Spa Styles

Pure, Smorgasbord, or Fusion

By Iris Brooks

Originally published in Massage & Bodywork magazine, December/January 2006.

A French restaurant doesn’t serve Chinese food,” explains the owner of a traditional Indonesian spa in Whistler, British Columbia. “So why should we offer Indian or Thai spa treatments when we are presenting a pure Indonesian experience?” While the Taman Sari Spa in Whistler clearly opts for the authentic experience, other spas mix a variety of traditions and techniques into a particular service, offering a fusion or combination practice. And many larger destination and resort spas prefer a smorgasbord of various traditional side-by-side offerings on their spa menus. In this case, a Thai, lomilomi, Swedish, and ayurveda massage may be among many options available in one venue.

I had never really thought about pure, smorgasbord, and fusion approaches to bodywork in relation to spa offerings until my visit to Taman Sari. But it’s preference for presenting a “pure” experience reminded me of my younger days as a musician. When I performed world music, questions of preserving authenticity versus creating new fusion forms came up all the time. Ethnomusicologists batted around documentation of historic forms and contemporary performance practices, which were often a fusion of one type or another. As a flutist, I studied the pure classical music of North India and traditional Japanese shakuhachi repertoire before experimenting with new, fusion creations, merging styles, techniques, and instruments from around the world. For some time, I enjoyed incorporating ethnic techniques into my classical silver flute playing, then I devised my own program that was more of a smorgasbord approach, where I performed on flutes of the world, side by side, in one program. By playing traditional pieces from many lands in one concert, it connected a family of related instruments with a variety of authentic music from around the globe. I believe each system (pure, fusion, and smorgasbord) has its merits, and these same categories may be helpful in assessing different spa presentations and creating your own set of offerings.

As a musician, my travels informed my being on many levels, allowing me to return home with a fresh perspective and more open ears. I suspect similar results await bodyworkers who explore new techniques and concepts from afar. I suggest searching out and receiving global healing practices for a variety of reasons — it’s important not to be stuck in a rut, and the experience of receiving something different may refresh you, as well as your practice.


If you travel to Asia, you are more likely to receive unadulterated spa treatments of a particular ethnicity. For example, a trip to India will offer a chance to learn about and experience ayurvedic services — authentic wood massage tables, unthinkably huge quantities of oil, and a serious understanding of dosha types and how they apply to your entire lifestyle, both off and on the table. Such was the case when I visited the small Kairali spa in Khajuraho (a town known for its incredible temples covered with sensuous carvings) and then the plush healing resort of Ananda in the Himalayas (in the mountains just above Rishikesh). The ayurveda experience at Ananda permeated my stay — meals were even seasoned with appropriate spices for individual dosha body/personality types. In this setting, body analysis is done by an Indian doctor in a most thorough way, including discussion of dreams and emotional issues, as well as physical body traits and habits. This is very different from many American spas that offer only a dosha tea after little or no analysis or just after filling out a short medical history.

But one does not have to travel to the country of origin for an authentic treatment. I was impressed to find a full ayurvedic offering (without the traditional wooden tables) at the Ayoma Spa in the Valencia Hotel located in San Jose, Calif. The spa is the brainchild of ayurveda practitioner Reenita Malhotra Hora, who has also recently written a book titled Inner Beauty (Chronicle Books, 2005). The book imparts some take-home tips, exercises, and secrets for natural beauty and well-being based on the traditions of ayurveda. She includes recipes for creating shampoo from the fruit of a soapnut tree and massage oil laced with healing Indian herbs, as well as detox guidelines for all seasons.

Hora is an ayurveda clinician with the zeal of a missionary, spreading ancient wisdom for maintaining healthy lifestyle and mind/body balance in a practical way. She explained to me: “Ayurveda is not rocket science, voodoo, or bush medicine. It’s not an immune system for Indians. And very importantly, it’s not only an herbal system. Ayurveda is low tech; it’s definitive, a true understanding of self put into the correct perspective.”

Pure Migration

Sometimes the discovery of a traditional treatment in one place leads to pursuing it in the country of origin. My first Thai massage — which took place in Singapore — was one of the most painful treatments I’ve ever had. And yet, I recognized that something important was shifting in my body. Years later, I went to Thailand and discovered Thai massage is most effective for my body (also acting as a catalyst for kundalini energy), and I now appreciate the stretching, which is very reminiscent of doubles or partner yoga.

The spa world is a melting pot offering up unexpected ingredients from around the globe in unpredictable places. I’ve had Tibetan treatments in Italy at Terme di Saturnia and Australia at the Observatory; a Balinese session at the Four Seasons in Japan; a Chinese session at Thala Spa in Eastern Canada where my face was painted different colors according to a Chinese system of color healing; and an Aboriginal wrap in Macau at the Mandarin Oriental. I tried a penetrating Indian head massage both in the Caribbean at the Parrot Cay’s Shambhala Spa and closer to home at the Emerson Inn and Spa in New York. I’ve also sampled ethnic traditions, including an excellent Thai massage in Vermont at the Topnotch Resort and Spa in Stowe.

Not every practitioner has an opportunity or desire to plunge into a truly authentic indigenous healing tradition. But being open to what is available may be the first step toward introducing new services. My first shirodhara experiences of having hot oil poured on my third eye and soaked through my hair came at an Aveda Spa offering a Himalayan rejuvenation package and at the unlikely plush Peninsula Spa in New York City. The extensive treatment menu and high-quality bodywork in this luxurious and safe setting allowed me to discover something new, years before I experienced the deeply penetrating oils in both my scalp and soul in India.

And I imagine the new Indonesian Taman Sari Spa in Whistler will lead many North Americans to learn more about Indonesian spa practices. I was delighted with the authenticity here, even though I have experienced many similar treatments on the islands of Bali, Java, and Lombok. At Taman Sari, the music was not a tired Pachabel Canon, which I hear over and over again in a multitude of spas, but rather an inviting tape of flowing Indonesian gamelan. Traditional batik fabrics and bathrobes added to the décor and temporarily transported me to this magical land even before my treatment began.

In Indonesia, I heard about the secret beauty recipes of the royal family, but it is in Canada where I experienced them. Taman Sari is owned by Yully W. Her great-grandfather, Java, was the Sultan of Surakarta, and her mother, Mooryati Soedibyo, is not just part of the royal family, but the author of a book cataloging 401 herbs of Indonesia (which, unfortunately, is not available in English). What an unexpected surprise to find this spa in an area known primarily as a jewel of a ski resort. My authentic treatment had three parts: I was exfoliated with rice, coated with turmeric (an important healing spice that made me feel like part of a curry dish), and, after a rinse, treated to a white mask from a root of a tropical fruit while reclining beneath a lovely Javanese dancing mask.


Spas offering a smorgasbord approach can be a great educational and experiential opportunity. The high-end Pangkor Laut Resort and Spa on a lovely island off Malaysia is an efficient way to explore a sampling of authentic treatments side by side. You may, for example, meet with an Indian doctor one day and a Chinese physician the next. It is a wonderful place to soak in the various healing practices of Asia.

But international services are also available without leaving the States. The Claremont Hotel and Spa in Berkeley, Calif., for example, is now showcasing Global Journeys, in which guests are greeted with trays displaying exotic ingredients incorporated into their spa service. Artfully arranged coconut, lemongrass, and ginger are among some of the fruits and spices setting the scene for these high-quality spa services inspired from afar.

The Claremont offers a variety of signature treatments, including a tropical island journey with a citrus herb bath, papaya pineapple scrub, and warm coconut oil. My restorative Philippine journey began by sipping ginger citrus tea while steeping my body in a bath filled with a detoxifying mixture of guava leaves, juniper berries, rosemary, bay leaves, and ylang ylang. This deluxe treatment continued with a gentle exfoliating ginger/coconut scrub and a moisturizing massage with coconut oil, misted by neroli water. While not part of the spa treatment per se, the Claremont also has fun fitness classes such as world rhythms and West African dance with live drumming.

Other examples of experiential offerings: In Hawaii, chanting was part of my healing practice. In Arizona at the Wild Horse Pass Aji Spa, at the end of my Blue Coyote wrap, I was presented with a lovely Native American legend about the coyote. In Borneo, after a session with a traditional healer, I remembered her advice to look at the color green when first awakening, so as to soothe my eyes.

This cultural grab bag is enriching for me as a recipient, and I imagine for practitioners it is a very powerful experience, providing a new palette to draw from. When many treatment options are sampled, it is natural to come away with a desire to incorporate an aspect of the experience into our life and/or practices. Gradually, as different approaches find their way in, a new fusion style is born. It’s often not a conscious process and may begin accidentally.


The concept of fusion always reminds me of Ravi Shankar. One of the most prolific master performers, this wonderful sitarist explored classical North Indian music, pushing the boundaries while experimenting with unusual cross-cultural combinations not previously considered part of his tradition. Was his contemporary performance practice just expanding the tradition, or was this pioneer delving into fusion territory? He once told me: “I don’t like the word fusion. It sounds like a cocktail.” So out of respect to his discomfort with the term “fusion,” I’ve thought of his great mastery in the “crossover” department. When considering incorporating ethnic spa adventures, cross over to mix and match elements from more than one place.

The Allegria Spa at the Park Hyatt in Beaver Creek, Colo., offers a good example of a fusion approach in its signature treatments given in a lovely Asian-influenced setting. The barefoot massage, done on standard massage tables, is available in rooms outfitted with ceiling bars for the therapist to hold. This deeply relaxing treatment is based on a form of bodywork brought from China, Thailand, and Japan and is similar to what I experienced in Vietnam. While not specifically from a particular tradition, the barefoot massage is one of several Asian-inspired treatments offered at Allegria, such as the Soy Chai Wrap — a detoxifying ritual involving an appealing fragrant and colorful mud.

At the laid-back Mountain Top Inn in Chittenden, Vt., I received a good fusion treatment from a Japanese gentleman. Because I didn’t specify which type of massage I wanted (unusual for me), he treated me to his special combination. Beginning with a shiatsu overview, he then applied hot stones to relax certain parts of the body and worked his hands along my meridians to address energy issues, as well as muscle soreness, while using lotion rather than oil. A Japanese fusion form massage is a delightful and unexpected treat in rural Vermont. It suggested to me that therapists could encourage an option of a no-name massage, just blending what they believe the client needs at the moment. (This is similar to the concept of the “time ritual” at the Mandarin Oriental Spa in New York, Washington D.C., and Miami).

When I go to a session with my Tibetan practitioner in New York, I am receiving the benefits of her training as a Chinese and Western doctor, a Swedish massage therapist, and aspects of traditional healing from Tibet. When she helps me, is it important to know which tradition is kicking in, or is it time to let go and be thankful? While the journalist part of me would like to understand, I find that most healing takes place when I let go and accept the offerings, wherever they may come from.

And similarly, while it is recommended that bodywork professionals expand their base of knowledge by trying new treatments, it is also important to let go and receive the offering. The therapist is also the client, and this role reversal is important in regenerating oneself. You may be analytical before or after your treatment, but try to take in the experience by letting go and just receiving.


In exploring spa services with an eye and ear to global perspectives, soak it all in. Whether you are experiencing an authentic tradition, a variety of different exotic practices, or the benefits of a fused cultural stew, remain open to the offering. Try sampling new delicacies. After all, you may soon be serving different recipes or refining old classics.