The Art Of Sunbathing

Ellie Howard examines what ancient traditions and modern revelations can tell us about basking in the sun’s rays.

One of our greatest earthly delights is a green park, or garden, in summer. The sun, stronger at this time of year, draws everything out into its golden path. We spend more time outside, our bodies contorting into strange shapes around a creasing book. Perhaps we join friends and family in rolling out a rug or plonking down upon a mossy seat, the condensation of a cold glass trickling down our fingers. A hat slips silently down our sweaty brow. The fragrance of honeysuckle and suncream elide into a balmy redolence. The heat warms our limbs. Hours pass as a blissfully heaviness sets in.  

Sunbathing, or basking, or simply sun-gazing, has an unusual effect upon us, it’s soporific but you’re far from sleep, rather you slow down enough to drop into a parasympathetic state. The mind slows and expands. It’s the picture of David Hockney’s The Sunbather (1966), a man asleep lulled by the sun, but the pool twists and turns alive with movement; or, it’s Francine Van Hove’s painting of a semi-nude girl, forgetting the restrictions of feminine appearance and stretching lazily underneath the trees. With enough sun, you can fall into an altered state, reaching a stasis with your surroundings.

There is a philosophy of sunbathing. It’s been compared to a prayer, but it’s more a blank meditation wrapped up in a simplicity of Taoist detachment. French philosopher Simone Weil put it like this: ‘Attention consists in suspending thought… thought must remain empty, awaiting, not seeking anything.’ When sunbathing, our bodies heat and our mind grows cool. 

The sun is an ancient life-giving sustenance, as Roman philosopher and naturalist Pliny the Elder put it: ‘sol est remediorum maximum’ (‘sun is the best remedy’). The summer solstice, in Pagan European and Slavic countries, was celebrated by sun-gazing and absorbing the energy to establish a divine connection, which mirrors ancient Ayurvedic teachings that bodies are vessels to absorb the sun’s life-giving energy, nourishing the spirit within. The solar plexus chakra awakens. In traditional Chinese medicine, strongly influenced by Taoism, sunlight is the biggest natural source of Yang energy, and Yang is the driving force of our bodies’ internal functions. Physicians believe that the Wenyang method, which asks us to bask with the sun on the back like a tortoise, draws out the damp symptoms in people with a cold constitution. 

In Modern Europe, heliotherapy emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Freikörperkultur (FKK), literally translated as ‘free body culture’, has existed as a sub-culture in Germany for well over a century and has always been associated with the German concept of ‘wellness’. Transplanting to the UK, the Federation of British Sun Clubs, as nudist colonies called themselves, touted modern ideas about exercise, diet and exposure to fresh air. Author Annebella Pollen has written that the movement was centred on the idea of ‘purity and power of naked bodies in wild places’. For these wellness devotees, the sunlit body became a conduit, merging humanity and nature in a harmonious symphony.

It feels like we’ve been driven mad by the sun, with too much emphasis on what sunbathing does – rather than how it makes us feel. We live in a society obsessed by dark skin, or the lack of it: tanning haunts discussion of racial politics and classism. Beauty trends, swayed by the see-saw of socio-economic power and privilege, have meant we simultaneously have whitening creams and tanning beds. It’s a debate that has obscured the sun’s healing properties, and our indoor lives have meant we may now be facing an epidemic of vitamin D deficiency. It’s advised that, depending on your natural melanin production, to stand outside for 10 to 30 minutes a day, before the sun hits its zenith in the sky. Allowing your bare skin to soak up the rays strengthens your body’s natural immunity. 

Everything that is matter or matters revolves around the sun. It not only sits at the centre of our solar system, our day begins and ends with it. ‘You are a child of the sun,’ the sage Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us, beckoning us to embrace our celestial heritage and return to our cosmic origins: ‘Sitting meditation is like returning home to give full attention to and care for our self.’ With eyes closed, breath slows, and beams paint patterns upon our eyelids – it’s a welcome reminder of the unity between body, soul and the world. 

But that welcome heat can’t last forever, when we eventually wake from a sun-induced slowness, there is always a moment of dark-eyed discombobulation where you re-enter reality. Blurred, tired eyes ready for sleep. But you’ll notice that everything seems clearer: the sky is that little bit bluer. 

High Summer Picks

Echo the season's sunny skies throughout your home in bright shades and vivid hues of cobalt and lemon.

Discover the full collection of flowers available for delivery in Hong Kong.