Why Traditional Chinese Medicine is taking the spa world by storm.
He peers into my mouth like a child on a hunt for candy. “Mmmm!” he murmurs with a barely perceptible shake of the head. “You are not getting enough rest.” No kidding! Like any mother of a toddler, sleep is my holy grail. Placing his fingers on my wrist, he feels for my pulse. “It feels like the kidney ch’i is slightly deficient, and perhaps the liver isn’t functioning optimally,” he concludes. Telling me to lie face-down on the cushioned massage table, he reaches for several glass tumblers and places them on my lower back in the region of my kidneys. I feel a gentle pulling sensation, but no discomfort. Then I hear him say, “I’m going to place six needles on either side of the spine.” In fact, this does not sound restful at all, but the needles slide painlessly in. For about 20 minutes, I nod off happily. As the session concludes, Bazilian treats me to a few minutes of reflexology, then swiftly removes the needles. Feeling strangely refreshed, I rouse myself off the bodywork table and catch sight of myself in a mirror. Four reddened circles decorate my lower back.
The range of traditional health practices originating in China, often referred to as Traditional Chinese Medicine or TCM, include herbal medicine, acupuncture, dietary therapy, cupping (said to remove excess heat and “wind” from the body), and the massage techniques known as Shiatsu and Tui Na (a collection of hands-on techniques for manipulating the body). Once considered the exotica of another world and perhaps an earlier time, these ancient Chinese practices are now attracting vigorous interest from the current generation of Western spa-goers. Some of the new aficionados have previously experienced the benefits of TCM in medical settings. Others, perhaps disenchanted with aspects of conventional Western health care, find that Eastern healing traditions provide a more complete and authentic spa experience. Still others are sensation-seekers, looking for thrills in the new.
Traditional Chinese Medicine dates back at least to the second century BC, to the publication of the Huangdi Neijing, also known as The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine. This text offers the first complete, detailed description of acupuncture and elaborates on the philosophy that guides the practice to this day. The central tenet of the Huangdi Neijing is the concept of ch’i (sometimes expressed as “qi”), a vital energy or life force, said to flow through our bodies via channels known as “meridians.” When meridians are blocked, the ch’i fails to flow properly, creating imbalances and resulting in disease.
The Middle Ages may have been a dark period in Europe, but it was a time of advancement for Chinese medicine. In the late fifth century, Emperor Gaozong, of the Tang Dynasty, commissioned an encyclopedic written work documenting 833 medicinal substances taken from herbs, plants, stones, minerals, and other sources. In the 10th century, the scholar So Song produced the Bencao Tujing, or “Illustrated Pharmacopoeia,” categorizing herbs and minerals according to their pharmaceutical properties.
Perhaps one of the more appealing aspects of TCM is that it attempts to treat the body as a whole. “Chinese medicine is not like Western medicine, which often targets only one part of the body,” says Ursula Schmidt, L.A.C., a Santa Barbara, California-based TCM practitioner for the past eight years. “That may be because Chinese medicine views disease as a problem of the system. If an organ has disease, it is often because the body as a whole is out of balance. Our jobs as practitioners are to seek the cause of the imbalance that started the problem in the first place and restore the body to a state of healthful equilibrium.”
Practitioners have various diagnostic tools at their disposal. An overview of the guest’s health history and lifestyle is the typical starting point. Characteristics of the pulse offer clues about which organs may be affected by an imbalance. A look at the patient’s tongue can deliver information about the digestive system, the status of fluids in the body, and the health of the heart, respiratory system, and liver. Analysis of the patient’s complexion, the vibrancy of the eyes, and her general demeanor may also help signal the status of her health. When all this information is taken in account, a talented practitioner may be able to determine the underlying issues and decide how to proceed.
The goal of acupuncture, and much of TCM, is to remove any ch’i “blockages,” and so to rebalance the body and promote a general state of well-being. While there are different schools of thought on how the body’s energy flows, most practitioners are united in the idea that meridians connect with major organs and that they have both internal and external pathways. External pathways, they believe, can be reached by inserting needles along the hundreds of possible acupuncture points that cover the body, and possibly by applying pressure on these points via touch therapy.
Such therapies are fast becoming popular items at the spa. Some guests seek full medical workups and comprehensive courses of treatment; others prefer to pick and choose a jetlag-banishing session of acupuncture here, a reflexology treatment there.
At the Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group, which originated in Hong Kong, China, elements of TCM are incorporated into every spa menu in some fashion, even at the group’s non-Asia properties. At the Mandarin Oriental spa in New York City, for instance, the ever-popular Oriental Foot Therapy reflects the idea that the soles of the feet are mirrors reflecting the systems and functions of the body. In this deeply relaxing treatment, the guests’ feet rest on heated pebbles as they are bathed in warm water and sea salt. The foot bath is further enhanced with a choice of fragrant oils that have energetic, relaxing, or detoxifying properties depending on the guest’s wishes and goals. After a gentle exfoliation, the therapist massages the feet and ankles, focusing on points that raise the body’s energy and release tension.
“Not only do our guests find this therapy deeply relaxing, I think they appreciate that it is rooted in an ancient and comprehensive philosophy of healing,” says Spa Director Denise Vitiello. “Traditional Chinese Medicine holds that the points on the feet and ankles are particularly powerful because they are the starting or terminal point of energy meridians, or ch’i. When we press and massage those points, we are in fact addressing the entire body, including the internal organs. That is one reason why foot treatments are so powerful and effective.”
Depending on the problems they are addressing, however, TCM practitioners often recommend a more comprehensive course of treatment. “With acupuncture, I tend to recommend a minimum of six treatments, because that’s about what it takes for the body to register the information it’s getting from acupuncture and to hold it,” says Schmidt. “After that, if you come once a month or every six weeks, the information will already be there and you will be able to keep your body in balance.”
Another central tenet of TCM is the use of plants and herbs. Perhaps through generations of trial and error, the ancient Chinese discovered and catalogued the medicinal properties of the natural world, a complex and sophisticated body of knowledge that has been preserved. Herbs and supplements can help treat a range of conditions from nausea and fatigue to dementia and cancer.
Todd Borron, who practices several different modalities of TCM at the Spa Shiki at the Lodge of Four Seasons in Lake Ozark, Missouri, recommends herbal and nutritional supplements as needed to his guests. However, he cautions, it is of paramount importance that any supplements come from a reputable source. “Going to Chinatown and buying supplements in a random storefront is not always a good idea,” he advises. “Production standards are very different in China than they are in the U.S. Some supplements have been known to contain poisonous elements such as mercury and lead. So if you are going to take supplements, you need to make sure they are from a company with the highest standards for safety.”
Of course, those who are unfamiliar with health practices originating in other countries may still feel hesitant to jump into such unfamiliar territory. For them, a spa treatment that gently incorporates introductory elements of TCM could be the right approach. At the Spa at Pelican Hill, in Newport Coast, California, the Global Traditions Massage combines such authentic indigenous techniques as the stimulation of Shiatsu points, heated herbal compresses, and massage strokes.
“This therapeutic treatment is a great choice for guests who wish to venture into traditional and authentic Asian healing modalities, while still being assured of an enjoyable experience,” says Spa Director Kasia Mays. “It’s a cornucopia of techniques that have a great deal of efficacy to either replenish, invigorate, or relax.” While the Pelican Hill spa’s sybaritic setting, on a hillside overlooking the sun-splashed coastline, is a far cry from the bustle of Beijing or Shanghai, it is certain to transport you to another world, one where energy flows as freely as the ocean’s watery currents, and the spirit and body are exquisitely in balance.