The emotional lift
Matt Vincent / For the Times
The emotional lift

Illuminate, exfoliate

Chakra balancing, hypnotherapy, sex talk: Today you can find them all, and more, on the spa menu.
By Valli Herman, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
February 24, 2008
A questionnaire for new clients at the Murad health center, a spa in El Segundo, wants to know everything about you. Ever had heart problems? How about back pain? And what if you had no obligations tomorrow? Do you have any meaningful plans for the rest of your life?

The 34-page lifestyle Q&A doesn't hold back. It wants to know "the last time you felt really well" and whether you "begin the day with activities that nurture your body and spirit." If the answers are hard to find, then you'd better start thinking about them. Today's spas are out to do more than merely erase age spots or ease a few kinks in your neck.

Hypnotherapy. Chakra balancing. Journal writing. Sex talk. Nothing is off limits as spas have become our gurus on mountaintops, places to go for relaxation, pampering and now, enlightenment. Once the occasional escape for clients hoping to reconnect to their bodies, spas have become destinations for clients hoping to cure insomnia, combat stress, cleanse negative energy, and keep track of feelings about aging, eating and self-esteem.

Sessions are quick -- sometimes less than an hour -- and are designed to offer a jolt of education and self-awareness that will redirect bad habits, negative thinking and unhealthy lifestyles.

That's a long way from the days when spas were derided as fat farms for crash dieting. Now, in addition to taking home glowing skin, spa clients are exploring nontouch therapies that were once considered outright strange: meditation, vibrational therapy and guided imagery in sweat lodges and saunas. The surprise? They can work, if you want them to, and not just for a day.

Judy Meyers, a retired special education teacher from Southfield, Mich., has been coming to the Oaks at Ojai for 15 years. During her annual weeks-long visits, Meyers uses the spa as a place to reflect on life and its pressures and to relieve stress through such activities as art classes and morning hikes.

"I think I've bought my health here, the physical, emotional, mental -- the whole works," Meyers says. Along the way, she has learned that physical fitness doesn't come without emotional well-being.

"The number one reason people go to spas is to relax," says Lynne McNees, president of the International Spa Assn. "When we can't relax, we can't sleep, we get crabby, and our intimate relationships probably suffer."

The typical spa-goer is in her mid-40s and often saddled with a job, family and enough other life pressures that limit her opportunities to seek relief, until, that is, she hits the spa.

Spa of your dreams

In a dimly lighted, velvet-lined room, I'm wearing a thick, white robe and gazing at a foot-tall quartz crystal. I'm waiting for a new treatment at , the year-old spa at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. A floor below me on this Friday morning, gamblers are trying their luck at the slot machines, but I'm here to learn more about my dreams.

I've enlisted in Qua's Dream Interpretation Journey, a 50-minute, $130 session in which a dream coach can help me decipher the picture parade that floats through my subconscious. After a brief consultation, it becomes clear to me and my coach -- a clinical psychologist who's trained in hypnotherapy -- that as an insomniac, I would benefit from something deeper than dream decoding. He suggests hypnosis to help me disconnect from anxiety and peacefully fall to sleep.

Eyes closed, mind alert and concentrating on his words, I start to relax, envision and corral my anxieties, then let them free. Guiding me back to full awareness, the psychologist teaches me how to repeat the relaxation procedure by myself, anytime I need to.

Though fancy facials and herbal mud wraps have cleared my skin for a few days, none has ever cleared my consciousness. It may be rehab-lite, but as more patrons find emotional relief, spas are actively blending rubs and scrubs meant to pamper with programs that tackle the psychological toll of life.

Pamela Madison, founder of a Santa Barbara women's sexuality center, teaches a sexuality seminar at the Oaks at Ojai. "It's a great setting," she says. "The women are not in their daily life. They are there to relax, to take care of themselves and to be nurtured."

Madison has found receptive listeners who grow gradually more comfortable learning how to increase their libidos, deal with hormonal shifts and create an emotional and physical space for sex. Yes, that may mean candles, music, exercises and sex toys. Attendees get a chance to discuss problems and consider solutions that may never have occurred to them elsewhere.

"Spas are filling a need and a niche," says Sheila Cluff, who founded the Oaks at Ojai. Though women may have found sympathy from their hairdressers and manicurists, at spas they're offered a range of trained professionals who can quickly explore deeper issues.

"I only have one hour to make an impact," says Stacy Margolin Potter, an eating and lifestyle counselor who treats Oaks patrons. "So sometimes my comments will be direct and to the point." It's not uncommon, she says, for clients to discuss body image, only to learn "that they're using it as a distraction for what they may actually be worried about." Like psychotherapy, repeat sessions are encouraged.

Of course, destination spas such as the Oaks, Arizona's Canyon Ranch and Escondido's Golden Door have long offered intensive educational programs. Now, however, those programs go beyond heart-healthy cooking or tips for stopping smoking. The Golden Door offers 20 different "inner focus" classes in which participants can engage in art therapy through clay sculpting, meditative walking, journaling, or qi gong and breathing exercises to aid the immune system and the mind.

Canyon Ranch has so many options in its spirituality programs that they're separated into preventive medicine (sexual health and sleep medicine), healing energy ("acuphoria," reiki, healing touch) and life management (healthy family business, self-esteem mapping, positive psychology). If you're inclined toward the metaphysical, you can enroll in astrology or handwriting analysis or take a shamanic journey.

Some future spas will be different in name, function and layout. The spa under construction at Cavallo Point lodge near Sausalito is called the Healing Arts Center and will offer traditional facials and wraps but also include conference rooms and venues for yoga and herbal therapy.

The Four Seasons Hotel in Westlake Village combines its spa's traditional amenities with wellness programs at the in-house California Health & Longevity Institute, creating a whole new version of the "health spa." Here, while medical doctors assess your heart health, a lifestyle counselor customizes a life stress-reduction program. You can get a body wrap at the spa to detox tissues and partner it with a body-fat scan to deliver a more scientific measurement of your well-being.

Lasting effect

Spa treatments for the mind may offer only a temporary fix, but even momentary relief counts. A year ago I checked into the Four Seasons and enrolled in a program that examined my physical and mental states. I had sessions with a personal trainer, a dietitian and a life coach who gave me strategies for keeping my weight low, my stress lower and my life in balance.

After four hours I walked away refreshed, yet a year later, my resolve had weakened. So I returned for a tuneup, this time for an energy balancing treatment with Barbara Savin, the institute's clinical hypnotherapist and energy specialist, who, as I reclined on a massage table, rebalanced my chakras with the touch of her hand and the focus of her thoughts.

"I look at healing as pampering, whether it's hypnotherapy or a massage," Savin says.

The lure of relief is also attractive to spa-goers who can't spare the time or money for an immersion program, and some day spas are getting into the game.

At Exhale Spa in Santa Monica, clients can enroll in wellness coaching, which includes a segment devoted to developing new life management skills, or they can have a $100 half-hour, acu-energetic therapy session to reduce stress with a mix of acupuncture and reiki or a guided visualization. At the Red Tent in Venice, founder Caroline Keating is drafting a spa program that eases women through life phases, from the teen years through menopause. Would there have been a client base for such a program 30 years ago? Cluff at the Oaks thinks not.

"When I started to explain to my clients that you can't separate the mind from the body, it was kind of a maverick idea," she says. "Attendance would be four. Now they're packed."

Which in itself could raise a new set of problems.