Spa Specialties

Fresh Philosophies Empower Healthy Lifestyles

By Mary Bemis

Originally published in Body Sense magazine, August/Winter 2005.

With consumers turning to complementary therapies, gentler forms of exercise, and more mindful eating practices, it’s no surprise that today’s top spas are focusing on a philosophy of overall health as well. According to a recent International Spa Association (ISPA) study, 27 percent of today’s spas offer exercise programs and facilities as part of their spa experience, while 71 percent offer yoga, 68 percent offer posture and alignment classes, and 51 percent offer spiritual or mind-body programs. It seems we’re all craving more than a moment of sanity in a world that requires 24-hour tune-in. Here is a look at some of the ways spas are trying to satisfy that craving for us.

The Spa Kitchen

In the beginning, nobody knew what spa cuisine was, and we had to create what we thought was healthy,” says Cathy Cluff, managing director of the Oaks at Ojai, a destination spa in Ojai, Calif. When the Oaks opened its doors 28 years ago, spa cuisine was very basic — think carrots, celery, and the occasional, tasteless cracker. A total calorie count for the day was a small (and unhealthy) 750 calories, compared to the spa’s 1,200 calorie count of today.

“There was a twigs-and-sticks kind of mentality,” Cluff says. “As the consumer became more savvy, so did the spa.” The Oaks is fortunate in that it uses much of the area’s fresh fruit and produce in the creation of its spa meals. “Our guys are picking mint every day out of our own herb garden for garnish,” Cluff says. “People’s palates are more sophisticated now, and that’s where we really have to keep up. In the last five-plus years, we’ve really tried to make sure people don’t feel like they’re being deprived.” To that end, the spa provides healthy snacks every few hours, such as fruit smoothies, vegetables and dip, and an evening popcorn snack. “Now we’re focused on making sure people are satisfied with their meals,” she says.

Natalia Rose, a certified clinical nutritionist and weight-loss expert and author of the new book The Raw Food Detox Diet (Regan Books, 2005), also believes people are more educated than ever when it comes to food choices. “There’s a growing trend toward mindful eating,” she says. “There’s a growing awareness food is not just what’s being sold to you. What’s fit for human consumption is something entirely different. The organic movement is a great indicator that something is happening. People are starting to think about the fact that some of these hormones, antibiotics, preservatives, pesticides, and additives can actually be damaging.” Eating healthfully, Rose says, has become more socially acceptable. “I’m finding in my practice that people realize counting calories and the old-school way of losing weight doesn’t really appeal to them anymore. They understand deprivation will just make them feel bad about themselves.”

The Spiritual Spa

Spirituality is in every piece of the spa experience: It’s the thread that’s entwined in all of the fabric that is the spa experience,” says Amy McDonald, spa and program director at The Living Spa at El Monte Sagrado in Taos, N.M. Balancing the mind, body, and spirit is at the core of the spa philosophy. More and more spas are focusing on the spiritual side, creating new programs to help the spa guest reconnect with her inner self. Nurturing the spirit through various spa services and programs has become more of a priority as we work to cope with increased stress. (Scientists are also discovering how spirituality can help eliminate stress. Note the establishment of Duke University’s Center for the Study of Religion/Spirituality and Health, as well as the Spirituality and Healing in Medicine conferences at Harvard Medical School.)

“I have had the honor of only working in spas that are spiritual and that recognize the importance of mind, body, spirit,” McDonald says, “The most powerful spa experiences are when all three of those components are integrated into the guest experience. The only way that is possible is by offering grounded educational programs, as well as spa services.” Spirituality, McDonald relates, is something that can be explained in programs but ultimately is only experienced in the guest’s own time. “We are all spiritual beings and spas have the opportunity and the responsibility to reconnect people back to themselves. By reconnecting people back to themselves, they experience a spiritual reconnection,” she says.

What better place to embrace the spirit than at a nurturing spa haven? “Spas are becoming, in some ways, the largest provider of a variety of different kinds of spiritual practices, and people don’t think of these, but so many come from real traditions and they’re very powerful,” says Steve Kiesling, editor of Spirituality & Health magazine. It’s important, he says, to remember the context of these spiritual practices and to handle them with regard.

The Garden Spa

We’ve sought out the healing properties of plants for centuries, but bringing garden-fresh ingredients to the spa experience is a trend that’s going strong. Some of the more popular picks? Carrots and tomatoes for their antioxidant properties, cucumbers to de-puff tired eyes, apples and oranges as natural exfoliators, and a plethora of herbs, such as rosemary, basil, and mint.

At the Waldorf-Astoria’s Plus One Spa in New York, N.Y., spa-goers can choose the Salad Gommage ($195, 80 minutes), an exfoliating body treatment that uses ground black walnuts combined with apple extract, in a play on the famous Waldorf Salad. At the Red Mountain Spa in Ivins, Utah, the signature Desert Rose Facial ($85, 50 minutes) relies on fragrant, garden-fresh roses and lightly steamed rose hips to deliver a hydrating facial ideal for irritated or sensitive skin.

“Truly natural ingredients in quality products, which are effective and have long-term and short-term benefits, is a top trend in skin care in the spa,” says London-based spa consultant Susan Harmsworth. A leading example of a spa that brings the abundance of the garden inside is Napa Valley’s Spa du Soleil at Auberge du Soleil. “We’ve always been very natural here,” says spa director Peggy Francis. “For me personally, our skin is our largest organ and I want to be sure that what I’m putting on my skin is pure and clean and healthful and nourishes my skin.” Francis planted an herb garden at the spa last year and is now concocting all sorts of natural herbal treatments. She infuses massage oil with rosemary and calendula, for example, and is using lemon verbena in a scalp treatment. She also harvests rose geranium, which she places in muslin bags for guests’ baths.

“The inspiration behind the garden is that we have all of these beautiful plants in California. Plants are just so giving with what they have to nourish the body. We wanted to be able to use that. I feel that our hands and our hearts are doing the healing work here, and I wanted to take it a step further where the land produces the herbs that we then use in our treatment. So, esoterically, for me it’s just another extension of the beauty and the healing benefits of this place.”