Weekly Wire
Metro Pulse Deep Pampering

You could seek revitalization of mind and body by working at it--or you can let the professionals do it for you at day spas and salons.

By Adrienne Martini

JANUARY 31, 2000:  When the Koosh plunked into my coffee cup, it was the last straw.

As a rule, January makes me lose my will to leave the house and be a productive citizen. The holidays are over and the big back-to-work let-down has set in, a syndrome that comes complete with approximately nine billion looming deadlines that you have been putting off since November on the loose excuse that "no one works in December, anyway..." As an added bonus, it's cold. And gray. And downright bleak.

So there I was, sitting innocently in my office shuffling through the 403 stacks of paper that had piled up during the last few weeks of December while concurrently cursing myself out for letting all of this stack up and wondering when the left side of my head would stop aching, when—boom—a Koosh tossed by one of my many quasi-demented co-workers plopped into a full cup of coffee.

It was not a pretty picture. Coffee-covered, head throbbing, shoulders pulled up to the top of my skull, knee-deep in paper, I gamboled out of the office searching for sanctuary. Give me a bell tower and my hunched back and I would fit right in. Hide your children! Here comes the amazing Martini, stressed-out circus freak.

"You should try yoga," a serene friend informed me. But for me, yoga and the accompanying meditation has never worked simply because my busy, goal-oriented mind is highly resistant to my efforts to calm it. "Even yoga teaches that you can't calm your mind if your body is agitated and full of toxins," advises Reiki practitioner Leslie O'Tool. Clearly, what I need to achieve inner peace and tame my incipient sideshow status is some good, hands-on pampering.

By pampering, however, I don't intend to conjure images of servant boys fanning me with palm fronds and offering peeled grapes—although in other contexts, that might be an enjoyable way to spend some time. I needed pampering with a purpose, where gifted hands would massage, steam, or exfoliate my twin demons of stress and irritation out of my winter-chilled body. The time had come to go to the professionals—the trained experts at Knoxville's spas and salons.

My quest for bliss led me to the Natural Alternatives salon in Bearden, where my nostrils were pleasantly warmed by the smells of a floral forest—a subtle, earthy, and piney odor that wafted through the air and with it the heady scent of flowers, jasmine perhaps. Sheer nirvana compared to the sinus-freezing blast of air that came in with me.

While my search for enlightenment through pampering took me into the Bearden area, I actually had a myriad of day spas and salons (in the phone book under "Beauty," which is between, appropriately enough, "Bearings" and "Beer") to choose from. Each location offers its own slate of spa treatments—some of which are defined in the sidebar—and you should drop by or call each business to get prices and availability. (And, for a really good time, ask the receptionist which treatment he or she would recommend, since these front desk personnel see the expressions of bliss on clients' faces after any particular service.)

A bewildering—at least in my current state—range of options greeted me in Natural Alternative's uncluttered foyer. Should I go for the Herbal Body Mask, which will, according to the brochure, "Eliminate impurities—ideal for stress and problematic skin?" How about a Soothing Facial? There were also more vanilla options that sounded purely heavenly, like a French Manicure or a Deep Conditioning treatment added to a haircut. Or I could just go whole pampering hog and belly up to the counter for a Day of Wellness, which includes an aromatherapy massage, facial, hydrotherapy tub, pedicure, manicure, and conditioning treatment with hairstyle and makeup application.

And then I saw it, calling to me like a spa siren: The Steamy Wonder. It was something I had never before imagined and could be the tension-tamer that I have long searched for. Forget relieving stress by shopping for shoes, the Wonder (which involves brushing, oiling, steaming, and moisturizing your entire body) could be exactly what I needed.

"In the '80s and early '90s," offers Natural Alternatives owner Sandy Hampton, "we looked toward designer clothes—that was a way to try to feel better. But as we moved through the '90s, we realized it just wasn't fitting the bill. Your hair and make-up could be perfect, but if you're not feeling well, it doesn't have meaning."

This changing attitude has led to the proliferation of hair salons that offer spa services like facials, hydrotherapy treatments, and massage. According to the American Massage Therapy Association, massage (just one of the many options available at these hybrid salons) "is equally popular among men and women in all regions of the country and across most incomes." In other words, these pampering treatments are not just for wealthy princesses any more.

Part of the benefit, explains Hampton in her gentle Southern accent, goes beyond the simple mechanics of the treatment itself. Sure, a facial will leave your skin cleaner, but a deeper perk is "getting to experience that nurturing and attention. The body has to be reminded that a nurturing touch is essential. It makes you want to start taking care of yourself. It's all part of seeking balance and peace."

When undergoing The Steamy Wonder, it is almost impossible to not feel nurtured. After I stripped out of my many layers of winter gear and slipped into a lovely cotton robe, I was led into a tiled beige room, handed a glass of water with a twist of orange, and talked through the experience to come. Hampton left the room, I downed the liquid, ditched the robe, and slid under the sheet on the massage table.

The treatment truly began with a dry brushing, a delicious experience for anyone suffering from forced-air-heat induced scratchy skin. Two therapists brushed my body from top to toe with loofah mitts, always keeping my modesty intact by shifting the sheet.

Next came an oil application. While having your skin smeared with delish-smelling warm oil by two sets of hands sounds like either A) a wild night in New Orleans or B) something that you would only do to a slab of pot roast, let me assure you that it is, in all honesty, delightful.

A short sojourn in the steam tent followed and it was, for me, less than delightful. Let me be the first to admit that being wrapped up in a sheet, covered with a nylon dome (that was then covered with a foil blanket) that left only your head free, with cold washcloths on your forehead and chest, then having the whole she-bang filled with steam may sound like heaven to some—I felt like a giant, overdone, sweaty baked potato. One with fabulous skin, granted.

A rub-down with warm towels followed, as did an all-too-brief application of moisturizer. As I sat there, sipping another cool glass of water and convincing my limp body to get back into my clothes, I realized that this was the best I had felt in weeks. Nine-tenths of my stress-related aches and pains had vanished, I felt taken care of, and I no longer cared that every level surface in my office was covered with paper and books and CDs. The only thing that concerned me was my drive home, part of which would put me on Kingston Pike at rush hour. Now that is something to really stress about.

In the spirit of journalistic honesty, I must now confess that no matter how wonderful the Wonder made me feel while bringing my muscles relief and my pores to unheard-of levels of squeaky-clean, in my wellness heart of hearts I will always be a massage junkie. Seated, standing, or prone, a good massage rubs away any blahs.

I'm biased, I suppose, because the first massage I ever had was sheer perfection and has led to a lifetime habit. Never before had I felt so calm, so centered, so dang healthy than just after my first massage. And like a junkie chasing that first high, I still hope to one day attain that same state of well-being.

My experience does not seem to be unique. "When people have their first massage," relates Beth Davis, a massage therapist at Belleza Salon, "they realize how much they're holding inside. It's not that you're hooked after that—there's no withdrawal if you stop, but massage becomes like maintenance, like exercise or healthy food."

"I think it is a basic need for everyone," adds therapist Cynthia Rawls, who used to practice seated chair massage at the former JFG Coffee House and now also works at Belleza. "It's good preventive care for everybody. Massage moves along things that get stagnant in the body, whether they be emotional or physical."

The massage message has been growing. In Knoxville, Rawls and Davis describe their clients as a 50/50 mix of men and women who come from a variety of backgrounds, from athletes and attorneys to factory workers and nurses—which is a change from years prior to the state-wide licensing of all massage therapists. In days past, massage seemed confined to seedy shops on Alcoa Highway or upscale salons only visited by the rich and famous. Now, many companies like G.E., Boeing, Reebok, American Airlines, and even the U.S. Department of Justice are bringing massage to their workers in the form of 15-minute seated sessions—proof positive that a good rub-down can contribute to the bottom line.

While there are several dozen different types of massage—from Deep Tissue to Swedish to Myofascial to Shiatsu—most massage therapists "create their own mix of modalities to suit the client's needs," according to Rawls. In other words, you don't have to be an expert in the lingo, just be reasonably able to describe what ails you.

Which is how most massages start, with the therapist asking some simple questions, after which they leave the room, you take off as much clothing as you are comfortable with removing, and slip under a sheet. A session with Rawls generally starts with a light coating of lotion, which keeps her hands from sticking and pulling your delicate skin, and long, smooth Swedish strokes that warm up the muscles. For the modest and/or faint of heart, rest assured that most massage therapists only uncover the section of the body that they are working on at that time. Detailed work follows, usually concentrated on a trouble spot, like the shoulders or lower back. An hour later, limp as a noodle yet oddly energized and focused, you leave, ready to face the bleak heart of January, the Koosh in your coffee, and all of your looming deadlines. This, indeed, at the risk of sounding like a new age flake, is what it feels like to be nurtured and at peace.

"It's kind of like having church for your body," intones Davis. "You're allowing yourself to heal."

Amen.


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