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Mind over matter

What does a holistic approach to wellness at the spa look like?

There is a side to the spa that may put a skeptic on alert. The benefits of a massage or a body treatment might be readily apparent, as is the indulgent necessity of a mani-pedi, but what about something like gem therapy and Reiki? On the surface it seems like a New Age holdover of a more bohemian era, out of place in an age of results-oriented science-backed spa treatments. But look a little deeper and it appears that we may be focusing all our energy on caring for the physical bodies of our clients and neglecting their mental well-being.

“We’re getting away from the basics of the mind-body-spirit energy,” says The Feel Good Company president and founder Rose Weinberg. In her teens and early 20s, Weinberg was plagued by anxiety and panic attacks so severe she found it hard to leave her house. In her 30s, determined that she would no longer live that way, Weinberg went in search of unorthodox solutions to her mental health issues. She discovered three.

“My lifeline is homeopathy, nutrition is my nurturing friend and Reiki is my soul mate,” Weinberg says. Now a homeopath, holistic nutritionist, and certified Reiki Master herself, Weinberg has constructed a livelihood out of addressing the wellness needs of her clients using a holistic approach. An “umbrella of wellness” as she calls it.

“We humans are striving to achieve a sense of peace,” Weinberg says. “We want to activate this peacefulness as quickly as possible when we get into the spa, so that when we walk out we can carry that peacefulness gained from the spa into our busy lives, whether it’s for the day, the week.”

Spas run the gamut from luxurious indulgence to the most clinical medi spas and wellness retreats, and often a spa will try to encompass both. To a certain extent it has always been that way, but there is a current trend of clients coming to the spa seeking specific results: to lose weight, to deal with a chronic pain issue, to achieve younger, fresher looking skin.

But more than anything, people come to the spa seeking a haven from the stress of the outside world. They are looking to achieve some measure of peace that will sustain them until their next spa visit. Those sorts of results are hard to quantify.

Self-talk and self-help
“People don’t just go to the spa to look better, they go to the spa to feel better,” says DeeAnn Lensen, president and CEO of Advanced Spa Technologies and former Leading Spas of Canada board member. A self-described life-long student of self help, Lensen is an aesthetic educator and spa consultant, and a certified coach with the Center for Empowerment.

“It changed my life,” Lensen says of the first course she took at the Center for Empowerment with her husband. “It just really gave us tools in our tool belt about being mindful within ourselves.” Immediately, Lensen saw the possible applications for the spa industry, especially what she had learned about self-talk and how detrimental it could be.

“When people go to have a spa treatment they lie there and they self-talk everything they have no control over – the things they need to do at work, in relationships. We feel good about ourselves to the exact degree that we are in control, and we have no control over anything that’s happening outside of that room, nor does the therapist,” Lensen says.

Not only are clients not relaxed and present during their treatments, stress may be causing the spa therapist’s attention to wander as well, Lensen says. That’s why she preaches a top-down approach to wellness at the spa. “We need to address not only what the client really needs, but what the therapist needs,” she says. “The staff has to be empowered and inspired. Don’t just throw product knowledge at them and then at the end of the month tell them they didn’t sell enough. There’s a trickledown effect and it has to start at the top.”

The top-down approach
Guests may not see spa managers rushing around behind the scenes but they will definitely notice the atmosphere of tension and unease, says certified wellness coach and mindfulness training facilitator Stacy Conlon. “I find that creating a culture of mindfulness and wellness within the business side of the spa really does translate very nicely to the guests,” she says.

It’s all about putting your oxygen mask on before you help others with theirs, Conlon says, borrowing a common airplane safety instruction. “We have to be empowered as [spa] owners to practice [mindfulness], to set time aside, and to take care of ourselves as well,” she says.
Conlon recommends that spa staff do a minute or two of quiet meditation before starting their day. As for spa clients, she suggests finding a place at the spa for meditation.

“One of the most powerful things that can be provided is a space for meditation, having a meditative type of experience available for guests, even if it’s in the waiting room,” Conlon says. She points to Osmosis Spa in California as an example, where a simple outdoor space with hammocks and sound therapy – basically iPods given to each guest with healing binaural beats – gives guests an opportunity to “meditate or relax right there on site.”

The concept of mindfulness is both simple and difficult to integrate in the spa. Simple because, as Conlon explains, it doesn’t really require any special equipment, just some self-discipline and a quiet space. Conlon describes mindfulness as “being aware and tuning in to what is exactly in this moment, not stuck on the past or the future.” It is a practice that she says leads to many health benefits such as lowering blood pressure, an increased sense of resilience, emotional intelligence, and quality of sleep.

“When I started out years ago I was met with a little bit more resistance, but I think now it has really hit critical mass,” Conlon says. “In the last 30 years or so there’s been exponential growth in the amount of research that’s been done examining mindfulness and meditation, so it really scientifically validates dozens of health benefits.”

A mindful space
But spas may have trouble adding mindfulness to the menu when the staff is not knowledgeable about how to guide a meditation or lack an awareness of what mindfulness really is. Lensen suggests having experts come in and teach meditation, or offer life coaching courses. Instead of beauty magazines in the waiting room, perhaps scatter some books with poetry and inspiring quotes, she says. Conlon recalls her time at Miraval Spa in Arizona where she was encouraged to write an inspirational word on a card before she got a massage.

“It was this idea that, before I go into my treatment this is sort of my mantra for the treatment and I took that with me,” Conlon says. “As I had my massage the massage therapist was very quiet, the music was playing, there was aromatherapy. It really set the stage for me to go into a meditative space as I thought about my mantra.”

In cases where a spa therapist does have mindfulness and meditation training, Conlon points out that this is an excellent opportunity to combine ministering to the body and mind at the same time. For example, the therapist could guide the client in a meditation while giving them a body treatment.
The spa is already designed to be a mindful space, Conlon says. It’s just a matter of being aware of that and facilitating it so that spa guest are able to achieve the peace and quiet they are seeking.

Lensen says spa owners and managers should be asking themselves “When I walk into the spa am I going to feel inspired and relaxed?”

“If the answer is no, what can you change to make that happen?”

Hermione Wilson

Hermione has a background in lifestyle and entertainment journalism. After graduating from Humber College’s journalism program, where she wrote for the school’s newspaper and various magazines, Hermione interned at TV Guide Canada, writing television reviews, and at Canadian Living, where she sampled goodies from the Test Kitchen.

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