Outside of Germany, it’s unlikely that many people will be familiar with the name Sebastian Kneipp. However, this 19th-century priest turned health expert is the progenitor of many of the most popular wellness practices that are prevalent today.
I was attempting to practice “stork walking” while standing on one leg while standing in a creek that was knee-deep in freezing cold water in the mountains of Slovenia. As I raised each leg in turn while maintaining my foot pointed downwards, the water in the mountain stream that was swirling around me made it difficult to maintain my equilibrium. A forest of dark-green pine, spruce, and alder trees encircled me, and in the distance, I could hear the gentle ringing of cow bells. This was a scene that Sebastian Kneipp would have recognized from more than 150 years ago. After all, I was making an attempt to carry out one of the water treatments that he had developed.
Outside of central Europe, Kneipp does not have a very widespread reputation. However, this 19th-century priest who later became a wellness guru is considered to be one of the godfathers of some of the most popular wellness ideas that are prevalent today. Born in 1821 and educated as a Catholic priest in Germany, he became interested in the concept of “water cures” as a result of his own personal experiences. At the age of 26, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis, which was a disease that frequently resulted in death during that era. However, Kneipp was able to recover from his illness by experimenting with hydrotherapy, which included taking frequent dips in the icy Danube River. Following his recovery, Kneipp became an advocate for the use of cold-water immersion to boost the immune system. In addition to this, he championed the power of nature, regular exercise, and a well-rounded approach to life. His diet consisted primarily of plant-based foods that were acquired from the area.
Kneipp initially provided medical care to locals from within his monastery, and later went on to establish the wellness resort of Bad Worishofen close to Munich. Over the course of his career, he amassed a glittering client roster comprised of well-known celebrities who sought out his advice and services. Both Pope Leo XIII and Archduke Franz Ferdinand sought medical attention at the same time. However, his goal was to help individuals who were financially disadvantaged, and he did not refuse treatment to patients because of their inability to pay.
In spite of the fact that Kneipp’s legacy is more known in Germany, his influence may still be felt in modern-day Slovenia. There is a mysterious link between the lovely medieval village of Kamnik, which is located approximately 20 kilometers north of the capital city of Ljubljana, and I’d come here to learn more about the man and his method.
Alojz Pranikar, a Slovene businessman who made the decision to make an investment in the emerging wellness industry, constructed the first spa at Kamnik in the year 1875. In 1891, Pranikar’s company constructed the Kamnika railway branch extension from the Vienna-to-Trieste railway into the town. This made it much simpler for residents to get to medical facilities and obtain treatment. Soon after, the health spa, which was known as the Kamniki Kurhaus, began to specialize in the provision of Kneipp treatments, which had developed into a significant industry trend by this time.
Kniepp himself gave the Kurhaus his stamp of approval in 1892, and almost immediately after that, it became widely known as one of the most luxurious spas in the entire Habsburg monarchy. Travelers came from Ljubljana, Trieste, Vienna, and Prague in large numbers. People would often stay for at least one month, and some would even stay for the entirety of the season, which ran from May until October. The spa flourished, and the town, together with Lake Bled (which was connected to Rikli at the time), became one of the most famous tourist attractions in Slovenia.
There is not much left of the spa complex or the luxury houses that were constructed to accommodate the most affluent visitors, but if you look carefully enough, you can still find some traces of them in the terrain.
Jasna Paladin, an ethnologist who did her thesis on the beginnings of the Kamnik spa, showed me where the exquisite spa buildings stood on the bank where the cooler Kamnika Bistrica river (supplied by mountain water) meets the warmer Nevljica river (fed by thermal springs). The Kamnikka Bistrica river is fed by the mountain water, and the Nevljica river is fed by the thermal springs.
She stated that “this was the perfect location for Kneipp therapy,” which involves alternating warm and cold water in various treatments. “This was the perfect location for Kneipp therapy.” I questioned her about the meteoric rise in popularity of Kneipp. “He wasn’t the first person that was healing with water, but I think it was because he made these methods understandable to common people,” she added. “It was because of his ability to make these methods accessible to common people.” “Also, people were afraid of the medicine that was available at the time because it was frequently painful and expensive. As a result, people looked for alternatives.”
Following Pranikar’s passing, the health resort entered into a downward spiral. It served as a military hospital throughout World War One, and then in World War Two, the Germans took control of the structures and used them for their own purposes. But despite the fact that very little physical evidence of Kniepp’s heyday can be found here, two modern spas in the area have begun reintroducing some of his treatments.
Since 2017, Terme Snovik, located around 10 kilometers east of Kamnik, has adhered to Kneipp’s philosophy. My conversation with the director, Katarina Hribar, revealed that “we already had several elements associated with Kniepp: the gifts of nature and relaxing thermal water.” In addition to this, we included Kniepp’s five pillars of his philosophy, which are the power of water, plants, exercise, nutrition, and balance. Traditional Kneipp treatments are still offered at the spa along with a menu that is inspired by Kneipp, as well as decaffeinated Kneipp coffee and Kneipp-style tea.
“Kneipp believed in walking barefoot in nature to stimulate the senses and increase awareness as well as improving muscle strength and circulation,” Hribar said, pushing me to walk a couple of kilometers without shoes on a gravel path through the woodland that surrounds the spa. “Kneipp believed in walking barefoot in nature to stimulate the senses and increase awareness as well as improving muscle strength and circulation,” Hribar said. Birdsong and the odd distant hum of farm equipment were the only sounds that could be heard in the woods; otherwise, it was eerily still. The brilliant sunshine of July stretched between the leaves, and the silence was the only thing that could be heard. The walk was peacefully contemplative because I was compelled to slow down and truly feel the earth beneath my feet. Despite the fact that it was a little uncomfortable at times, I felt pleasantly wonderful when I finished it.
Kneipp also created a method of stimulating blood circulation that involved applying hot and cold water to various parts of the body, which he named “affusions.” A knee “affusion” was performed on me, in which one of the therapists used a hose to trace a pattern of cold water along the outside of each of my legs, beginning with my little toe. This is a treatment that is said to assist with insomnia.
Hribar is a firm believer in the efficacy of these treatments despite their seeming lack of complexity and urges her clients to include them into their daily routines. “You don’t need any special equipment or thermal water like we have here, you can just do this in the shower at home,” she added. “You don’t need any special equipment or thermal water like we have here.” I’m not sure if it was the knee affusion, the barefoot walking, or the treatment with a heated hay pillow (another Kneippian technique supposed to relieve muscles and joints), but I slept really well and well throughout my time at the Kneipp center.
Logarska Dolina is the name of the valley that may be found on the opposite side of the Kamnik Savinja Alps. Nina Plesnik’s family has been a resident of this area for over 700 years, and she currently maintains the hotel and spa that bears her family’s name. Plesnik wanted to incorporate aspects of Kniepp’s philosophy into her overall wellness offering here in the United States, so she traveled all the way back to Germany to receive training at the first Kneipp spa.
This is a reenactment of the past in reverse. Kneipp “helped the reputation of the Kamnik spa, not only by personally endorsing it, but also by sending doctors there,” according to Paladin, who informed me that Kneipp dispatched trained “Kneipers,” as his practitioners were called, to the spa at Kamnik to guarantee that standards remained high.
I inquired of Plesnik the reason for her trip to Germany in order to acquire information directly from the source. “Because I wanted to understand the point of everything,” she added. “I wanted to understand the point of everything.” “He came from a humble background and always had the ambition to assist others in regaining their health. He discovered a technique to accomplish it, and I wanted to study thoroughly so that I would be familiar with every aspect.
Guests staying at the Hotel Plesnik are urged to go “kneipping” at the ice-cold mountain water spring that is located next to the spa. In the wee hours of the morning, as the light was just beginning to cast a golden hue over the summits of the mountains, Plesnik and I braved the icy water of the Kneipp pool and made our way carefully through it knee-deep. After that, she showed me how to roll my arms in a particular way using the specifically constructed cold-water trough, which is another “affusion” designed to increase circulation and concentration. She ordered me not to towel off my legs but to instead allow them to air dry. In addition, she showed me how to let my legs air dry. The cold made it difficult for me to catch my breath, but as I had done so, I felt a surge of energy go through my body.
The part of Kneipp’s teachings that deals with nutrition is another subject that Plesnik feels strongly about. “He recommended that people consume less meat and more vegetables. In addition, he made a lot of tinctures and teas from herbs and encouraged people to drink more water, which they weren’t doing very much of at the time.” In keeping with Kneipp’s philosophy, Plesnik prioritizes consuming food that is in season and produced locally. She stated, “We have our own gardens where we grow vegetables for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, as well as herbs for herbal tea, and all of our food is prepared from scratch.” “We have our own gardens where we grow vegetables for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.” The cheese, pork, and yoghurt that they serve all come from her family farm that is located across the valley from where the restaurant sources its ingredients.
The fundamental beliefs held by Kneipp are not considered revolutionary in today’s society. It’s true that a lot of what he taught is now considered conventional wisdom. However, this is precisely why straightforward concepts are so powerful: they remain. To paraphrase what Paladin had to say about it, “It’s simple and effective, everyone can do it every day; walking barefoot on the grass is free of charge.”