After an exhilarating day on the slopes outside Garmisch-Partenkirchen, in the Bavarian Alps, my friend Ted and I decided to unwind with a swim and sauna in a spa. Nobody had mentioned to us that this particular sauna was a) coed and b) nude—well, not totally nude: Ted and I wore bathing trunks, which prompted much giggling from the unclad fräuleins.
Before moving on to the showers, Ted bravely decided to do as he presumed the Bavarians did: He shucked off his trunks and strutted buck-naked from the locker room. As soon as he disappeared around the corner I heard women screaming and men laughing. He quickly returned to the locker room after being shoved out of the shower and scolded by a beefy female attendant. “Hier geht sowas nicht!” she bellowed. Translation: “We don’t go for that kind of thing around here!”
We understood the language; it was the protocol of the spa that tripped us up, for we, like most American men, did not frequent spas in Germany—or anywhere else for that matter. But times have changed, and now, according to an often-quoted statistic, about a third of spa clients are men. More specifically, the International Spa Association reports that 31 percent of visitors to American spas are men. Indeed, PricewaterhouseCoopers claims that spas are now in greater demand for corporate gatherings than golf courses are.
Though men have become a more common sight at spas in recent years, they can still find the spa experience confounding—as I discovered recently during an ice-climbing adventure in California’s Sierra Nevada mountain range, near the town of June Lake. After a day of scaling frozen waterfalls, dangling precariously from a rope for hours, experiencing moments of terror, and overcoming the instinct to turn back, I faced another daunting task back at the Double Eagle Resort & Spa: I had to decide which treatment to choose. Would I go for the hot-stone massage, an aromatic body-oil wrap, an oxygenating facial, or perhaps all of these before being hosed down in the Vichy shower?
From the Sierra Nevada to the Himalayas, today’s spas offer an astounding assortment of treatments that can be as perplexing as they are relaxing. It seems that every region of the world has evolved its own unique spa culture, with techniques and therapies intended to soothe you, heal your ills, or improve your appearance. But if you were to classify all of these treatments, each could fit—with some exceptions—into one or more of five categories: medical therapy, massage, Ayurveda, water therapy, and vinotherapy.
“As recently as twenty-five years ago the medical community didn’t think much of spas,” says Dr. Louis Bucky, an associate professor of surgery for the division of plastic and reconstructive surgery at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and the chief of plastic and reconstructive surgery at Pennsylvania Hospital. “They were an escape, pleasurable and relaxing, but what they called ‘therapy’ wasn’t taken seriously. Medical schools didn’t accept the positive benefits of relaxation you can get from a spa. Today all that has changed; we recognize the interaction of mind and body. We know that Tibetan monks can lower their internal body temperature through meditation. And we know that a spa can not only improve your complexion, it can be the first step to living better.”
The perception of spas has changed so much, Bucky adds, that now it is sometimes difficult to discern where the spa leaves off and medical practice begins. “Marketing and the media have blurred the lines between the two,” he says. “In the last decade we’ve seen the emergence of the medical spa, a spa whose procedures are overseen by a physician who may or may not personally treat the clientele.”
Canyon Ranch in Lenox, Mass., is one such place. Dr. Mark Liponis, the medical director of the Canyon Ranch Health Resorts and the author of UltraLongevity: The Seven-Step Program for a Younger, Healthier You, says that too often, male executives will dismiss the idea of a four- or six-day spa vacation out of hand. “He might think, ‘A spa vacation? That’s fine for my wife, but there’s nothing in it for me.’ It never occurs to him that he might need a trip to a spa more than his wife does. Men are less inclined than their girlfriends or wives to be proactive about their health. They think they’re invulnerable. But they may be subject to greater stress than their spouses and less likely to do anything about it.”
Therein lies the impetus for Canyon Ranch’s Executive Health Program. The program, designed for a minimum four-day stay, begins with a comprehensive medical checkup that can take as long as 90 minutes. After your exam, you meet with an exercise physiologist and with a nutritionist who reviews your eating habits. If you want to quit smoking or lose weight, you meet with a behaviorist who shows you how to alter your habits to achieve the desired results.
Some of Canyon Ranch’s diagnostic procedures broke new ground in medical care when the company introduced them. “Ten years ago we began testing C-reactive protein,” says Liponis. “It’s a marker of inflammation in the blood and is now recognized as the most powerful predictor of health.”
Reflexology, a type of massage, is analogous both in concept and in practice to acupressure; both are rooted in the idea that organs, nerves, and muscles in one part of the body are linked to pressure points in another. According to reflexology practitioners, the bottom of the foot provides a diagram of the entire body. Massaging or pressing certain points on the foot can be highly revealing because their sensitivity can be a sign of illness, weakness, or stress. For instance, soreness on the bottom of the big toe might indicate a troubled pituitary gland, and the ball of the foot, if painful, could signal a respiratory ailment.
Reflexology’s primary appeal, however, is that it is highly relaxing. A session at one of the three Timeless Spas at Dubai International Airport—including the one in the Emirates Airlines first-class lounge, which provides passengers with complimentary treatments—will leave you tingling when you board your flight. In some Chinese cities reflexology is so popular that pavements in designated areas have sharp stones embedded in the cement, thereby providing the citizenry with a kind of reflexology treatment—also gratis.
Stones, hot ones, are employed in another type of massage, one that spas often advertise by showing a slender, soigné woman of indeterminate age lying on her stomach, her face turned away from the camera and a couple stones placed on her back. This depiction might miss the point of a hot-stone massage, because the person who can benefit most from this treatment is not necessarily some willowy model. On the contrary, at Rescue Rittenhouse Spa near Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square, many of the hot-stone massage clients are professional athletes. “We use the hot-stone technique because a professional athlete’s muscles are so hard and dense you can’t otherwise manipulate them,” says the spa’s proprietor, Danuta Mieloch. “The warmth from the hot stones penetrates their bodies and makes their muscles looser.”
For clients such as Brian Westbrook, the Philadelphia Eagles’ two-time Pro Bowl running back, the hot-stone treatment also promotes faster healing of battle-weary muscles. “What happens is a kind of vascular gymnastics,” explains Mieloch. “The blood vessels open and close as the blood rushes through the capillaries, carrying white blood cells to restore your fatigued muscles.”
Out of India
Spirituality comes before sports at Ananda in the Himalayas, a spa that specializes in Ayurveda. This ancient Indian philosophy of health and wellness is rooted in the belief that the mind and body are controlled by three vital energies, or doshas: Vata controls all bodily activity, from the brain to the bowels; pitta regulates learning, understanding, and wisdom; and kapha endows you with strength, faith, and the ability to make and save money. When the doshas function in balance, they assure a dynamic state of health. But when the balance is disturbed, the body-mind connection suffers.
At Ananda, the Ayurvedic experience typically begins with a consultation to identify your dominant dosha and suggest a corrective regimen of diet and yoga. You can settle your vata with warm milk, cream, butter, warm soups, stews, and hot cereals. Salads and foods with sweet and sour flavors will bring your pitta into balance. And a diet of food that is light and dry and contains a minimum of butter, oil, and sugar will adjust your kapha.
Perhaps the most common Ayurvedic therapy involves warm oil poured slowly on your forehead, which, in sharp contrast to a Chinese procedure involving the forehead and drips of water, is supposed to put you in a relaxed and meditative state.
Water, of course, is central to several spa philosophies and treatments. In the 5th century B.C., long before long walks on the beach became a staple of Internet singles ads, the Greek author Euripides wrote, “The sea washes away all human illnesses.” Thalassotherapy reinforces this notion. The practice evolved from a French biologist’s discovery, in the late 19th century, that the chemical compositions of human cells and seawater were analogous. Shortly thereafter the first thalassotherapy spa opened in Brittany to treat gout, arthritis, and rheumatism, and to promote a general sense of wellness.
Thalassotherapy treatments can incorporate warm seawater showers, the application of seaweed paste to your body, and the inhalation of sea fog. You can also sip seaweed cocktails, which are rich in zinc and copper for improving metabolism; manganese and iron for strengthening muscles and bones; and selenium, cobalt, and vitamins A, C, and E. Thalassotherapy boomed in the late 1960s, when dozens of spas sprouted along the Quiberon peninsula on France’s Brittany coast. The peninsula is not far from the town of Cancale, the oyster capital of France, where you can enjoy the same healthy trace elements on the half shell.
France is also where vinotherapy originated. For millennia, wine has gladdened the soul and fired romance, fueled sociability, and ennobled our rituals. The same grapes that give us wine, say French researchers, can make us appear more vital, more youthful, even more appealing. Such is the power of vinotherapy, a process alleged to be 10,000 times more effective than vitamin E at blocking the effects of toxins responsible for premature aging.
That wine is as good for the body as it is for the soul is not a new concept. But study of wine’s healthful properties intensified in the 1990s with reports of the French Paradox, the discovery that despite a diet of croissants and snails dipped in garlic butter, Gauls enjoy high levels of cardiovascular health. The answer to this conundrum, some researchers believe, involves the French people’s consistent consumption of Cabernets, Merlots, Pinot Noirs, and other wines that are fermented with the grape skin and seeds; besides giving red wine its color, they also contain antioxidants that counteract the development of arterial plaque, thereby contributing to a healthier heart.
The idea that the grape could benefit the skin as well as the heart surfaced at about the same time, when researchers at the University of Bordeaux discovered that the seeds abounded in polyphenols, compounds capable of protecting the skin from the damaging effects of sunlight, smoke, and pollution. Vinotherapy has spread from Bordeaux to other wine-producing regions of the world, including South Africa and the Napa Valley.
In the Napa Valley, the Auberge du Soleil resort has offered vinotherapy since it opened in 2001. As with spas in Bordeaux, its menu of treatments incorporates oils, lotions, teas, and scrubs created from locally sourced grape seeds. Once your skin has absorbed the assorted grape seed–based creams and oils, its collagen content is supposed to soar and thus your biological clock is supposed to slow. And if you want to enjoy a glass of wine while waiting for this transformation to take place, rest assured that Auberge du Soleil’s protocol allows—even encourages—you to do so.