Authentic Wellness and Spa Experiences

Since we’re always up for a challenge—especially ones that entails deep research into local customs, traditions and beliefs.  In 1998 I was challenged to conceptualize a spa in Beijing. I were thrilled to be invited to participate in creating the concept behind a high-end luxury spa in Beijing, China. Because my personal experience in spa development was somewhat limited, our client suggested I join them in conducting a world spa tour to reveal the full range of cultural and sensory traditions that inform spa culture.

What I learned very quickly was that many of the most lasting healing experiences have one thing in common—access to and a focus on a specific set of locally found natural resources (such as hot springs, steam vents, mud baths, algae, sea water, mountain air, or local plants and minerals). Some even possess (or purport to possess) vortexes. But that’s another story for another newsletter.

Anyway, in my travels, it became clear that nearly all cultures at one time or another have found ways to embrace nature as a tool for enhancing health and wellbeing. This includes the obvious things like using local materials to build shelter and local plants and animals to provide nourishment or a means of economic sustenance. But it also includes the less obvious things—the things in life that just make people feel better. Over time, as cultures develop and advance, a greater premium is naturally put on culture, health, belief, art, architecture, cuisine, you name it.

In Japan, for instance, a highly ritualized, very refined culture centered on hot springs evolved in tandem with the dynamic and highly ritualized civic culture flourished. Hot springs were left often in their natural form, but an entire Onsen Town lifestyle developed—where spa visitors would stroll through the streets of hot springs towns dressed in identical cotton yukata (one-piece robes that accompany you during the duration of your visit to the springs).

In Italy, home of some of the world’s most ritualized Spa culture (immortalized in Federico Felini’s 8 1/2), ‘taking the waters’ is a time-honored tradition. At the elegant Terme de Saturnia near Florence, I shuddered at the lumps of algae floating in the the vast network of pools—only to later realize that the substance was actually full of healing nutrients that formed the foundation not only of the baths’ healing essence, but also of spa’s elaborate line of packaged wellness products. Many bathers linger, luxuriously rubbing the algae all over their skin day and night.

On the Atlantic coast of Europe, I discovered many Thalassotherapy centers using a combination of sea water, local algae and exposure to sea air in their healing treatments. Even the architecture these established therapy centers is deliberately designed to help visitors experience the healing powers of their coastal environs first-hand.

And in my native Germany, the government categorizes Kur (cure) towns or villages into classes by the types of natural resources they focus on using in their healing treatments—water, air, herbs, springs, mud, etc. One of the most unique German Kur systems is Kneipp therapy, an integrated approach to health enhancement that uses cold water affusion alternated with warm herbal baths, consumption of herbal teas, adherence to a structured diet, and commitment to rigorous exercise and spiritual practice.

Some spas in Europe even practice use of “liquid sound” treatments, I found, where live music is amplified into subtly colored underwater environments so that the mind and body are surrounded by waves of healing, harmonic sensation.

Harmony Projects is a client who was battling this very issue when developing the spa experiences at Gibb’s Guest Farm in Tanzania. There is a rich tradition of Maasai using plants and animal products in healing, and much of the work takes place in the forests in talking to the “Worry Tree” and for the medicine man to gather healing plants. We created “The African Living Spa” … it’s not a building in which we go to heal, but it’s nature all around, where healing occurs. Patrons are taken into the forest by the Maasai medicine man for evaluation and to gather ingredients, and then the actual treatments take place either in the medicine man’s village or the patron’s guest house. Gibb’s Farm is the only listing in Africa for Healing Hotels of the world.

Anyway, in my travels, I realized that the most successful and sustainable spa concepts are the ones that focus on using local ingredients, indigenous practices, and domestic cultural traditions to create enlivening and awakening sensory experiences. The goal, for both our Chinese client, and other clients in a range of other businesses, has always been to find distinctive ways to surface those ingredients, practices and traditions—and then invite people the world over to immerse themselves in those elements.

And if there’s anything I take pleasure in more (even that traveling the world taking spa treatments) it’s helping my clients develop destinations that nurture deep and lastingly healthy cultural connections.

That’s all for now. Here’s wishing you and yours all health and happiness this Spring.



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