When a particular practice has been popular for centuries, especially across cultures - it's important we take it seriously. Take weightlifting, for example. People of all cultures have been lifting weights for thousands of years as a way to improve their fitness. It’s as effective today, as it was then. Whilst the technology and methods change over time - the principles do not.
Ice baths are no exception. For centuries, people across cultures have been exposing themselves to cold water for a variety of reasons. Ancient cultures from around the world, including the Greeks, Romans, Japanese, and Scandinavians, all incorporated cold water therapy into their daily lives.
While these cultures may have had different reasons for using cold water therapy, such as physical health, mental toughness or spiritual cleansing, the practice remains popular today for its numerous benefits, with modern science supporting what those ancient cultures knew.
In this article, we will dive into the historical origins and uses of cold water therapy across cultures, and how these practices have influenced the modern use of ice bath tubs and other cold water immersion techniques.
ice bathing in ancient greece and rome
The Ancient Greeks and Romans are two of the most well-known civilisations in history, and both cultures believed in the healing powers of water. Both Greeks and Romans incorporated cold water immersion into their daily routines and religious practices.
In ancient Greece, the Hippocratic Corpus, a collection of medical texts written between the 5th and 3rd centuries BC, mentions the use of cold water immersion to treat a variety of ailments. Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine and often referred to as the grandfather of cryotherapy, believed that cold water had healing properties and prescribed cold water baths for patients with fever, inflammation, and even mental health issues.
The Greeks also incorporated cold water immersion into their religious practices. The goddess Hygieia, who was responsible for the health and well-being of the people, was often depicted holding a serpent and a bowl of water, symbolising the healing powers of water.
Similarly, the Romans believed in the therapeutic properties of cold water immersion. Roman bathhouses were a central part of Roman culture and were designed not just for hygiene, but also for relaxation and socialisation. The Roman writer and philosopher Seneca once said, "The baths cleanse the body, but they also serve to cleanse the soul."
The Romans also believed that cold water immersion had the power to rejuvenate the body and mind. Emperor Augustus, who ruled from 27 BCE to 14 CE, was known to take cold water baths regularly to stay healthy and invigorated.
Both cultures believed in the power of cold water immersion to promote physical and mental well-being, and their practices have influenced the use of cold water therapy throughout history.
ice bathing in ancient japan
In ancient Japan, hot springs (onsen) have been an important part of the culture for centuries. However, cold water immersion, known as "mizugori," also had its place in Japanese history.
Samurai warriors, in particular, were known to take cold baths after training or battle. It was believed that the cold water helped to relieve muscle fatigue and promote recovery. Additionally, the practice was considered a way to toughen the mind and body, as enduring the discomfort of the cold water was seen as a form of discipline and resilience.
One famous example of this was the story of Musashi Miyamoto, a legendary samurai warrior who was said to have trained by standing in a freezing river during the winter months. This practice, known as "mizugumo," was said to have helped him build mental fortitude and endurance.
Even outside of the samurai culture, cold water immersion was also used for its health benefits. Traditional Japanese medicine believes that hot and cold therapies help to balance the body's energy flow, or "ki." Cold water was thought to stimulate the body's yang energy, which is associated with activity, strength, and warmth.
Today, the practice of cold water immersion is still popular in Japan, with some onsens even offering ice baths as an option for visitors. The benefits of mizugori are still widely believed, and the tradition continues to be an important part of Japanese culture.
ice bathing in scandinavia
No article on the history of Ice Baths across cultures would be complete without mentioning our Scandanavian friends - where things can get proper cold.
Fun-fact - our name snötub was taken from the Swedish word for snow - snö.
In Scandinavia, cold water immersion has been a part of the culture for centuries, dating back to the Vikings. The Norse sagas describe the use of ice baths and swimming in ice-cold water as part of their daily life. They believed that cold water immersion could help them to become stronger and more resilient, both mentally and physically.
In Finland, a tradition called "avantouinti" (ice swimming) has been practiced for over 100 years. This involves swimming in a hole cut into the ice, often followed by a sauna session. The Finns believe that this ritual helps to improve circulation and overall health.
In Sweden, a similar tradition called "bastu" (sauna) has been practiced for centuries. This involves spending time in a sauna, followed by a dip in a cold lake or river. The Swedes believe that this ritual helps to purify the body and improve mental well-being.
Today, cold water immersion remains popular in Scandinavia, with many people incorporating ice baths and cold showers into their daily routines. It's seen as a way to improve overall health and well-being, and is often viewed as a way to connect with nature and the elements.
The list goes on.
In addition to the Ancient Greeks and Romans, Ancient Japanese, and Scandinavians, there are several other cultures throughout history that have also used cold water immersion for various purposes.
One such culture is the ancient Egyptians, who were known to take cold baths in the Nile River as a way to invigorate their bodies and promote health. The Egyptians also believed that cold water could help purify the body and protect it from illness.
In China, the practice of cold water immersion has been used for thousands of years as part of traditional Chinese medicine. The ancient Chinese believed that exposure to cold water could help balance the body's energy and promote healing. They also used cold water therapy as a way to improve mental clarity and focus.
In more recent times, the Russian tradition of the banya or steam bath, which involves alternating between hot and cold water immersion, has been used for centuries as a way to promote health and wellness. In Russia, the banya is seen as a place of purification and social gathering, with many Russians visiting their local banya on a regular basis.
Overall, the practice of cold water immersion has a long and diverse history, with many cultures throughout the world embracing its benefits for both physical and mental health.
Ice bathing has been used for centuries across various cultures for different reasons, but all with the common thread of recognising the benefits of cold water immersion. From the Ancient Greeks and Romans to the Samurai warriors of Japan, and the people of Scandinavia, ice baths have been used for everything from athletic recovery to spiritual purification.
While the methods and beliefs surrounding ice bathing may differ across cultures, the science behind its benefits remains. Cold water immersion has been shown to improve circulation, reduce inflammation, aid in muscle recovery and build mental strength.
As modern science continues to explore the benefits of ice baths, it's clear that this ancient practice still holds relevance today. Whether you're an athlete looking to improve recovery time or simply seeking a new way to enhance your overall wellness, ice baths may be worth exploring.
So, next time you dip into an ice bath, take a moment to appreciate the rich history and cultural significance behind this simple but powerful practice.