By the 5th century BC, Greeks were already immersed in the belief of healing properties of water and recognized the connection between personal hygiene and health. They used cold and hot water, steam baths, sponges, oil rinses and a metal scraping instrument (the first record of EXFOLIATION).

Hippocrates, the "Father of Modern Medicine" originated the use of water at different temperatures to cure different ailments and illnesses. He prescribed water treatment, herbs, exercise and nutrition as treatment for many common conditions such as gout, fever, hemorrhages, ulcers and rheumatism. He also prescribed water as a calming treatment for those dealing with mental illness.

The Greeks introduced water treatments and hygiene practices to the Romans, as well as massage, exercise, compresses and fomentations.


The Romans began using baths as a hygiene practice, but after Emperor Augustus was cured of illness by cold baths, bathing became very popular. The Roman physicians began incorporating baths into their remedies, and the "balnea" or community baths more and more popular. The baths were recreated on a massive scale and could accommodate even up to 6,000 bathers.

These magnificent baths became the center for health and wellness, as well as social interaction. The typical bath grew to accommodate over 10,000 bathers daily. Originally only the wealthy could afford to enjoy the benefits of the baths, but over time even the working class were able to enjoy them as well. Romans would go daily to bathe, receive massage, relax and listen to poetry.

These intricate baths had many different rooms and areas where the bathers could receive different treatments. Cold, hot and tepid rooms, with various treatments from water to steam and pools to swim and bathe in.

Spa Therapy and the Rest of the World

The Russian banya and the Finnish sauna are used for hot vapor baths and evolved from portable sweat lodges used by nomadic tribes. They used the cold ice water and then the steam and vapor to connect spiritually and also for health and relaxation... and also became places of community ritual.

In the Middle East, "hammams" were Turkish baths closely resembled the Roman baths. Hebrews also bathed in congruence with their religion. These hammams used hot air rooms to cause perspiration and then splashed themselves with cold water, and then back to a warm room to receive a massage. These are still in use today in the Turkish community.

Japan is also known for its thermally active areas, which have created thousands of natural hot springs throughout the country. Hot spring bathing has been in use there for over 1,000 years. "Onsens" are natural, mineral soaked hot springs where people go to soak and relax. "Sentos" were created in communities that were not near a natural hot springs. In Japan, people wash and cleanse their bodies before entering the bath.

The Americas

Native Americans used hot springs and sweat lodges, where water was poured onto hot stones to create steam. These were used in rituals and also for healing. The idea was that by creating perspiration, they could sweat out impurities of both body and mind and cleanse themselves.

The Decline of Hydrotherapy

After the Roman collapse, bath houses went into decay and the practice was lost. Then with the rise of Christianity, bathing was considered self indulgent and unhealthy and was forbidden. The use of heavy perfumes and cosmetics came into use to mask the smells of body odor, and the practices of good hygiene were lacking. This had a huge impact on the health and wellness practices, and shifted away from the use of water as a healing therapy. Islamic countries kept the practice of bathing alive and continued to use it for healing and health.

The Resurgence of Hydrotherapy

After the medieval era, thanks to St. Thomas Aquinas, the philosophies of Aristotle were reintroduced. Henry VIII also reinstated the use of baths, although the mystical properties of healing caused these bathing places to become places of pilgrimage for those looking for a miracle. The baths also became a gathering place for political dissidents, and so the English made the bathing houses more prominent in the everyday community.

In the 16th century, as part of the Renaissance, there was a renewed interest in medicine and bathing for health. All over Europe the baths started popping up and physicians started using science to analyze the minerals and chemical makeup of the natural springs to better recommend treatments for their patients. Daniel Fahrenheit invented the thermometer which was a major step forward for hydrotherapy. Dr. Sydenham also began to challenge the current medical practices and reintroduced the teachings of Hippocrates and the use of water to treat illness.

Many other doctors and philosophers followed suit and brought the medical community back to a place where it was recognized that bathing and hygiene was paramount to health and vitality. The use of seawater was also reintroduced as a healing treatment, and hydrotherapy was reborn.

Vincent Preissnitz, through experience with traumatic events in his life revived the ancient cold water healing treatments and went on to start a clinic where he performed the "Preissnitz Cure" - a regimen of wrapping the body in cold sheets, cold baths, fresh air, healthy diet and physical exercise. He experimented with many water healing techniques and was majorly influential in bringing the world's attention to hydrotherapy. His clinic, now called a SPA is still in operation today.

Father Sebastian Kneipp went on to use these teachings to cure himself of tuberculosis. He is known as the "Father of Hydrotherapy" and used it to treat many of his parishioners and published his book "My Water Cure" in which he coined the five fundamental principles of treatment:

1. Hydrotherapy: thermal and mechanical water applications and baths

2. Kinesiotherapy: movement, exercise and massage

3. Phytotherapy: natural herbal remedies, teas, oils and juices

4. Nutrition: a well balanced diet

5. Regulative Therapy: mental, emotional and spiritual balance in one's life

Father Kneipp's approach to health was truly holistic, and was integral in educating people about balancing work and relaxation, living in harmony with their bodies, and taking responsibility for their own health. Over 200 spas in Germany offer his version of hydrotherapy as a treatment. This is the model that is predominantly used in European spas and also some in American spas today.

Benedict Lust was inspired, after being cured by Kneipps treatment protocol to combine this with other natural remedies including homeopathy, psychology, and bony manipulation, and thus formed the foundation of the Naturopathic Medicine as it is known today.

Dr. John Bastyr, known as the "Father of Naturopathic Medicine" was also influenced by Kneipp's philosophies through his mother who was a student, and his father who was a pharmacist. He combined his understanding of science and naturopathy to establish the National College of Naturopathic Medicine where he focused on educating in modalities such as hydrotherapy, homeopathy, botanical medicine, nutrition and chiropractics.

Dr. Kellog (with the help of Ellen White) coined the term "sanitarium" which became a place where people would come to restore their bodies to good health. This was again a major step in naturopathy as a major form of healthcare.


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