A spa, as known to us today, is a centre for treatments through various alternate medications, and has grown to include relaxation, unwinding and getting pampered. But what makes for an interesting read is the origin of this culture, and the genesis of the word spa. So, when did the concept of spa – relaxing and getting treated for ailments through water – come into being? Where from did it get its present name? There are myriad answers to these questions, but all intertwined in the same theory.
Genesis of the spa
Popular belief has it that the origin of spa dates back to the Roman era, when soldiers of their legions fatigued by wars, would take to rejuvenation, relaxation and treatment of sore wounds through water. Hot, natural spring water was considered to be the best cure for wounds and tired muscles. The legionnaires, hence, started building baths around naturally found hot water springs or hot water wells. These baths were popularly known as ‘aquae’, while the treatments undertaken at these aquae were called ‘Sanus Per Aquam’ – of which SPA is considered to be an acronym – meaning health by or through water. Others believe that spa is an ellipsis of the Latin phrase ‘Sanitas Per Aquas’, meaning the same. The Belgian town Spa, which rose to fame in the 14th century in this context, thus got its name, since a thermal spring having curative and thermal properties was discovered there.
Another accepted credence is that the word spa is derived from the Walloon (the dialect of the people of Wallonia in south Belgium) word espa, meaning fountain. Alternatively, the origin of the word can also be attributed to the Latin word ‘spagere’, which means to scatter, sprinkle or moisten.
History of the spa
Social bathing was religiously adhered to as a culture in the ancient Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Minoan, Greek, and Roman civilizations. Among the first to use a variety of baths, the Greeks pioneered the concept of laconica (hot water tubs and hot air baths). The Romans adopted and modified it progressively into balneum and then thermae (Greek for heat).This spearheaded the culture of social bathing which gained immense popularity in the following years. Even though the first thermae can be traced back to 25 BC, the balneum existed in the Roman society almost 200 years before the advent of thermae. Each succeeding emperor to the Roman throne outdid his forerunner in building more spacious and luxurious baths. Some baths were large enough to hold about 6000 bathers at a time.
Growth of the spa culture
Subsequent years saw the thermae grow into wholesome entertainment complexes where bathers could indulge in sports, leisure, and restaurants apart from the varied baths available. A characteristic bath comprised of visits to different chambers for a complete relaxation routine. The bathing ritual started with exercises at palestra, followed by an hour long session in three increasingly warmer rooms beginning with tepidarium, where the bather’s body would be smeared with oils and other herbal extracts. Private bathing rooms called caldariums that offered a choice of hot or cold water would be the next in line. The bather then moved on to laconicum, the hottest chamber of the thermae, where a vigorous massage and dead skin scraping would be carried out with the help of an object called strigil. The bath would end with a dip in a pool of cool water known as the frigidarium. After this ritual, the bather could relax in the other parts of the thermae indulging in a sumptuous meal, or retiring to the library. Since baths were located in close proximity to natural hot or mineral springs, the Renaissance witnessed towns abundant in natural springs graduating into spa destinations. Some examples are that of Spa, Belgium; Paeffers, Switzerland; Baden-Baden Germany; and Bath, Engalnd. Often these natural waters were considered to have medicinal properties and curative value.
The downfall and rediscovery of the spa
The fall of the Roman Empire resulted in a decrease in the popularity of the thrmae concept the world over. All existing spas fell prey to the cyclic order of being discovered, forgotten, and then being rediscovered. But although spas and hot water treatments went in and out of vogue since man first stumbled over the concept, water as a healing liquid never lost sheen. With innovations in the medical science, allopathy took over almost every other branch of medicine and well being in the early 20th century. Dispensaries and public hospitals started to be viewed as an alternative to natural healing processes. This threw the existing spas out of gear as they got transformed into vacationing hubs, losing their original purpose and catering only to the rich. Other spas responded by concentrating on the beauty business offering an amalgam of fitness and beauty in glorified saloons called day spas.
But, thanks to the indulgent and health conscious populace that looks at relaxation more as a way of life rather than a leisure activity, the spa culture has sprung back to life in most parts of the world. Modern spas, though having undergone a paradigm shift in their ways of treatment, still retain water therapy as their nucleus, and follow a routine of cleaning, heating, treatment and rest, akin to their older counterparts.
The spa of today
Call it thermal waters or spa, the concept of healing through water is also known by copious other terms such as taking the waters, spa therapy, balenotherapy, or hydrotherapy. The meaning of spa has constantly evolved through the ages to accommodate several other types of treatments. Now, spa treatments can range from wet and dry treatments to wellness therapies and beauty treatments. Treatments at spa include thalassotherapy, meditation, Yoga, Ayurveda flotation therapy, watsu, wassertanzen, water dance, liquid sound, Swedish massage, Japanese Shiatsu, Thai massage, European facials, acupuncture, Dead Sea salt scrubs, Moor mud wraps, aromatherapy, reflexology, microdermabrasion, endermologie, reiki, aura imaging, rasul, hypnotherapy, Tai Chi, dream therapy and much more. Mechanical devices such as Jacuzzi whirlpools, hydrotherapy tubs, Swiss showers, scotch hoses, and vichy showers have been developed to assist these therapies efficiently, and have collectively made the spa experience a better one. Today’s spa has successfully stuck to its core traditions, simultaneously innovating, interpreting and expressing them in its own way.