Could heading deep into the desert and burying yourself neck-deep in hot sand really be good for those aching muscles and joints?
A few years ago he introduced American educator and author Stephen Ritz to the experience of being buried up to his neck in sand. The somewhat forgotten tradition of sand hammam, or sandbath, which is said to relax the muscles, detoxify the body, reduce stress, treat skin conditions and even alleviate rheumatism and chronic respiratory illness. Think of it as nature’s ultimate weighted blanket.
Ritz loved the experience, which he described while buried.
“I’m here in the middle of the UAE taking a sand bath in the middle of the desert,” he said. “I am encapsulated in sand. And what’s happening is that the Earth is literally healing me. The weight of the sand continues to collapse on my body, forcing and pushing every bit of tension out of my body, through my skin, into the sand and away into the atmosphere.
He goes on to wax lyrical about how he feels at one with the Earth.
“And while this may look uncomfortable, I’m here to tell you this is one of the most therapeutic, healing, relaxing moments I’ve ever had in my life.”
Such a fulsome endorsement invites further investigation. And it turns out sand bathing is a tradition steeped in antiquity, dating back to ancient Egypt and Greece. Psammotherapy – the technical term for sandbathing – comes from psammos, the Greek word for sand.
“The Ancient Greeks and Romans treated a lot of ailments by immersing the body, from the chest to the feet, into hot sand,” explains Eda Gungor, co-founder of Seva Experience wellbeing center in Dubai. “Sand improves the signs and symptoms of arthrosis [breaking down of cartilage] and rheumatism. It also helps to consolidate the re-setting of fractures, speeds up healing of dislocations and sprains, relieves skin diseases and allergies and works on inflammations of the airways.”
The Erg Chigaga Luxury Desert Camp in Saharan Morocco offers sandbathing to guests and was once featured in the BBC series The Misadventures of Romesh Ranganathan. The comedian was filmed sand bathing in temperatures of 50 degrees centigrade.
The owner of the camp, Nick Garsten, describes his first time being buried, for 30 minutes, as “amazing”.
“They didn’t cover my heart, because that can lead to complications,” he says. “When I was dug out of the sand, it was sopping wet, absolutely sopping. From what I understand, various toxins are removed through sweating and it’s supposed to cure arthritis and back pain. One is really supposed to have about five separate treatments for it to be effective.
“I was tired and cold, despite the fact that it was about 35 degrees centigrade. I needed to have the cold and wet sand removed and then I was wrapped in towels to warm up. It was so unusual and so different and I felt great!”
Doctors in Morocco often prescribe sandbathing for a host of ailments and conditions and even for women who are having trouble conceiving, although it should be avoided by anyone with heart, liver or kidney problems, says Hamid Ait Haddou, owner of the nearby Desert Luxury Camp.
High summer is the best time, although one does not have to spend as long as half an hour in the sand, he adds.
“Its healing powers are not as effective at other times of the year. In summer, you get very hot – really, it feels very unpleasant at first, before the body regulates the temperature and starts sweating profusely. You stay buried for only a short time — maybe one to five minutes.”
Sand bathing is very popular with Moroccan travelers. “Foreigners ask for it occasionally but it’s more out of curiosity.”
Having failed to find anyone offering a sand bathing service in the UAE, we asked Hamit for advice on how to try a do-it-yourself version. Here are his tips:
- The best time of day is when the sun is hottest, between 11am and 4pm
- Dig a shallow hole about 20 centimeters deep
- Make sure the entire body, except for the head, is covered with a layer of sand, with just a little bit on the chest
- Make sure there is cover from the sun and make sure there’s someone to watch over you the entire time.
- After a few minutes (or as long as you can take) in the sand, someone should help you out, wrap you in a blanket for about 30 minutes and give you a drink.
“During this time, the healing process continues as the salty sweat mixes with the sand, which is great for the skin,” said Hamit.
After a quick trip to purchase a shovel, we headed off to the deep red sands near Fossil rock in Mleiha, Sharjah. When we arrived at 2pm, the temperature was 30 degrees and the sand was almost too hot to walk on.
A large dune was selected as the spot for the hole. As I lowered myself in, I was surprised at how much cooler the sand was underneath the surface. With sand up to my neck, I lay back and relaxed. The sand was packed tight around me but was not hot enough to make me sweat. It felt heavy on my limbs, pushing against my muscles from every angle.
When I emerged after 20 minutes, the muscles in my arms and legs felt tension-free. I started sweating from the heat from the surface sand. After 15 minutes or so, I scrubbed myself down with my towel and the sand which had stuck to the moisture on my body was like an exfoliant.
All in all it was a good experience and I’m sure it released some muscle tension. Even simply walking barefoot on the hot sand felt uplifting.
“Sand has remarkable therapeutic properties due to the different minerals in it,” says Gungor. “From quartz, silicon and limestone to residues of minerals from sea water, such as sodium, magnesium, potassium, iodine, chlorine and calcium – they penetrate the body via osmosis when we walk on the sand, so you get the combined benefit of the heat and the minerals.”
If the full sand bathing experience doesn’t appeal, there are other sand therapies to try. Grounding, also known as earthing, involves simply walking barefoot. It is said to improve circulation, reduce inflammation and make you sleep more soundly.
“Like our bodies, the Earth is buzzing with energy,” Gungor explains. “The surface of the Earth is covered in a mist of free-floating electrons that give the ground its negative charge. Our cells crave the Earth’s nourishment. Going barefoot, skin to ground, absorbing that charge, we get a dose of Earth’s energy.”
For a more luxurious sand treatment, there are several spas and hotels in the UAE offering sand scrub exfoliation. The spa at the Anantara Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort offers the full body Desert Fusion Massage, using sand from the Rub’Al Khali, or Empty Quarter, along with warm oil and hot stones.
Spa manager Jean Claire Sumayod says the massage releases muscle tension, increases blood flow, removes dead skin cells and has detoxing.
Those ancient Egyptians and Greeks knew a thing or two, didn’t they?
• This article was first published in June 2020
Devinder Bains is journalist of 20 years, working as a writer and editor on some of the biggest national magazines, newspapers and online publications in the UK and the Middle East. She specialises in women’s empowerment, fashion, race, culture and travel, and as a qualified personal trainer and nutrition coach, she is an expert in health and fitness. She splits her time between freelance writing and running Fit Squad DXB – Dubai’s largest personal training and wellness company.