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All of this hand-washing lately got me thinking. The simple act is performed around the world millions of times a day. Lately, it’s become a frenetic act in a desperate effort to stave off the dreaded virus. Countless cringe-worthy memes and earworm tunes have popped up to etch the importance of frequency and thoroughness.

Apparently, our blasé approach to cleanliness doesn’t cut it these days. When I say “our,” I mean other people. As my dear college roommate, Maggie Murphy, can attest, I’ve always been a bit of a cleanliness fanatic. Maggie was horrified when I pulled out my Lysol spray at a local Tucson laundromat to spray down the washers before I would put in my clothes. Of course, I’m also fine eating at open-air markets around the world where the dishes and utensils are dipped in one bucket for cleaning and another for rinsing. This is just one of my endearing dichotomies!

“Cleanliness is next to Godliness” is credited to a sermon by John Wesley in 1778, but the thought goes back to ancient times. The global ritual of hand-washing is deep-rooted in many religions and cultures.

Jenna Scatena recently wrote a beautiful piece for the BBC about Turkish hospitality and the aromatic use of kolonya. This ethanol-based fragrance is infused with natural ingredients and used liberally in homes and businesses to douse the palms of visitors in a show of care. The nostalgic and practical health applications are more relevant than ever, and the surge in usage has prompted esteemed Atelier Rebul (est. 1895), whose brand is synonymous with kolonya, to open a new factory to deal with the demand brought about by Covid 19. The Turkish government has apparently suspended the use of ethanol in gasoline for the time being to help meet the need. The 80 percent alcohol content from the ethanol makes it an ideal hand-sanitizer for this epidemic. Scatena also noted that Dr. Hatira Topakli, a family physician in Istanbul, says “Tending to your guests’ health is a form of hospitality.”

Judaism, Islam and Sikhism all have strong prescribed practices for hand-washing, typically accompanied with prayers. There are at least five different Jewish rituals relating to hand- washing, including the best known, Urchatz and Rachtzah, the “practical” and “traditional,” which are performed at Passover seder. Muslims perform ablutions with running water involving all exposed parts of the body five times a day along with their prayers. The Prophet Muhammad was practical, though--rubbing the body with dust is acceptable when no water is available.

Have you wondered if modern hand-sanitizers, which typically contain 60 to 95 percent alcohol, are acceptable during times of pandemic? The usage, undoubtedly, is a very personal decision. As early as January 2002, serious discussions, agreement and outrage came as the Muslim Scholars’ Board of the Muslim World League during the Islamic Fiqh Council’s 16th meeting held in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, stated that medicine containing alcohol and alcohol applied topically for wounds and health may be used. It was still a subject of debate in 2009 when the World Health Organization (WHO) gave guidelines for healthcare workers and addressed the cultural and religious aspects of hand-sanitizer usage. With each new epidemic, these issues are raised. Last month, the National Fatwa Council's Committee in Malaysia declared that they are permissible for health purposes.

Sairani Mohd Saad, the Malay Healer and trainer for all Spa Villages Malaysia, offers this simple advice for regularly keeping hands clean: “…anything that deals with cleansing with the Malays, first thing that comes to mind is lime. Of course, lime is also used for bathing and it works for external and internal health.” Lime water presented in bowls for hand-washing can be found all over the world. It’s also known for both antibacterial and metaphorical cleansing.

Lavender is also known for its cleansing properties. Countless books have been written about the magical and medicinal use of lavender. The friendly battle between “English lavender” vs. “French lavender” continues. But, to Melissa Mettler, YTL Spa Consultant, who oversees the UK and French Spa Village spas, it’s not an either/or scenario. Strong traditions begun early in England were led by Louis XIV who bathed in lavender water, and the iconic Queen Victoria, who favored lavender as well. Melissa considers lavender, which comes from the Latin lavare, “to wash,” as the “Queen of Disinfecting.” It’s prominently used at Spa Village Bath as part of the Thermal Bathing Ritual.

Not to be outdone, upon entering Le Tente by Spa Village in San Tropez, guests are lavishly treated to the glories of lavender from the region. Can you imagine that French women used to wash their clothing in lavender water and dry them on the lavender bushes? In fact, it’s hard to imagine any spa, anywhere, without lavender in some form.

In India, Ayurvedic traditions have long been used for health and hygiene. I’ve just tried Pure Clean Hand Gel from the Ayurvedic line, Shankara. It’s healthy, no-need-to-rinse and filled with rose water, algae-aloe and aspen bark extracts. I found myself lovingly caressing my hands while washing. Gina Preziosa, VP of Sales and Marketing, tells me the formula came from their Ayurvedic chemist in India, where it’s traditionally been used, particularly in places where clean water is not readily available. No small feat, the company donates 100 percent of all profits from Shankara to charities around the world.

In my mind, the most fastidious country in the world regarding hand-washing has to be Japan. The Shinto religion stresses purity. There is always a ritual washing of the hands and face before entering a Shinto shrine. Cleanliness in Buddhism, particularly as practiced in Japan, is practically synonymous with spirituality and good. But the Japanese like to cover all the bases. Recently people have been turning to yokai, the demons or spirits of folklore, for help.

Amabie, said to prevent the spread of epidemics has made a showing on social media as the image is supposed to call her for help. She’s described as having the body of a mermaid covered with scales, three legs, the beak of a bird and hair that flows to the ground.

The most touching tidbit regarding hand-washing came from Yuyun Cindarsih, Spa Village Tembok Bali therapist trainer. The Spa typically uses the organic antiseptics in their detox treatment and bath. Here are Yun’s recipes.

Yuyun’s Traditional Recipe #1:
  • Boil three glasses of water with 11 pieces each of betel and neem leaves for 30 minutes reducing the water, leaving the extract.
  • Add local lime leaves as an antioxidant to balance the extract, or, add one drop of Sand Touch Antiseptic Essential Oil containing turmeric, tea tree, citronella and patchouli.
  • This process makes over 200 ml extract. Fill pump/spray bottles of 125ml size.

Yuyun’s Traditional Recipe #2:
  • Aloe vera is used as an antioxidant and basil leaves as an antiseptic.
  • Peel off the external skin of the aloe vera leaf. Blend together with basil leaves. Once strained the extract is ready for use.
  • These homemade organic herbs are used for 2 to 3 days only. If over that time, the smells will change.

Yuyun explained, “And this time we use it for hand sanitizer as well.” She makes two types of antiseptic ‘in case some of my team are allergic to aloe vera.’ The spa has been closed for over a month. Yet Yuyun makes sure her team has the hand-wash they need for personal use. And, of course, any offering in Bali is also a work of art. For the staff, all these practices show the power and importance of place, belief, customs. With so-called hard data sometimes proving to be useless, reckless, misleading, insufficient and often, harmful, it’s also reassuring to rely on simple, intuitive, traditional, tried-and-tried cultural rituals of cleanliness from around the world.

I’m almost as weary about all the talk of mindfulness as I am about the virus. Please don’t mindfully wash your hands. These hands, our healing hands, the hands of the spa community, come together in service, in prayer, in blessing. Please celebrate the joy and sensuous ritual of hand-washing.

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