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Take Five

In a world where futuristic spa treatments push the boundaries of length and complexity, many spas are doubling down on the restorative power of simple physical pleasures — gorgeous vistas, soothing sounds, rich flavors, intoxicating scents and a healing touch — allowing us the chance to return to our senses

One woman’s journey to the farthest reaches of extreme spa culture


IT’S A CHALLENGE to cultivate anxiety in a Mandarin Oriental spa treatment room — what with the Tibetan chimes and panoramic view of Manhattan — but I was managing it just fine. While the therapist set up a pre-treatment foot bath, I eyeballed the bedside table. Beyond the standard candles, towels and precious unguents, it was stocked with some alarming additions: glass cups, alcohol swabs and — gulp — forceps.

The therapist sat cross-legged on the floor in front of me. “So, we’ve got three hours together,” she said. “What are you looking to get out of this treatment?”

Fair question. Having never experienced many of the components of the procedure for which I was scheduled — which included two types of massage, a salt scrub, a mud wrap, two showers and an ancient Chinese practice called fire cupping, in which heated glass cups are placed on the back to increase circulation — what I was looking for was to leave the spa feeling better than when I came in. Which, judging by the implements laid out before me, seemed less than assured.

I was hardly alone in my pre-treatment butterflies. These days, people dropping $600 on a spa trip expect more than fleeting sighs of pleasure. They want to look or feel appreciably better afterward, preferably for a long time, and they understand that they may have to undertake feats of physical hardship to get there. In a growing phenomenon that many experts are calling the “extreme spa treatment,” saunas that maintain a frigid 110 degrees below zero, massages that last seven hours and facials that incorporate electrical current have crept onto spa menus, drawing in customers for whom the cushy, rarefied world of conventional spas holds limited appeal.

I had launched my investigation into these treatments just a few days earlier, stopping by the Upper East Side office of impossibly tiny French epidermologist Isabelle Bellis for her signature buccal-technique facial. Borrowing from a popular and similarly extreme body-realignment technique called rolfing (not to be confused with ROFLing, which you will manifestly not be doing while the therapist is realigning your ligaments with her elbows), Bellis’ facial technique involves enthusiastically massaging the face … from the inside.

“The buccal technique improves circulation, reduces puffiness and makes the face glow,” she explained, her latex-gloved hands making a squeaking noise as she rubbed the inside of my cheeks with nontoxic lotion. She restored the massage table to a sitting position, and handed me a bowl and some mouthwash. “Now spit.”

Now, I’m no stranger to harrowing pursuits. As soon as I heard there was an extreme sports bandwagon, I jumped on it, tackling a grueling 12-mile mud race almost before training for it. One time, for a story, I even spent a weekend alone in the forest with little more than a machete and a guide from the Air Force SERE division. Still, the combination of beauty and dentistry was near the top of my list of potentially traumatic experiences. After Bellis finished with my face — inside and out — I lay blindfolded on the massage table, desperate for relief, feeling as if my sinuses, ear canals and entire sense of balance had been completely, wrenchingly readjusted. I felt like I was floating. And it was amazing.

The next day my new face and I met Bob. A no-nonsense scrubs-outfitted masseur with a shock of white hair, Bob was tasked with introducing me to the new extreme sports massage at Bliss Soho. He coated my back in hot paraffin wax and then began a deep-tissue massage that was all thumbs and knuckles. I groaned as he shoved what felt to be his entire hand under one of my scapulae, but hours later I was still smiling giddily from the release of tension in my back.

Which brings us back to my Clearing Factor treatment at the Mandarin Oriental. The suction from the glass cups didn’t hurt nearly as much as I’d feared, but it was without question intense, resulting in a just-woke-up-from-a-12-hour-nap-like endorphin high I enjoyed on my way back to the locker room. There, in the mirror, I checked out the state of my back, hoping to find some evidence that a change had taken place somewhere inside my body. What I found was this: Instead of the immaculate glowing tan I’d seen so many times in spa brochures, my skin was dotted with eight of the kinds of bruises I might have had if I’d been thwacked hard with tennis balls. “Score!” I thought, now a decorated veteran of the extreme spa movement. “Battle scars.”

Hemispheres senior editor JACQUELINE DETWILER can’t wait to tackle her next challenge: the British sport of extreme ironing.

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