Massages that adopt the local motion, from Costa Rica to Berkeley

Massages that adopt the local motion, from Costa Rica to Berkeley
At the Lake Austin Spa Resort in Texas, a massage could include an exfoliating scrub containing prickly pear. (Lake Austin Spa Resort)

Get in line behind me if you've had a challenging year, and it's not even over yet. Mine began with last winter's flu, followed in short order by being diagnosed with an immune deficiency disease, several also-rans for plum jobs, a pesky and persistent low back pain, a little heartbreak and a dozen relocations (don't ask). Oy, my aching karma.

Luckily, my work took me to locales where I could get some hands-on massage and other bodywork that reinforced my philosophy that when in Rome do as the Romans do. Indigenous is one of the hottest new/old trends in the spa world today, and it makes sense, says Mary Bemis, founder and editorial director of Insider's Guide to Spas.


"Native peoples were very familiar with blending their local healing plants with hands-on therapeutic practices," Bemis says. "Using ingredients that are natural and organic, those authentic approaches have worked effectively for thousands of years."

So she would have approved of my treatments from coast to coast. And beyond.

Singing the praises of Tibetan bowls: Claremont Hotel Club & Spa, Berkeley

The flu left me with a hacking cough that went deep into my lungs, lurking like a multiheaded green dragon, lingering for endless weeks. No traditional medications worked. Since I live in Berkeley, homeland of all things esoteric and alternative, the Tibetan Sound Massage ($225 for 75 minutes) sounded like what the allopathic doctors wouldn't order. It included the wet treatment beforehand of waterfall shower, a Eucalyptus steam room and a Jacuzzi, which my own doctor recommended.

After softening up my muscles with her deft hands, the practitioner placed five Tibetan singing bowls of different sizes and tones on my key core energy centers, a.k.a. chakras, up and down my spine.

Traditionally the bowls are made of seven metals, one for each planet. Lightly ringing them produces binaural beats, unique audio sensations that occur when two tones of slightly different frequencies play separately in each ear. Some research claims that binaural beats can alter the brain's dominant brain wave frequency, creating alpha and delta states (alpha associated with relaxation and calmness, delta with deep sleep).

She struck the bowls with soft mallets, and then slid the mallet around the edge like a finger around a wine glass. I drifted into a seriously altered state of consciousness — present but somewhere else. It took me about an hour to realize that I had stopped coughing. I bowed my head and gave thanks.

Walked all over: Four Seasons Manhattan

Sometimes a stay in New York City can make "Survivor" seem as docile as "Bambi," leaving you feeling like a human doormat. Talk about 'tude. To get in shape for such a day in Manhattan, I booked a treatment called "acupressure with back walking" at the Four Seasons.

Some call it "ashiatsu," which literally means foot (ashi) pressure (atsu) in Japanese, also called barefoot shiatsu. This technique relieves tension and stress that find a home in your body when you are not home. This is exactly why a massage therapist's walk on your back is the best indigenous remedy when visiting Manhattan.

Ashiatsu techniques also make use of knees, elbows, palms and fingers. The practitioner holds onto bars hanging from the ceiling as she (in my case) stands above you on the table. Then she digs into your muscles and along the acupressure meridians. I worried that my practitioner would crush me, despite her petite form. It was a waste of worry. Since the foot is bigger than the hand, greater pressure can be applied and for a longer period of time across more skin surface, stimulating a larger area at once and increasing circulation.

She let her toes do the walking up and down my body until I nearly screamed, "Wonderful, but now can you stop?" Nonetheless, I walked out of there ready to take on whatever Gotham threw at me.


Bamboo shoots down stress: Four Seasons Costa Rica

It's impossible to think of Costa Rica — the Central American country that occupies less than .01% of the planet's landmass but home to 5% of all species — without thinking of rainforests. And it's impossible to think of rainforests without picturing bamboo.

Bamboo is not only aesthetically elegant, but it's also an inspirational metaphor. A member of the grass family, the resilient bamboo is one of the fastest-growing plants on the planet, adding 3 feet a day and developing miles of roots. It bends in the wind, doesn't break like oak or maple.

I took the spa's Natural Bamboo Massage ($170 for 60 minutes). Using bamboo that's been freshly cut into varying sizes from the resort's plentiful foliage, therapists apply deep pressure by rolling the stalks, kneading tightness and tension from muscles and tendons. It also stimulates the flow of blood and lymph.

I kept remembering my father's wisdom: "Why do some people knock their heads against the wall? Because it feels so good when they stop." It's true: When he stopped, my muscles let go and any residue aches melted away in the Jacuzzi pools that overlook the beaches through bamboo and other foliage.

Deep in the prickly heart of Texas: Lake Austin Spa Resort, Austin

Prickly pear does not sound like the friendliest of fruits. However, the official plant of Texas is a friend to body and soul. For thousands of years Native Americans have been eating the fruit; there's a medicine cabinet full of health benefits to ingesting it. The Aztecs of prehistoric Mexico collected sap from the leaves and blended it with honey and egg yolk to make an ointment for burns. Today it's used to soothe and firm the skin. High in B vitamins and vitamins A and C, it also contains piscidic acid, a powerful antioxidant.

The signature Tour of Texas spa treatment ($325 for 110 minutes) began with an exfoliating scrub containing the legendary prickly pear. This was followed by an agave nectar wrap, which some studies suggest has antibacterial properties.

Of course, if that doesn't work, you can drink the local tequila, also made from agave, and you won't care. But the massage, which ended with a rubdown of various oils, left me feeling just fine. So fine, in fact, that I indulged in the Best of the Southwest treatment ($205 for 80 minutes), a scrub with local mesquite, which has antimicrobial and antioxidant properties. Who knew? All these years I thought mesquite was just for grilling.

Oh you O2: Montage Laguna Beach


At long last, I returned to familiar waters along coastal California. Taking a break from meetings, I headed to Laguna Beach.

I — and the rest of humankind — always feel more relaxed and energized strolling along the edge of ocean water lapping up to sandy shores. But I never knew there was actually a scientific explanation – and that it has a name. In a 90-minute Seaside Renewal ($315) early one morning, a member of the Spa Montage team educated a small group of us as we walked the beach, stopping from time to time to breathe deeply into yogic stretches. Every time a wave washes ashore, she explained, the bursting air bubbles release small amounts of oxygen. I also learned that the whole hot tub/Jacuzzi warm water healing has a multisyllabic name: thalassotherapy (from the Greek word thalassa, meaning sea).

To inspire my inner fish to surface, later that day I signed up for the Montage spa's Replenishing Marine Mineral Wrap ($235 for 60 minutes). The main ingredient is marine algae, prized for skin and hair care. Seaweeds and other types of marine algae are rich in many vitamins that moisturize and promote the strengthening of skin tissue, particularly elastin (a protein in connective tissue) and collagen.

Now I feel ready to swim through whatever waves the rest of this year may toss my way. And, to be sure, there are always more waves.