"Are you planning on going swimming in the next few days?" my therapist at The Mandarin Spa, Hong Kong at the Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong asked me last year. I couldn't figure out what it had to do with the Chinese Meridian Massage ($120, 60 minutes) I was about to have. She clarified: The treatment begins with cupping, which can leave bruises. The technique is a cornerstone of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) but not something I'd expect to encounter at a mainstream spa like the Mandarin Oriental.
Intrigued, I gave her the go-ahead, and she affixed six glass jars to my back, using a pump to pull out the air and, the theory goes, the toxins responsible for my achy shoulders. She leaves them on for five minutes, then pummels my back. Afterward, I can swivel my head a bit farther.
It was an unusual luxury-spa encounter, but it probably won't be for much longer—and not just in China. Like Ayurveda five years ago, TCM is becoming trendy, as spa directors worldwide are looking for treatments that are novel but grounded in authenticity. But also like Ayurveda, TCM is not always comfortable—treatments leave bruises or incorporate needles, fire, or foul-tasting herbs—so many spas are excerpting from the medicine, offering treatments inspired by TCM precepts but tailoring them for a spa environment.
Chuan Spa at the Langham Place Hotel (Hong Kong) offers treatments designed to balance yin and yang.
TCM is a natural fit with spa philosophy: It uses poetic language and describes things in terms of nature. "We see the body as a garden, as opposed to a machine," says Noah Rubinstein, an acupuncturist at Longevity Health (New York City). "We aren't separating the parts the way we do in Western medicine. It speaks to people's real life experiences. If I talk to you about strep, it's an abstracted idea. When I describe some natural phenomenon and you're like, 'yeah, I get stressed, and I get this dizzy feeling like there's wind rushing around inside my head,' that makes sense. So it's tangible, it's accessible."
A tranquil water feature makes for a soothing centerpiece in the TCM-inspired Chuan Spa (Hong Kong).
TCM defines health as equilibrium between two energetic states, yin (soft, passive) and yang (hard, active). Its other central concept is qi, often translated as "vital energy," which flows throughout the body in invisible pathways called meridians. Disease arises when qi becomes deficient or stagnant or when yin and yang are imbalanced. TCM doctors treat this with techniques, such as acupuncture and Tui na massage, and herbs.
Another TCM cornerstone is the idea that nature is shaped by five elements—wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. Each element is associated with personality traits, physical characteristics, and other things. In health, people have aspects of each element, but generally one element dominates. (In spa parlance, someone is a "wood" or a "water," for instance.) TCM aims to rein in an element that's excessive or strengthen one that's weak.
At the Shangri-La hotels and resorts' CHI, The Spa at Shangri-La (various locations), treatments begin with a five-question survey to determine a guest's element and are performed using oil blends formulated to bring one element into balance. It's a simplification, admits Ian Brewis, Shangri-La's senior director of spas and health clubs. "A typical consultation with a TCM doctor is 45 minutes. They couldn't do that in a spa." To address this issue, the Shangri-La brought in a TCM doctor who spent six months devising a test that would "reliably diagnose a guest's element," meaning the element that needs balancing that day.
Jade is often used in TCM treatments.
The Ritz-Carlton Spa, Naples (FL) launched the body treatment Elements ($275, 90 minutes) earlier this year, which takes a different diagnostic track—Chinese astrology. Aromatherapist and spa consultant Michael Scholes, who developed the service, explains that a guest's birth date reflects his or her element. The therapist consults an astrology chart to determine the element, then performs 10 steps, which include a scrub, wrap, and massage, with essential oils. The Spa at Mandarin Oriental, New York also looked East when it launched its Clearing Factor (starting at $675, 2 hours 50 minutes; starting at $950, 3 hours 50 minutes) treatment this year. While spa director Denise Vitiello is careful to clarify that it's not a TCM treatment—its centerpiece is lymphatic drainage—it includes traditional cupping to draw impurities to the skin's surface for elimination.
At the other end of the spectrum, Canyon Ranch (Tucson, AZ) has offered acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine consultations for 18 years. TCM and the Western medical care offered at the Ranch "work great in synergy," says Stephen Brewer, M.D., the medical director of Canyon Ranch and himself an acupuncturist. "Acupuncture deals with energy. We don't deal with that in traditional medicine."
Tui na, a hands-on Chinese manipulative therapy, is available at CHI, The Spa at Shangri-La (Shanghai, China).
Exhale mindbodyspas (various locations) have made acupuncture a cornerstone, along with yoga, fitness, and serious skincare, since the first location opened in 2004. "We're all about transformation and healing," says founder Annbeth Eschbach. "Acupuncture is such an important part of healing. It's really made a difference in our guests' lives."
In what's perhaps a sign of things to come, the U.S.'s first TCM-focused spa opened in June. At Chuan Body + Soul at The Langham, Boston, all treatments begin with a questionnaire to determine the guest's element, and then the private-label essential oils (developed in consultation with a TCM doctor), incense, and teas are tailored to balance whatever may be out of whack. For guests who want to delve deeper, the spa has relationships with a nearby Chinese doctor and herb shop.
A popular TCM treatment, cupping is used to facilitate the removal of toxins.
But just because something is trendy doesn't mean it's easy. "The main challenge has been taking something that requires extensive staff training and simplifying it for the spa while maintaining the integrity of TCM," says Michelle Kelthy, spa director of The Ritz-Carlton Spa, Naples. "It is not suitable for all massage therapists, but those who are interested pick it up very easily." Seeking out authentic products and investing in training—from someone who really knows the medicine—are crucial. Barry White, director of spa operations for Langham Hotels International, goes even further, saying, "It's important to ensure that you engage with a professionally qualified TCM doctor to provide authenticity in your TCM services."
Beyond that, a sense of adventure helps. "My advice is not to be afraid of creating something new and to seek help from vendors who are prepared to work with you," says Kelthy. "You cannot do this alone; it has to be a team effort."