March Mindfulness is Mashable’s series that examines the intersection of meditation practice and technology. Because even in the time of coronavirus, March doesn’t have to be madness.
Mindful bathing seems like a straightforward exercise: Fill the bath with water, get in, meditate, get out. Including a mindfulness or meditation practice in almost any ritual, including your self-care soak, can yield significant psychological gains, helping you relax, appreciate the present, and act with considered intention.
“A bath meditation combines the standard benefits of meditation with the benefits of a relaxing, hot bath, which can soothe tired muscles, provide a calming atmosphere, and allow a temporary feeling of escape from stressors,” Magdaleena Nikolov, Director of Spa at , told Mashable via email. “The hot bath water slows the parasympathetic nervous system making it easier to breathe deeply.”
Yet for anxious beginners, mindful bathing might feel unhelpfully burdened with expectation and unknowns. How long are you supposed to stay in? What are you supposed to think about? Is this a cleanliness exercise as well as a relaxing one? Do you shower before or after?
Ironically, worrying that you’re doing it wrong is exactly what you’re doing wrong.
“[W]hen we are being mindful, we are noticing what arises moment-by-moment and doing our best to allow whatever ‘shows up’ to be there,” said , associate professor of psychology at La Salle University. “This is in contrast to trying to hold onto the experience, pushing it away, or trying to have the experience be something else.”
Unfortunately for fans of structure, there is no strict, clear formula for taking a mindful bath. As such, you can’t just abdicate from your brain and obediently follow a set of instructions. However, there are some basic guidelines that can help you formulate a mindful bathing routine — one uniquely tailored to suit you.
1. Create the time
Start by setting the stage. This doesn’t mean lighting a bunch of candles and pulling up whale sounds on Spotify, though we’ll get to that later. It means laying the mental groundwork for your bath, making sure you have enough uninterrupted time set aside and thinking about what you want out of it. This may seem strange, but establishing the intent and purpose behind your bath before starting will help determine how to progress.
“For example, are you intending on opening your awareness to all experiences and sensations, or are you going to sustain your focus just on physical sensations?” said Cardaciotto. “Is the bath a cleaning exercise that I am doing mindfully? Or is it a time for me to practice mindfulness in a more formal way, similar to mindfulness meditation?”
While , professor of psychology at Adelphi University, told Mashable you don’t need to shower before or after your bath unless you’re particularly dirty, Nikolov said a pre-bath shower is a good place to start your mindfulness practice. As Cardaciotto noted, whether you shower or not is really dependent on the intent behind your bath. There is no wrong answer, but the best course of action for you is influenced by the reason you’re bathing and where your focus lies.
2. Prepare the environment
Once you’ve established the purpose of your bath, you can build a calming environment that’s conducive to meditation. You’ll want to engage all of your senses during your mindful bath: sight, smell, sound, touch, and even taste. As such, you should keep these in mind when making your preparations.
First, dim the lights and remove any clutter from around the tub so you aren’t staring at a stressful mess while you soak. Lit candles can help create a soothing atmosphere, provided you put them in a safe place where they won’t be a fire hazard. It doesn’t matter whether you choose scented or unscented candles, but consider how they’ll interact with any scented products you’ll be adding to your tub later. The last thing you need is an unbearable wall of perfume.
Next, decide on your soundscape. You could play some low, soothing music or whale sounds, if you find that relaxing. You could also completely forgo a soundtrack, focusing instead on the sound of water sloshing in your tub. Though if you do decide to play some music, try to avoid using a platform with ads. It’d be pretty jarring to have your meditation interrupted by a loud call to sign up for Spotify Premium.
Finally, you might choose to prepare a soothing beverage to sip during your bath, provided you have a non-breakable cup and a stable surface to rest it on. “If sipping a glass of wine, cup of tea or a cold drink helps you linger in your soak, don’t hesitate to include this in your bathing ritual,” said Serani.
Of course, none of these suggestions are mandatory. In fact, Gaspard suggests ditching the sounds and lights altogether for a dark bath “in the spirit of a sensory deprivation tank.” In the end, it all comes down to what you want your experience to be.
3. Prepare the bath
The bath itself is where you’ll most likely engage your senses of smell and touch. You don’t have to add anything to your bath at all if you don’t want to — the feel of warm water against your skin is enough to occupy your sense of touch. But Serani believes you can “[d]eepen your bath experience by adding fresh rose petals or citrus rinds for texture — and don’t forget a cushy towel to dry off.”
Other helpful and more common additions to your bath include bath salts, bubbles, and essential oils. What you choose to include is entirely your decision, but consider again the intent behind your bath when making your selection.
“Mineral salts not only help relax you, they also improve breathing, circulation, and digestion,” said Serani. “Milk baths do things like hydrate skin, reduce inflammation, and help exfoliate.”
“The main focus is to slow down and notice what you’re doing and what’s around you,” said licensed clinical professional counsellor . “You don’t need anything special, but if you have some favorite bath salts or nice smelling soap, that’s just another sense you can involve.”
If you don’t know where to start, holistic wellness coach suggests drawing a warm bath and pouring in two cups of Epsom salts and one cup of baking soda. You can also add eight to ten drops of lavender essential oil if you’d like, though it isn’t necessary.
“This formula is also known as a detox bath that will aid in soothing sore muscles and inducing relaxation (plus, all the ingredients are inexpensive),” Clifford told Mashable via email.
Alternatives to lavender include chamomile, rose, or vanilla oils, which Serani also recommends for a calming soak. On the other hand, those after a pick-me-up might try orange, rosemary, or lemon instead. It all depends on what would best suit you in the moment.
“Before I select my oil I take a moment to smell each one and the one I am most attracted to that day is the one I choose,” said Nikolov. “Interestingly enough the body will naturally gravitate to the oil that has the benefits that it is in most need of.”
Just remember to add a carrier oil such as coconut or jojoba to your essential oils first, and also give your bath a stir after you pour them in. This will ensure your oils don’t just float on the surface like a tiny tanker disaster.
3. Get in the bath and relax
Now is the time to climb into the bath, close your eyes, relax your body, and breathe.
“You may try a simple breathwork technique like 4-7-8,” said Clifford. “Inhale through your nose for a count of four. Hold your breath for a count of seven. Exhale completely through your mouth for a count of eight.”
Pay attention to what is happening to you right now, and the sounds, smells, and feelings that you’re experiencing. Allow yourself to appreciate them without judgement, and be present in the moment. Cardaciotto suggests approaching your bath with a “beginner’s mind,” consciously noticing your environment as though encountering it for the first time, and considering how doing so changes your experience.
“When we are practicing mindfulness, there is no goal other than to do our best to be present with, curious about, and open to each moment and experience as they arise,” Cardaciotto told Mashable. “Relaxation, reduced stress, and other benefits can be byproducts, and it’s okay if we don’t experience these during or after a mindfulness practice.”
Mindfulness also can be helpful in addressing anxiety, as focusing on what you’re feeling and the objects around you is an excellent grounding technique.
“The reason it works [is] because if your mind is focused on your surroundings, and what you’re doing, you’re not thinking about what you should be doing, or what you should’ve done,” said Murphy. “You’re focused on being the present moment.”
As Cardaciotto noted, the goal isn’t to completely rid ourselves of our negative feelings and emotions. Rather, it’s to notice how they feel, how they change, and how aggressively fighting them rather than simply letting them pass can sometimes only worsen them.
While the aim of mindfulness is to stay in the moment, your mind will probably get distracted and wander to past or future matters. This is perfectly natural and expected, and nothing to worry or berate yourself about. Simply allow it to happen, then gently guide your attention back to the present.
“If you have other thoughts coming into your mind, acknowledge them and practice letting them go,” said Clifford. “The more you do this, the better you will get at it. Trying to block them out will only make you feel more stressed.”
“You might even choose to have an ‘anchor’ — such as how your legs feel resting along the bathtub floor — to help bring your attention back to the present moment when you notice yourself lost in thought,” said Cardaciotto.
The main thing is not to judge yourself. “It…doesn’t matter if, in the moment, you’re not feeling particularly good at it!” said Murphy. “It’s simply about attention and intention.”
4. Get out of the bath
However long you stay in the bath is up to you, but around 20 minutes is a good length of time. Staying in the tub too long can actually , regardless of whether you’re being mindful or not. As such, it’s best to keep your baths to a maximum of — or until your fingers start to get wrinkly.
You shouldn’t need more time than this, anyway. According to Serani, “20 minutes of relaxing, clearing your mind and taking in the sensory experiences of a warm bath can induce theta waves — brain waves that are healing, relaxing, peaceful and soothing.”
“[T]he length of a shower or bath can be just right for a meditation or mindfulness practice,” said Robert, noting that this can be particularly useful for people new to mindfulness.
5. Ease back into life
When you finish your mindful bath, don’t just climb out, pull the plug, and toss yourself back into your personal riptide of stress. That will completely undo the calming mindset you just spent half an hour cultivating. Instead, you’ll want to bring yourself out of your bath slowly, gently, and mindfully.
“When you’ve soaked enough, slowly shift out of this state by opening your eyes and carefully getting up before turning on the light, mindfully putting on oil or cream while still wet to maintain your skin’s dewy moisture, towel off and gently get dressed before reentering ordinary time,” said Gaspard.
Notice what you’re thinking and feeling, both physically and emotionally, and take stock of the moment. Pay attention to the sounds, smells, and sights you’re experiencing even as you put your clothes on.
“And you might even set an intention for carrying this type of awareness – one marked with openness and curiosity – into your next activity,” said Cardaciotto.
Finding the time for a mindful bath every day isn’t feasible for everyone, but that isn’t the only time you can practice mindfulness. You can be mindful practically anywhere while doing practically anything — . Doing it during a daily habit such as brushing your teeth also .
“[P]eople who are more mindful have been shown to have higher levels of life satisfaction, more empathy, less absent-mindedness, and lower levels of depression,” said Cardaciotto.
As always, the key is to keep going. Mindfulness takes practice, and the more you do it the easier it will become. Just be kind to yourself, and the rest will follow.