Basking in the glow

Many spas use cutting-edge therapies to achieve results
Alisha Simmons relaxes with a cooling skin mask at the Phoenix Day Spa in Ashland.Denise Baratta

Seventy years after Ashland residents relinquished hope that their town would become a premier destination for "taking the waters," Suzanne Mathis McQueen revived the spa dream.

The Rogue Valley's first day spa, McQueen's venture — The Phoenix — went beyond the hair and nail care offered at local salons to incorporate therapeutic treatments and living well, says Jessica Vineyard, who has owned the spa for five years. Although it's difficult to separate a spa's concepts of health and beauty, The Phoenix, Vineyard says, aims to provide a lifestyle of relaxation and rejuvenation.

the history of spas

Spas likely take their name from the Belgian town of Spa, where since medieval times, illnesses caused by iron deficiency were treated by drinking mineral-rich spring water.

The practice of bathing in natural mineral springs thought to contain medicinal or healing powers was popularized during the Victorian era. Hoping to cash in on the fashion, Ashland residents in the early 1920s attempted to popularize their town, with its lithia water, as a spa destination to rival those in Europe.

In fact, many famous European spa towns were put on the map more than 2,000 years ago during the Roman invasion of Europe, when Romans took their advanced bathing culture to conquered shores. Emperor Caracalla believed hot springs of Baden-Baden, Germany, cured his arthritis, and he built one of the world's finest bath houses outside Rome. While Roman baths or "thermae" principally consisted of hot, lukewarm and cold pools, treatments in modern spas have much wider and older origins.

The Middle East was the birthplace of mud bathing, with the Dead Sea's mineral-rich silt used for treating skin conditions for thousands of years. Similarly, ancient Egyptians valued the healing powers of mud in the Nile River delta.

Finland is credited for inventing the sauna, although the entire region of northernmost Europe is known to have had similar forms of bathing. Saunas started life as timber-clad pits in the ground, where logs were burned to heat large stones. As the logs burned out, the stones retained heat. Once smoke from the burnt logs dispersed, users would sit in the cabin and sweat then brave the snow outside, rubbing their bodies with snow to remove sweat and dirt.

The Ottoman empire gave birth to the "hamam," or Turkish bath. Also using sweating as a form of cleansing, the traditional hamam has religious significance, preceding a visit to the mosque. In addition to just relaxing and talking, visitors could undergo a soap massage on a raised, heated platform in the hamam's main chamber. Masseurs offered their services in return for tips.

— Sources: www.spaseeker.com and the Mail Tribune newspaper

"I think it can't be overstated — the importance of allowing your body to relax as a health benefit," Vineyard says. "The attraction is more well-being."

Treatments like massage, that ease muscle pain, and amenities like the steam room, which can assist deep breathing, are the most popular for clients seeking a sudden health boost, Vineyard says. But the wellness attributes of seemingly cosmetic procedures, like pedicures, can't be overlooked, she adds.

"Toenails and fingernails are real windows into body health," she says. "Health issues that are just beginning can be seen through the feet," she says, citing diabetes as the most commonly known disease to ravage lower extremities. Less serious, fungal infections and painful ingrown toenails also can be remedied with pedicures, she says.

"And people like that really should get regular pedicures."

Among The Phoenix's regular clientele is 58-year-old Michael Thomas, of Ashland, who says that "men don't take care of their skin and feet as well as they should."

Thomas doesn't neglect other features, either, visiting The Phoenix four times per year for massage and facials, too.

"The gunk that was in my skin has moved out."

In addition to heating and manipulating the muscles and skin, many spas like The Phoenix use plant-based masks to aid detoxification. Exfoliating not only removes dead skin cells but stimulates the lymphatic system, aestheticians say.

"Seaweed and algae are both known to have the property of drawing and extracting," Vineyard says. "I think the idea of warming up the body and perspiring is very, very old."

And the widely accepted notion that certain spa treatments remove toxins has a scientific basis, says Laura Jarrell, who owns Spa in Jacksonville and holds a bachelor's degree in health and biology. Habitually contracted muscles, she says, release metabolic byproducts. Hers is the kind of unexpected explanation clients are likely to hear during a session at Spa, she says.

"A lot of people will say ... I didn't realize I'd get all this great health information," Jarrell says. "We (Spa employees) know a lot about nutrition."

Nutrition and fitness counseling also are services Dr. Scott Young integrated at Vision Medi-Spa in an attempt to give patients a holistic approach and "one-stop shopping." A cosmetic surgeon for 25 years, Young expanded his Ashland practice into a "medi-spa" two years ago. Unlike other local day spas that lack a physician on staff, Vision offers treatments that use injections, lasers and other equipment that requires a doctor's supervision. Yet Vision's goal is one echoed in spas everywhere: to look and feel younger.

"Some people come in, and they need the whole package," he says. "It's a trend at improving yourself — holistically."

That's why physical therapist Delia Smith set up shop at Vision. Smith not only works with patients recovering from surgery but lends her expertise to designing exercise profiles that fit clients' lifestyles, a process that can be incorporated in their total spa experience. Patients learn that by exercising, they move oxygen to the skin, giving it a healthy glow. Slimming the figure can be as much about toning certain muscles as about choosing different foods, Smith says.

"Healthy skin has a lot to do with the things that you eat and the activity that you do during the day," Smith says. "It's really what's inside that makes a difference."

Simply making the commitment to take care of oneself is at the heart of the spa experience, says Thomas and his wife, Mona Thomas. They both started visiting spas decades ago in the San Francisco area to counteract a lifestyle centered around commuting three hours a day before they moved to Ashland in 1999.

"I think stress is such a contributor to poor health," says Mona Thomas, 66. "When you're looking after yourself, you automatically feel better."

If she dedicates no other time at the spa, Thomas has made it her habit to schedule an entire course of treatments for Christmas and her birthday. Releasing tension through massage, Thomas says, is the reason she and her husband never fight.

That added benefit comes as no surprise to Vineyard.

"I've actually had people tell me it makes a difference in their relationships because it's a stress-reducer."

And if a brief escape isn't the point, spas, she says, provide a healthful way of passing time with family and friends. First-time spa-goers skeptical that such pampering is worth the cost often become converts, Vineyard says. And while some single spa treatments can exceed $100, additional value is found in complimentary amenities, such as The Phoenix's calming foot soak, use of its steam room and all-natural beauty products.

"Even if it's a once-a-year thing, it's something you can look forward to," Vineyard says. "There's a benefit on so many levels.

"Don't wait years to figure out how wonderful you can feel."


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