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Healing with Water
by Annemarie Colbin, Ph.D.

When I was a child, my mother had all kinds of home remedies for when I got sick. Some of her more dramatic ones were cold compresses on the head, throat, or (brr) stomach. I remember clearly her saying to me, “Let me put a preesnitz on you.” I thought that was the word for compress. Later on I found out that she was following a venerable European tradition, that of water healing, or hydrotherapy. While hydrotherapy was used by such famed medical figures as Hippocrates, Galen and Celsus, there was frequent folk use of this system for all manner of illness. It became extremely popular in Europe in the 19th Century.

There, in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, two major figures brought the “water cure” to the attention of the public as well as the Crown. The first was Vincent Priessnitz (hence the name of the compress), a Silesian farmer, who after curing himself from a serious accident with just water applications, became known far and wide for the almost miraculous recoveries he induced in those who came to see him. The other hydrotherapy proponent was Father Sebastian Kneipp, who took some of Priessnitz’s systems and simplified them. I will share with you here some of the applications I have found most useful for myself and my family, and taught in classes over the years.

Cold shower. Yes, do not shrink away in horror. The cold shower is one of the best methods to increase your circulation and teach your body to warm up your hands and feet. This is how to go about it: 1) Make sure the bathroom is warm. 2) Take a nice warm shower, making sure you feel toasty. 3) Without thinking too much, turn off the hot water, and turn on the cold. Let the cold water hit you in the front (scream if you wish, but do not run), turn around, let the cold water hit you along the back (scream again, but just a little). Total time: 10 seconds. 4) Turn off the water. Step out of the shower, dry yourself, and get dressed. If you make this part of your daily routine, I promise you that your ability to withstand the cold will increase dramatically, and moving from hot to cold to hot environments will stop bothering you. An extreme form of this method is plunging into cold rivers or the sea; people who do that are usually part of a “polar bear club.”. Father Kneipp, who was very weak and sickly as a youngster, made himself strong and highly resistant to illness by jumping into the ice cold river every day during the winter. The trick here, by the way, is that the cold shower or bath should be very short, ten to thirty seconds maybe.

Cold compress. I have used it for numerous problems. This works in an interesting fashion: initially the cold compress chills the skin. However, as it is covered with other dry layers, soon enough the area warms up, and the increased circulation warms up the compress as well, so it actually ends up being a warm compress that keeps its heat for a long time. The increased circulation seems to promote the healing. Use for:

Sore throat: at bedtime, take a common dish towel, wet it in cold tap water, wring it out, and fold it in thirds lengthwise, so you end up with a longish cold strip. Wrap about the neck, with the overlap in the front. Put a dry hand towel all over it, and a woolen scarf over that;; tie or pin. Go to sleep. If you wake up and the compress bothers you, get rid of it. This usually cures a sore throat in a day, two at the most.

Muscle sprain. I always hear that one should put ice on a pulled muscle, but my experience is that a plain cold water compress works perfectly. Say you’ve pulled a muscle in your arm, or twisted your ankle. This is what to do: take a hand towel, wet it under the cold tap water until soaked, wring it out, fold in thirds lengthwise, and wrap around the affected area. Wrap a dry larger (bath) towel over that, and then wrap a scarf all around to tie it, or use safety pins. Keep on for about 4 hours. The best thing is to do this at night, and then repeat until the problem is gone.

Fever. There are a number of water remedies for fevers, and this is just one of them. Take a small sheet or tablecloth, wet in cold tap water, wring out, and fold lengthwise so that it will cover the patient’s torso from armpit to hip. Wrap the cold compress around the torso -- arms out -- then wrap in a large dry bath sheet, and cover with warm blankets. Give hot or warm herbal teas to drink, maybe with some lemon. The sufferer should begin to feel warm and maybe sweat, which will help break the fever.

Walking in cold water. This is an excellent remedy for cold feet, poor circulation, and general low energy. First choice: walk barefoot on the grass in your back yard in the morning, while it is still wet with dew, for about 10 minutes or however long you feel comfortable. Then put on socks on your wet feet, shoes or boots, and go walking elsewhere for a while.

Second choice: walk barefoot in the surf along the beach for about 15-20 minutes. Dry your feet and remove the sand. Put on the socks and shoes, and walk some more.

Third choice: fill your tub with about 10 inches of cold tap water. Be dressed, except for your legs from the knee down. Walk in your tub back and forth for about 5 minutes, or however long you feel like, depending on the temperature of the water. Step out, put on dry cotton socks (do not dry your feet!), then your shoes or boots, and go walking around the house, or around the block, or walk to work. You will be surprised at the surge of energy you get from this simple exercise.

Cold bath. I only recommend this for people who have been doing the cold shower routine, so that their body is used to the sharp shifts in temperature. I DO NOT recommend it to anyone run down, with a weak immune system, or with any diagnosed chronic illness. This is great when you feel a cold coming on, and want to nip it in the bud. Here’s how: make sure the bathroom is warm. Draw a bath with cold water. Prepare cotton pajamas, socks, 2 towels, and robe. Get undressed, get into the water, count to five, get out, put on pj’s and socks without drying your body, wrap yourself in towels (one around torso, take the other to bed to wrap around legs), put on the robe, and get into bed. This should make your circulation speed up, and start the healing process really fast.

Very hot bath. If you’ve been out in the cold, and gotten chilled because you were not dressed warmly enough, the best way to get rid of that chill, before it makes you sick, is to draw a really hot bath as soon as you get home, and soak in it until you feel the chilliness is gone. You can put bath salts or oils to enhance the experience, but it is the heat that will help you warm up that counts.

I have used these various techniques frequently for the past 30+ years, and found them highly effective. For more information, get The Complete Book of Water Healing, by Dian Dincin Buchman. It is full of many excellent ideas that can help you and your family maintain your health with the world’s most common (and least expensive) remedy.

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