Fast Company

The Medium is the Massage

Our intrepid traveler seeks answers to the eternal questions: Are spas overrun by rich matrons? What's the deal with New Age music? And why am I buck naked in front of total strangers?

By last winter, I'd already been hearing the rumblings for quite awhile: Everyone and her boss, it seemed, was heading for a spa. People were using spas as a respite from the workaday grind, and even organizations like Ernst & Young, Bristol-Myers Squibb, and Coca-Cola were mixing business with pleasure by holding off-sites at spas.

"It's no accident that the spa movement has emerged just as we've all begun feeling as though things were moving too fast," says Joline Godfrey, CEO of Independent Means Inc., in Santa Barbara, California. (Before you ask, "What spa movement?" consider this: In 1987, there were 156 spas in the United States; by 1997, that number had reached 752.)

Godfrey herself has held several business retreats at the Ojai Valley Inn & Spa, in Ojai, California. "Human beings," she contends, "need great soil to grow in -- good light, soft music, time to think -- and spas provide that kind of great soil."

I decided to seek a patch of soil for myself. So, last January, I set off on a three-state odyssey through Spa Land. I wanted to find answers to some universal questions: Are spas overrun by rich, high-strung matrons? How enduring is the afterglow of a spa experience? Can you ever get away from New Age music? And isn't getting buck naked and being rubbed down by a total stranger excruciatingly awkward?

My quest for answers took me to three great spas -- including Green Valley Spa, in St. George, Utah, and the Miraval Life in Balance Resort, a 135-acre facility north of Tucson, Arizona. My experience was weirder, more varied, and more fun than I could possibly have imagined. The trip featured close encounters with freeze-dried seaweed and crushed pearls, a sprinkling of psychics, an acupuncturist's needles, a disturbingly flatulent horse, and a Shirodhara specialist who was determined to open my third eye. Here's how this particular spa trek unfolded.

Day One, 4:45 p.m. Massage Therapy.

I arrive at Green Valley, located in the southwest corner of Utah. This 19-acre spa is known for its proximity to extensive golf and tennis facilities and to excellent hiking trails. (It's about 45 minutes from Zion National Park.) Green Valley is a family-run business, and the familial feeling extends to the clientele -- maybe because, at any given time, 30% to 40% of the guests are repeat visitors. All of which gives the place the feel of a grown-up slumber party.

My introduction to spa-style pampering comes minutes after my arrival. I find myself seated on a puffy white couch in the lobby, receiving a hand massage. My massage therapist, Christy (surnames are irrelevant in Spa Land), is outfitted in the kind of flowy white ensemble that is the spa attendant's uniform at Green Valley. As Christy kneels before me, I try really hard not to feel like the pope.

Christy explains that today is "blue day" at Green Valley: Tables are decorated with blue plants, blue scarves, and little pebbles of blue and green glass. It's all meant to foster a mood of introspection and relaxation. Tomorrow will be "yellow day." And that color, the spa's literature promises, will "lead us lightly along the sunny road of sweet beginning."

7 p.m. Astrology.

Green Valley hosts as many as 65 guests, but this is a slow week: There are only 19 women and just 1 man, so I get to know the other guests very quickly.

Tonight's after-dinner astrology session pulls in two-thirds of us. Our astrologer, Sue, offers to give us personal readings and begins by having us state our birth dates. My birth date elicits tittering: I'm the youngest, by at least 14 years. "The universe is balanced," Sue assures us. "If you come with a problem, you come with a solution." We all nod in agreement. Apparently, there are no skeptics in Spa Land.

Day Two, 1 p.m. Reiki.

Pronounced "ray-kee," Reiki is a Tibetan healing technique involving a practitioner who "reads" your energy by laying hands on you.

My practitioner, Linda, starts by laying her hands on my head and slowly moving them down my body. Then she begins "reading": I am so detail-oriented that I balance my checkbook to the penny, she tells me; I often get pain between my shoulders; my apartment has hardwood floors. I'm unnerved -- because she's right. Other things that she says unnerve me even more: "Two beings are holding your feet right now. They're helping you feel grounded, because what I'm telling you is freaking you out."

5:10 p.m. Genetic Body Typing.

Whenever you find yourself floating too high on Spa Land's ether, there's nothing like being pinched by a pair of calipers to bring you back to terra firma -- which is exactly what happens during my body-typing session. This exercise is based on the principle that all of us fall into one of four body types: adrenal, thyroidal, pituitary, and the unfortunately named gonadal. Knowing our correct body type can help us do a better job of eating and exercising properly.

Between prods and pokes, Marium, my body typist, pries into my personal life: How do I act at parties? What subjects did I like in high school? My answers help her to determine my body type, which turns out to be a mix: I have a gonadal forehead, a thyroidal nose, and adrenal shoulders. But I'm primarily pituitary -- which means that I should avoid flour, sugar, dairy products, fat, caffeine, and citrus. So what's left? Protein and vegetables mainly, to be supplemented by flax seeds and kelp tablets.

Day Three, 12:45 p.m.

Shaman Card Reading. Gwen, Green Valley's Native American healer, reads my tarot cards. In this exercise, I ask questions, and Gwen arrives at answers by interpreting the cards -- which reveal that my brother will be married within the next year (this will surprise my family, since my brother is only 14 years old) and that my editor (represented by the devil) wants to keep me "in bondage."

But the truth is, tarot really isn't working for me. The entire exchange seems weirdly formal, almost businesslike. Maybe that's because any spa activity that doesn't involve either removing every article of my clothing or having my mind read feels downright impersonal.

3 p.m. to 6 p.m. Class Time.

Determined to take advantage of every single minute, I cruise through three classes in a row. The first two, led by the perky yet not annoying Bonnie, are "Absolutely Abdominals" and "Cardio Boxing." The third, "Qi Gong" (led by Larae), is a form of breathing and stretching that's similar to Tai Chi.

No more than three participants attend any of these classes -- which is both great (you get lots of personal attention) and exhausting (there's no time to get a breather while the instructor focuses on someone else). Cardio Boxing is the most fun of the three: Partway through the class, I find myself lunging and grunting at a fellow guest, a former fifth-grade teacher from North Dakota who's roughly my mother's age.

Day Four, 10:15 a.m. Crushed-Pearl Body Rub.

According to Green Valley's literature, after this treatment I should "arise feeling like a star full of sparkling light." I wouldn't go that far, but I feel pretty blissful, lying here on my stomach and getting slathered with crushed pearls. For the grand finale, my attendant, Kim, rubs lotion on my skin and waves a fan made of feathers over me. "You should feel like an Egyptian queen now," she says. Not to mention a star full of sparkling light.

Coordinates: $395 to $450 a night for a single-occupancy room. Green Valley Spa, 800-237-1068

7:45 p.m. En Route to Miraval.

I leave St. George feeling healthier, if not quite aglow, and then fly to Tucson. I'm met at the airport by Don, who drives me north to Miraval, a three-year-old resort spa that offers a wide range of options, including cooking classes and "challenge activities," such as rock climbing. Miraval has a friendly atmosphere, although the dining room is more restaurant-like than Green Valley's was, so getting to know other guests is a matter of choice rather than a requirement.

Miraval's grounds -- landscaped with waterfalls and footbridges and 83 palm trees imported from California -- are expansive and swanky. In the main building, meanwhile, there are huge sitting rooms featuring grand fireplaces, along with a big brown-and-white- spotted couch that resembles the hide of a heifer.

9:20 p.m. Hot-Stone Massage.

An hour after my arrival, I find myself once again prostrate and nearly naked. This time, I'm enjoying my first full-body massage ever. The hot-stone massage originates from a traditional Native American healing art. My massage therapist, Tracey, sets oiled basalt stones on the tension points of my body. I have no idea whether these stones really possess the healing powers that are attributed to them, but their heat on my skin feels pretty damn good.

Day Five, 9:05 a.m.

Equine Experience. I take a short, dusty van ride with three other guests to Miraval's Purple Sage Ranch. On the agenda: a little horse grooming and a little "lunging," which involves leading horses around a ring. Facing the fear, stress, and confusion that horses bring out in us should, the theory goes, help us take on similar problems that arise in our relationships with people. "You can't hustle a horse," warns Wyatt, our teacher. "Anyone who brought carrots or sugar, forget about it. Horses need you to pay attention."

My horse, Ali, is a dark-brown mare with a knack for becoming flatulent whenever my head is near her hips. The first step toward bonding with the horse, I'm told, is to remove the manure from her hooves. I'm supposed to approach my horse from about 10 feet away and then to lift her legs -- but she doesn't want her legs lifted. Wyatt says that Ali's hesitation is a response to my own hesitation. "On a scale of 1 to 10, how afraid are you?" Wyatt asks. "Are you embarrassed?" In fact, I'm mostly just annoyed: I decided to participate in the Equine Experience because it is one of Miraval's most popular activities. But it's turned out to be just the sort of New Age schlock that I've been wary of all along. How could a cowboy be so cheesy?

3:20 p.m. Ayurvedic Shirodhara.

I lie on my back while Shelley, my attendant, slowly drips hot, sweet almond oil onto my forehead. The oil then slides back into my hair. This East Indian treatment is meant to open my "third eye." Shelley tells me that for some people, the experience results in the sudden discovery of solutions to problems. For me, it results in very oily hair. While this development isn't quite as exciting as attaining true enlightenment, it's not bad. The more oil I absorb, Shelley explains, the more nutrients I will regain. After the treatment, I proceed to a sauna to baste.

4 p.m. Detoxifying Seaweed Body Mask.

This eight-step, 80-minute treatment includes being dry-brushed (an experience not unlike the brushing that I gave my horse earlier in the day), "anointed" with scented oils, covered in seaweed, and wrapped in plastic sheets and blankets. Then I shower, get rewrapped, shower again, and get moisturized. To release the toxins in my body, my attendant, Donna, tells me, "You're supposed to sweat and relax." I assure her that I'm doing copious amounts of both. Because I am coated in seaweed (which smells no better in a spa than it does on a beach) and wrapped mummy-style, Donna generously offers to scratch my nose, if necessary. "It's in my job description," she jokes.

Day Six, 10 a.m. Acupuncture.

I'm no more fond of needles than most people are. But the needles that my acupuncturist, Linda, is using are really, really thin. They pinch a little going in, but they don't hurt: Linda inserts two in each ankle, one in each wrist, and one in my forehead. I almost fall asleep. After the needles are removed, I feel even drowsier, and I go back to my room to lie down for a while. Such drowsiness is common, Linda says: It results from a sudden energy shift in the body.

8:30 p.m. Drumming Under the Stars.

This activity -- my last at Miraval -- might better have been called Drumming Under Fluorescent Lights. The weather is too cold (in the 40s) to drum outside, says Gordon, our friendly, shaggy-haired teacher. If we ventured outside, he explains, "we might skin our hands longitudinally." As intriguing as that may sound, our group decides to pound out Afro-Cuban rhythms indoors. I'm sure that we sound horrible, but by the end of the session, we've all been swept up in the wave of Gordon's enthusiasm.

Coordinates: $300 to $1,050 a night for a single-occupancy room. The Miraval Life in Balance Resort, 800-232-3969, www.miravalresort.com

Day Seven, 10 a.m. The Flight Home.

Seven days in Spa Land have left me exhausted. I packed my schedule with more activities than was wise -- so I occasionally found myself rushing to treatments that were meant to be relaxing. Which means that I haven't reflected on my experience until now. So back to those big-picture questions:

Are the spas overrun by rich, high-strung women? No. Certainly, you'll see a few of them, but people of all types go to spas. And if you look carefully, you'll even find some rich, high-strung men. (I'm told that 27% of all spa guests are male.)

Exactly how long does the afterglow last? That depends. For me, the benefits of most treatments lasted about as long as the treatments themselves. I don't feel like a different person now -- and, alas, I don't look like one either. But I was able to sample from a large buffet of choices, and a few treatments, such as acupuncture, seemed beneficial enough to investigate further.

Do you have to listen constantly to New Age music? Yes. So don't fight it -- you might even start liking it.

What about getting naked? It was less awkward than I had imagined it would be. The attendants held up towels and averted their eyes at delicate moments. Besides, they were so pleasant -- managing to be both maternal and professional -- that I wanted them to be my new best friends.

What I learned from my spa journey is less a revelation than a confirmation of something I already knew: The key to getting the most out of your spa experience is knowing what you want before you go. Alan Coombs, who cofounded Green Valley Spa with his wife, Carole, made a comment that has stuck with me. "There are no bad spas," he said. "There are only bad matches. Your job is to find the right fit."

Action Item: Spa in a Bag

You're tense. You're tired. You want some freakin' pampering! But you don't have the wherewithal to jet to some exotic locale. Why not bring home a spa in a bag?

Origins, which has 40 retail stores of its own as well as 300 counters in department stores, offers products designed for that very purpose. The There's No Spa Like Home basket ($50), for example, includes this booty: Mint Condition, a lime-colored body wash made with sage and wintergreen; Liquid Clay, a foaming body and face cleanser; and the saucily named Birthday Suit, a skin softener.

If you prefer to gather your spa accoutrements à la carte, check out other Origins products, such as Salt Rub ($28.50), a body scrub made from sea salts, and the Eye Mask ($6), a gelatinous Lone Ranger-style mask that purports to relieve sinus pain and swelling. Using all of this stuff will make you feel truly ridiculous -- which is a big part of the fun.

Coordinates: Origins, 800-674-4467

Sidebar: Can You Speak Spa?

Some spas seem to exist on another planet -- so it's no surprise that the inhabitants of Spa Land speak their own language. Here's a short version of their lexicon, adapted from Jenifer Miller's Healing Centers & Retreats.

Bal-ne-o-ther-a-py (bol-ne-o-ther-e-pe), noun: Any healing treatment that involves immersion in water.

Do In (dü in), noun: A self-administered healing method.

fan-go (fan-go), noun: A type of clay that is used in body wraps.

Rolf-ing (rol-fing), noun: A system of body work developed by Ida Rolf.

salt glow (solt glo), noun: A treatment in which one's body is slathered with moist salt grains.

Coordinates: $16.95. Healing Centers & Retreats: Healthy Getaways for Every Body and Budget, John Muir Publications, 800-285-4078

Sidebar: How to Find the Right Spa

Is searching for the perfect spa stressing you out? Relax! These resources can help you find the spa that meets all of your needs.

Fodor's Healthy Escapes The1999 edition features comprehensive info on 248 spas in the United States, Mexico, Canada, and the Caribbean -- plus writeups on local attractions.

Coordinates: $18.50. Fodor's Travel Publications, www.fodors.com

Spa-Finders Ltd. This travel agency is devoted exclusively to booking spa vacations, and, in one phone call, it will put together a package that caters to your needs. Also check out their Web site, where you can research more than 500 spas worldwide.

Coordinates: 800-255-7727, www.spafinders.com

-- Marni Futterman

Sidebar: 7 Ways to Make the Most of Your Stay

How can you ensure that your spa experience will be as rewarding as possible? We asked Jenifer Miller, former editor of Spa magazine, for seven of her best tips.

Make the right match. "The best way to find out whether a spa is right for you is to talk to people who have been there."

Consider the season. "You'll get more attention during the slow season, which varies according to each spa's location."

Don't arrive fashionably late. "Plan on checking in around 2 p.m. That gives the hotel enough time to prepare your room -- and it gives you enough time to take in some afternoon activities."

It's not about other people. "I've heard people say, 'These staffers are so buff and energetic.' People feel that they can't live up to that level of conditioning or that they don't have that energy level. Just relax -- this is your time."

Rise and shine. "Your first morning activity might begin at 5:30, and breakfast may not be served until 9. If you can't last that long without eating, request some fruit the night before."

Easy does it. "Don't overschedule yourself. Remember that you're there to relax and that you'll need some downtime."

Be realistic. "You won't leave a spa looking like a supermodel -- unless you came in looking like one."

Coordinates: Jenifer Miller, jmiller999@hotbot.com

Sidebar: Your One-Day Getaway

Great day spas offer many of the same services as destination spas -- except that day spas are generally less expensive and more convenient. No, you won't come away feeling completely transformed after a single day of treatments. But you will be able to recharge your batteries, and you'll be reminded that there are places where people talk about reflexology instead of return on investments.

Noëlle Spa for Beauty & Wellness, located in Stamford, Connecticut (about 50 minutes outside of New York City), was launched in 1973 by Noel de Caprio, who's often credited with creating the day-spa concept. De Caprio passed away last December, after a 12-year battle with cancer. But her spa -- which attends to 2,000 clients each week and which has consulted to more than 100 other day spas, including the first day spa in Japan -- continues to thrive.

The 18,000-square-foot facility was built in 1995, after a fire destroyed the original Noëlle. At the back of the spa, which is as serene as a Zen garden, clients receive facials and other treatments. The front of Noëlle is all action: Hairstylists dart about to the constant beat of pop music and to the ring of laughter.

Today Noëlle is managed by Peter de Caprio, who jokingly refers to himself as "Mr. Noel." Here de Caprio explains how he and his wife created a spa that many consider to be a benchmark within the industry -- and that you too might use as a benchmark whenever you want a daylong getaway.

"After the fire, we built the new facility in seven weeks. That project should have taken six months," says de Caprio. "We had two crews working 22 hours a day. We fed them; we gave them massages and haircuts.

"To celebrate the opening, Noel organized a parade that went from the old place to the new one. With my wife, everything was an event. We couldn't get a parade permit for the street, so about 200 of us just marched right up the sidewalk.

"Everything in this spa comes from the heart. As Noel grew more ill, we began incorporating more and more alternatives into our program: reiki treatments, healing baths, oils, crystals.

"From the Ritz-Carlton, Noel picked up the motto 'We are ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen.' That became her golden rule. She expected staff members to treat everybody as if they were treating her. We continue to expect that of ourselves."

Coordinates: $262 for the "Noëlle Day" (which includes a facial, an antistress massage, makeup application, and lunch). Noëlle Spa for Beauty & Wellness, 203-322-3445

Curtis Sittenfeld (csittenfeld@fastcompany.com) is a Fast Company staff writer.

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