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Healing With Water Therapy

Updated on June 21, 2012

When I stood in an ice cold creek near Mendocino, California, last weekend, I was immediately transported back to a shallow pool near my mother's home town of Traunstein, Germany. I recognized that wonderfully numbing feeling in my feet and enjoyed the sudden burst of energy through my whole body. In fact, it seemed like I had an extra kick in my step for the rest of the day.

One experience separated from the other by the size of the Atlantic Ocean. Or more. Yet, so similar. I had seen and done this before, but how and why? I began to retrace my steps and recalled the last time I visited my grandmother. While taking a walk on a nearby trail, I stumbled upon a shallow pool of water, outfitted with a handrail erected along the center.

The idea was simple. At least to my Mom, who began explaining this ritual she remembered from the days when she was a little girl. You go for a walk as part of your exercise routine, warm the body up, and then submerge your feet into ice cold water. When done, you put your shoes back on, feeling invigorated, and continue on your walk. In theory, not unlike the more common practice of jumping into a cold pool after enjoying a steam sauna and before wrapping yourself in a towel to restore warmth.

The Evolution of Hydrotherapy

As a German, I like to joke and say that all good things come from Germany. Hydrotherapy, or kneippen as it is referred to locally, is no small exception.

The custom of kneippen was named after Sebastian Kneipp, a Bavarian priest and naturopath. He was born near Ottobeuren, Bavaria and lived during the 19th century. His home town is roughly 2 and half hours away from Traunstein, so it is no wonder that his work and practices are widely recognized where I come from. My curiosity was peaked.

A key event in 1846 lead Kneipp to refine his life's path when he contracted pulmonary tuberculosis and became seriously ill. While pursuing his school diploma and preparing to start his theological studies, his health had deteriorated to a point of utter desperation. Searching for hope and courage, Kneipp turned to a book by Dr. Johann Siegmund Hahn on the healing powers of water. It was truly as a last resort.

Kneipp put the findings described in this book into practice by self-experimentation. November 16, 1849 marks the day that would not only change his life forever, but also leave a mark on alternative medicine for generations to follow. On that day, while gasping for air due to his illness, he ran to the the River Danube, undressed and dove into the river. The result was as amazing then as it is today: an invigorating and refreshing sense of well-being. With repeated brief exposures to cold water several times a week, Kneipp was able to bolster his immune system and regain his health.

This somewhat basic experiment laid the footprint which would later turn into a commonly applied healing practice: physical exertion of the body, brief immersion in icy water, followed by immediate physical exertion to warm the body up again. With the use of temperature fluctuations, Kneipp stipulated that the immune system, circulation and metabolism was stimulated to promote health. And as such, kneippen as a healing therapy was born.

The Five Pillars of Health According to Kneipp

Although most commonly associated with the particular area of naturopathy called hydrotherapy, Kneipp was the founder of an all-encompassing system of healing, which rested on five main pillars:

  • Water: the application of water to stimulate both the nervous and the immune system
  • Exercise: the use of movement to stimulate and strengthen vital body functions
  • Diet: the health benefits of a well-balanced diet of whole grains, fruits and vegetables with limited meat
  • Medicinal Plants: the use of botanical medicines to prevent as well as treat ailments
  • Spirituality: the belief that health is a product of a balanced lifestyle

How and Why Hydrotherapy Works

Hydrotherapy works by making use of the body’s reaction to outside stimuli. Cold water is used to stimulate and invigorate, leading to an increase of internal activity within the body. By increasing blood flow, nerves carry what is felt by the skin into deeper parts of the body, where the nervous system is able to carry out vital work. The result of hydrotherapy is a stronger immune system as well as improved circulation and digestion.

'Step-by-step' Instructions

Kneippen is a funny-looking practice and to the inquisitive onlooker, it can appear much like a human pretending to play stork. Assuming you have a traditional pool or natural body of water available for your use, proceed as follows.

First, remove socks and shoes. Next, submerge your feet in knee deep water, pulling each leg as far up and out of the water as possible with every step. Hold on to the railing at all times, if available. Move in a circular motion around the pool for roughly 1 minute, or until your body signals it is done, whichever is sooner. When finished, exit water and lightly brush off water and let legs air dry. If possible, stand on wooden mat to allow for natural water drainage.

Also, keep in mind:

  • always make sure that you begin with warm feet. If you suffer from cold feet, exercise first to raise your body temperature. Otherwise, therapy will not work.
  • allow a 45 minute window before/after the meal to end/begin therapy
  • as a beginner, it is recommended that you rest for 2 hours before repeating.
  • water temperatures between 12 C (54 F) and 18 C (64 F) are considered cold.

Where Can I Practice Hydrotherapy?

Rather than traveling back to Germany or looking for a natural body of water near home, try one of the following ideas to bring the benefits of kneippen to you.

  1. fountain
  2. bucket
  3. bathtub
  4. baby pool
  5. foot spa
  6. walk through snow (10 seconds max)


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    • Crystal Tatum profile image

      Crystal Tatum 

      6 years ago from Georgia

      This is a very interesting hub. I've never heard of this type of therapy before. I love being in water - I think water is healing on a lot of different levels. Well done.


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