Bathing with Herbs
I had a great experience last night. Can I tell you about it? I took a bath. A bath with Western Red Cedar–with tea made from the fresh boughs, essential oil, flower essence, capped with a hydrosol and spagyric tincture (via Sean Croke). And it was the best medicine for how I was feeling! See, my own healing journey has been greatly enhanced by regular baths. Ingesting herbs is certainly powerful, but much is absorbed through our skin. And our physical body can hold so much–there’s something about a simple bath that really helps us clear and release. So this is what I’ll share today, along with a bath salt recipe that’s easily adapted to suit your needs.
I’m inspired to write about this because we’re in the season of Water. In Chinese 5-element medicine, Winter is the season of Water–the season and element of cleansing, restoration, gathering reserves for the rapid growth in the springtime. Water holds and conducts energy and intention. So when you need some deep medicine, what better way than to immerse yourself in such a restorative medium?
There are a few ways to bathe with herbs:
- Herbs loose in the bathtub. Little fuss, just toss herbs in and let them go. I personally don’t use this method if there are small plant parts–it’s a strange sensation to have tiny plant pieces in your nether regions and a true nuisance to clean up. I pass.
- Herbs in a muslin bag in the bathtub. Just get a medium to large cloth bag and tuck some loose herbs into it and let it steep in the tub. (You can also do a makeshift bag by taking a section of cloth and tying it with a rubber band.)
- Herbs steeped and strained in a pot on the stove, then poured in the bath. I have to boil water on the stovetop because my water heater is too small. So I usually tie up a bag of herbs or a couple handfuls of branches to be infused while I’m at it. I really like this method.
- Flower or tree essence in the bath. Adding a few drops directly to the bathwater. Flower and tree essence have an affinity for the emotional and spiritual bodies, and have a special affinity for water. Something special happens when you add them to the bath. Have good intentions when you’re working with these.
- Essential oils in the bath. Besides catering to and enlightening our senses, essential oils have medicinal properties. Combining them with a little vegetable glycerine or milk helps them dissolve in the water, rather than float on the top and evaporate.
We’re in deep Winter, and most gathering trips entail visits to the evergreen forests. Naturally, working with tree medicine during Winter comes easily. I especially like working with trees in baths. There’s something about tree leaves infused in water your bathing in that makes you feel like you’re being held by the trees themselves.
It’s really wonderful to get to know Western Red Cedar, if you dont already. This tree is revered in the Northwest rainforests as a giver of life and provider of nourishment. Salish peoples used Thuja plicata for food, medicine, tools, houses, canoes, incense and art materials. Medicinally, T. plicata has antifungal and antiviral properties and can be helpful in conditions of rheumatism, immune depression and coughs. Western Red Cedar can be dried and drank as a tea, infused into oil, tinctured and used in baths. This is a special plant to me, as it was the first plant I got to know on a deep level. The one that opened up the rabbit hole of plant work.
I especially like baths with Western Red Cedar. Here’s the bath I like to do. I like making a mineral bath salt blend. The epsom salts are detoxifying and soothing to tissues. The white clay and borax contain a lot of minerals that nourish & soothe the skin. These earthy elements also ground the experience and pair nicely with plants. (You can substitute freely as you like. Hydrosols, essential oils and spagyrics are definitely very special and may be hard to come by or out of some people’s budgets. They’re a nice addition but not necessary.) So here’s what I do:
- Brew a tea on the stove of cedar fronds using one of the methods above.
- While that’s brewing, I mix the salts. In a bowl, I mix together with a spoon or whisk: 1 cup epsom salts, 2T borax, 2T white clay (found at natural food stores or Mountain Rose Herbs), 3 drops Western Red Cedar tree essence, 7 drops Western Red Cedar essential oil, drizzle of vegetable glycerine or milk (this helps the essential oil dissolve in water).
- Assemble the Bathroom of Awesomeness: light candles, burn some incense, get a book, grab a glass of water or tea, set the bowl of salts near the tub.
- When the bath tea is done brewing, pour it into the tub. Pour in the salts, mixing it through with good intentions and prayers to the Water, Earth minerals and Western Red Cedar.
- When you’re ready, get in! Relax, flutter about, reclaim your mermaid or merman self. Let you mind drift and wander.
- When you’re through, thank the Water, the Earth and the plants. Let the water drain and send it off with blessings for all the bodies of water in your region and on the planet. We’re quite lucky to have access to all this fresh water, so let’s keep that in mind.
Other herbs I like use in the bath are fir, spruce or hemlock boughs, Cottonwood/poplar leaves, Willow leaves, Mugwort. And the sky is truly the limit. Use whatever you are called to! Here are some more ideas & practices around bathing:
- Skin brushing is a great thing to add before bathing. It stimulates the lymphatic system and circulation, and primes the skin quite nicely for some good soakin’. (There’s a good article here about it.)
- Afterwards, put on something really great. Your favorite jammies. Something that smells good.
- Crystals and water have a special affinity to each other. Have some lovely specimens? Have them join the party.
- Get something nice to drink. Fresh well water, wine/cordial, syrup or tea. Healing inside & out. Get a good book too. I like reading something ethereal, like philosophy or fiction. I don’t exactly like reading auto parts catalogs or my phone bills in the bathtub.
- Soak for at least 20 minutes. That way, you can take in all the medicine.
- Use numbers intentionally with formulating. I like odd numbers for clearing and moving, even numbers for stabilizing. So I’ll use 3 herbs, 7 drops of essential oil. You get the idea.
- American hoodoo and Rootwork traditions have a practice called a 9-Herb bath. That is, an herb formula consisting of 9 herbs, brewed into a tea, and poured over the head that many times while praying. Manufacturers keep their formulas secret. I use 9 plants that are sacred to me, and the practice remains the same. 7 and 13-herb variations exists.
- Foot baths area easy, and are especially good at the end of the day. They are very helpful for drawing tension out of the head. Mugwort, Western Red Cedar, Lavender, Thyme footbaths are all transformative.
- For really sore muscles and bones (the kind that need more than a soak and oil rub), try soaking some washcloths in mugwort or cedar tea and heating them on low in the oven. Then work them into areas of soreness, pain or inflammation (if heat won’t aggravate it). It’s really nice.
Looking for more posts? Rebecca at King’s Road Apothecary has a great post on the Indian practice of abyangha, or hot oil bathing, and I’m officially hooked on it. Ananda Wilson at Plant Journeys had a great idea–using your leftover marc for bath tea. She details other uses for the marc too. Check it out.