'Spa-ing' as Holistic Healing Engagement

This highly interactive session (presented at ISPA's annual conference, November, 2000) was based on several "radical" (i.e., getting to the roots) questions that facilitated the audience, through smaller cluster groups, to "peel back the layers." Finally, in plenary session, using open microphones we endeavored to get to the core of the spa experience as Holistic Healing Engagement. This "breakout workshop" consisted of approximately 250 spa professionals.

Questions of enquiry were:
    1. Why do our spa clients come to us?  What lies at the core of their needs?
    2. What does "holistic" imply?
    3. What can we learn from "spa-ing" in the "primitive" cultures of our ancestors?
    4. What is the common root of the concepts "treatment" and "treaty?"
    5. How does this apply to the spa context?
    6. How relevant is the yin-yang principle to spa therapy?
    7. What is "Sacred Trust?"  How does it relate to the spa experience?
    8. If a "Surrendering" is implied in the healing spa experience, who surrenders what, and, to whom?
    9. How can we ensure Holistic Healing to become integral to our daily spa activities consistently?  What tends to get in the way?
    10. What is meant by the act of becoming more "mindful?" What does this have to do with "practicing pure presence?"

    Additionally, the remainder of this break-out session was to address very practical implementation steps of attracting and retaining qualified staff personnel who would deliver the classic "core" services implied throughout the session. Due to a very high level of audience participation, we were only able to adequately get to questions 1 -- 5 within the two-hour time allotment.

    The following is a transcripted summation of the discursive process (exhibited here in italics) up to Question #5, with added commentary, through Question #9, by Jurgen Ahlers.


    #1. Why do our clients come to us?
    What lies at the core of their needs?

    To be nourished . . . To connect (mind, body, spirit) . . . with self, with "community" . . .To discover our "source" . . . to get back to the purity and essence of the self . . . Spa seen as an "oasis experience" . . . To remember who we are . . . To make whole . . . To loosen the social programming (conditioning) of self and reconnect with our "temple" . . .  To get in touch with our individual mystique, our mystical nature . . . To surrender, to "let go," trusting in the spa experience to carry us. . . To get advice . . . To learn about living more healthfully. . . To be pampered, touched, loved! . . . To experience "time out."

    We seem largely to experience difficulty in surrendering, because of our inclination to be "control freaks." Fear and love are the two great emotions that determine most of our actions. Yet the great majority of people seem to be existentially "conditioned," motivated not by love (the natural state we were born with), but by fear, usually a chronic, reactive mode of our existence, e.g., having the "right" look, house, car, spouse, job, etc.  There are ways of changing this conditioning, as we will see momentarily.


    #2. "Holistic" Implications

    To treat the whole person (body, mind, spirit, emotion) . . . beauty is really the end result . . . Synergy: between spa personnel and clients being treated . . . Shared energy . . . Holistic Healing Engagement implies a rare, precious sense of being connected -- ultimately with one's self, but also with spa practitioner and even the environment. This area needs more attention. Spas, particularly day-spas, are often disconnected and seemingly disregardful of their contextual environment.

    Holistic implies healing, becoming whole, cleansed, purified . . . “holy.” "SPA"  comes from the Latin: salus per aqua, translated as "healing by water." Holiness, as sanctity, is a critical element of our humaness, happiness, even our "destiny," however unaware we may be about it.  Holiness is not simply something "set apart," as we've been taught. On the contrary, it may well be the magical part of our everyday experience, just as water is part of our necessary, daily experience. Holiness, in its contemporary idiom, is "having your . . . (act) together" . . . (in a world often perceived as “broken,” splintered, insane)! In German, when people go to "Kur," they go for Erholung, transliterally: to "re-heal."


    #3. Learning from "primitive" societies

    The utilization of natural elements such as air, water, earth, and plants . . . Connecting to the environment . . . "Primitives" believe we are the earth, that we belong to and are connected to all matters earth . . . Honoring, revering earth's healing power . . . Native American traditions of sharing rituals, stories, and elder wisdom in the context, e.g., of the sweat lodge . . . Spa-ing had/has great social/communal bonding significance . . . Honoring, revering Spirit's connectedness and expression of earth's sacred bounty . . .

    Spa-ing in the "primitive" context had a deep cleansing, renewing effect. Baptism, e.g., is ancient  symbolism of "drowning" to the old life  and  re-birthing to the new. "Primitive" cultures teach us that what we call "the spa experience" invites us to get in touch with our sacred energy and to generously share this sacred energy with one another -- our loved ones, our fellow colleagues, and then, extending it, naturally, to our clients. The African foundational concept of obuntu, "I am because we are," and the foundational Native American concept, mitakaye oyasin, "all our relations (we are all related / connected)," both point to the importance of shared community and healing that occurs when community, e.g.,  "sweats" together. The ancient Japanese ritual of the communal hot/cold bath, and the ancient Scandinavian practice of the communal sauna evoke a similar theme of engendering shared good feelings and regeneration.

    In the course of the discussion, concern was raised re. how to engender community in the contemporary spa environment, where individual privacy is prized. A growing trend, e.g., group Yoga, group breath-work, couples' massage, mother/daughter or bridal parties, seem to indicate growing readiness to embrace community-sharing experiences. Additionally, community/relationship-building can also be generated on a profound level, simply between client and spa therapist. Case in point: Mel Zuckerman's personal, radical "conversion" (as he shared at the conference) from real-estate to spa-development, i.e., Canyon Ranch, etc., through his initial connecting with Karma Kienzler, his physical therapist at Ojai Spa in the late '70s.


    #4/5 "Treatment," "Treaty," and "A Special
    Treat!"  . . .  a common thread?

    Treaty = Agreement, usually to work cooperatively toward something that is whole, unifying . . . Treaty implies demonstrating respect, trust and inter-dependability . . . Client and spa therapist enter an unspoken agreement: a giving and receiving for a common benefit . . .

    In the spa context, a "treat" is a "reward." Spa practitioners will do well to see their services as a "rewarding," "gifting," i.e., "treating" their client with her/his authentic gift: her/his thoughts, attentiveness, skills and "pure presence" -- all working together to create a very memorable experience. In turn, the client "rewards," "treats" the practitioner with honor, joy, often with the token expression of a significant gratuity. Interestingly, however, many spa practitioners have not yet come to fully own, and consequently, practice their Authentic Gift. Spa owners/directors will do well to encourage "agreements" that help to identify and develop, i.e., to authenticate, the best in their practitioners.


    #5. The Yin-Yang Effect of Spa Therapy

    (From this point onward, the two hour time-frame did not allow adequate audience exploration/participation to deal with each successive question "radically").

    The spa industry is essentially at the heart of the burgeoning hospitality industry, with Host (spa practitioner) and Guest (client) interacting in hopefully meaningful relationship. The hospitality/spa industry gains in success as it lavishes ego-stroking on its clientele. And the key to successful ego-stroking is letting go of your own ego cravings, i.e., claim  your Authentic Gift of healing/engaging and share it generously . . without focusing on any "pay-back."

    The Greek word for hospitality, philoxenia ("loving the stranger") gives us a clue to yin-yang's efficacy. To love the stranger, not simply our loved ones or even people who are like us, but the stranger, s/he who are truly different, or even foreign, from us -- what a paradox with remarkable potential for miraculous outcomes! Ego-stroking is healing engagement: "doing onto others as you would have them do unto you." It is no coincidence that hospitality and hospital share the same basic concept: the place or activity where caring for another is at the center of its identity and mission. And, for our purposes, this begins at the heart of the spa operation, at "the back of the house."


    #6. Sacred Trust and the Spa Experience

    Everything talked about in the preceding dialogue: spa-ing as holistic, healing engagement, points to sacred energy as being at the very essence of the spa experience. As spa providers, we would do well to claim our sacred energy as "healers," and consequently, know that we are trustworthy, i.e., our clients can entrust us with their (often unspoken) needs. Unfortunately, many of us don't take time out (or better said: "time-in") regularly, to get in touch with, and affirm, our personal sacredness. Consequently, we cannot effectively transmit our sacred energy to another. For those who do, however, power beyond measure, lies at their fingertips!

                Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that
                we are powerful beyond our measure. It is our light, not our darkness,
                that most frightens us . . . (and this light) is not just in some of us. It is
                in everyone, and as we let our light shine, we unconsciously give other
                people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own
                fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

    Why the difficulty in owning and celebrating our light, our sacredness? A consumer-driven society dictates that we are essentially inadequate. Sacred energy, ours to be claimed, is, however, like a muscle, that needs to be used, to be developed. Simply put, if our sacred energy is not exercised, it atrophies!

    For spa owners/directors, your own affirmed, exercised sacred energy is paramount to the evocation and praxis of your fellow employees' sacred energy as they relate to your clients. Become aware of your own self-healing, your sacred energy, as a continually deepening and unfolding process. Be open, solicit self-discovery and in doing so, own up to your own unique strengths, as well as shortcomings (which, incidentally, are simply road signs to continued personal growth and development). Model self-care, and in doing so, be an agent of self-care to others.


    #7. Implications of Surrendering

    Synonyms for "surrendering"  (listed on flip-chart):  to yield . . . to let go of . . . (control?) . . . to back down . . .  As previously touched on, spa-ing has a great deal to do with relationship-building, connecting, trust-building: engaging Spirit to evoke spirit and healing. Surrendering and trusting are intertwined (cf., yin-yang). We surrender pretentiousness, attachments to our sense of personal importance and "busy-ness," and thus become more open to giving/receiving our authentic gift -- sensing and serving the needs of our clients (internal and external). Our clients surrender themselves into our hands, and together, we trust and engage in the unfolding healing process. Surrendering is emptying, letting go of "shoulds-oriented superegos" and starting the healing process of genuinely loving self and thereby being enabled to more genuinely receive and love others.

    It would be good to keep in mind the ancient practice of pilgrimage. Pilgrimage was a quest, an intentional search for healing. Usually, pilgrimage encompassed all four elements of healing: physical, mental, spiritual and emotional. Not to be underestimated is the ritual of approach, or “aspiration.” Aspiration implied a yearning, genuinely wanting to heal, to grow in wisdom and wellbeing. The ritual began with setting time aside, to seek, to connect, to reflect. Usually, once arrived, the ritual required bathing, cleansing. Salus per aqua, the acronym for spa, meant: healing by water.

    In the contemporary spa experience, we will do well to encourage authentic ritual that endow the healing experience with deeper meaning.


    #8. Ensuring Holistic Healing
    in daily spa activities

    When we've learned to integrate the ongoing practice of surrendering it actually becomes difficult to remain on "auto-pilot!" When the conscious act of surrendering becomes habitual, we  become "stronger," growing more open to the "flow" of the moment, more receptive of others' energies which we previously (sub-consciously) blocked out. A word of caution: judgmentalism has a way of too easily sneaking in, i.e., that inner voice demanding/reprimanding our own, as well as others' "shoulds," "can'ts" etc. Learning to become more vigilant, more mindful, will help guard against this seduction.


    #9. Becoming more mindful . . .
    Learning to "practice presence"

    It will be helpful to distinguish between the two Greek concepts of time: chronos and kairos. Many (especially the "efficient" among us) lead lives governed by the measured quantity of time, not by its quality. We determine what we do by how much time we have/have not -- with the latter usually winning out! Kairos, on the other hand, is living more aware, more fully in the "momentousness of the moment!" Kairos teaches us to become more aware of the quality of time. Learning to be more present to the moment, to the Authentic Gift another seeks to express, or, to be more present to our own Authentic Gift, empowers us to facilitate more effective, holistic healing. When our clients glimpse (and they do!) that we're really there, really present with him/her -- we're on our way to forging precious moments that seek to linger. Genuine, authentic presence connects: to the land, the air, self, and, of course, others.

    It takes small, intentional "baby" steps to become more mindful and thus more present. Each  of  us has this  ability  to  live  more  generously  in the moment.  For example, try very slowly (!), chewing and ingesting a simple raisin -- mindfully. Practice more frequent active/reflective listening, receiving what another says, without judging.

    Learning to practice presence is one of the truly great secrets of success in people-intensive environments. It leads us toward a keener sensitivity and praxis of our unique "destiny," that beckons to be affirmed and celebrated in the dawning of each moment.

    * * *

    The spa industry is "exploding" and thus, increasingly competitive. What will set your spa apart from others will not be its physical facility as much as how you "spa." It's the "how" and "why" more than the "what" that will determine your spa's effectiveness. When you and your staff convey Spirit, when Spirit infuses everything "done" at your spa, when Spirit resonates internally within the walls of your institution, when each therapist sees him/herself as healer, present to his/her own needs, vulnerabilities and strengths -- then you and your fellow staff members will be enabled to self-extend, ever practicing the refined art of healing, being there, in the moment, and impacting those precious moments with shared meaning! What will set your spa apart from others is when you discover that your spa has "soul." And when soul is finally discovered and affirmed, it, quite naturally, will seek means of expression. Soul's intent is healing . . . connecting . . . communing, making whole.

    Learn to teach your institution's soul to dance!