America's Most Spiritual Spa 2010: Osmosis Day Spa Sanctuary

America's Most Spiritual Spa 2010: Osmosis Day Spa Sanctuary

Even a first award requires a history. And any history of spiritual spas leads inevitably to the ancient Greek city of Epidaurus and the Temple of Aesculapius. As you may remember, the temple was named for a physician from about 1200 BC who was immortalized as the God of Healing and is remembered now in the Hippocratic oath.

Aesculapius had a healing ministry likened to the ministry of Jesus, with the emphasis on love and always putting the patient’s needs first. Yet even after the great doctor’s death, the healing reputation of his temple continued to grow — as if the place itself was healing. And so it was. The ritual journey to the temple began with a bath in the sea and a five-mile walk to the sanctuary. The entry structure was beautiful, designed to render the supplicant in a proper frame of mind before entering the dwelling place of the gods. Engraved above the entrance were the words: “Going into the fragrant temple, one must be pure; purity is thinking holy thoughts.”

Looking back, much of the extraordinary healings recorded at the temple likely had to do with a power, which we often deride, called the placebo effect. That effect, which is essentially a profound shift from agitation and fear to relaxation and hope, is the only medicine necessary for 35 to 75 percent of all illnesses. The temple was a walk-in placebo — a ritual journey to quiet the mind, to allow the body to stop fighting or fleeing, and thus fully engage in the hard work of restoration.

A “walk-in placebo” seems a good definition of a truly spiritual spa. After a six-year search, our first annual Most Spiritual Spa award goes to Osmosis Day Spa Sanctuary on the Bohemian Highway in Freestone, California.

The Osmosis Experience

The journey to Osmosis should probably begin with a plunge in Bodega Bay and a seven-mile walk through the woods to Freestone, but people simply drive and park in the gravel lot. The main building looks like a comfortable old farmhouse set on remarkably lush ground. You leave your shoes on the front porch and enter through the small reception area and gift shop into a simple locker room. You change into a robe and are ushered by your therapist into a small tearoom that opens to a small meditation garden. After a cup of herbal tea, your therapist escorts you to the treatment room, which overlooks another garden of raked pebbles.

The signature treatment of the spa looks something like a giant hot tub, but rather than being filled with water it is filled with moist Lawson cypress shavings mixed with rice bran and fermenting with a tea of special enzymes. The enzyme bath has been scooped out for your body. You lie down, and the therapist gently covers you in the soft cypress shavings. You realize this stuff is warm — or you can wriggle down to where the soft shavings are seriously hot. For the next 20 minutes or so, you will quietly compost in this bed of cypress. Then you are gently exhumed, escorted to an outdoor shower, and ushered along a path to one of the small pagodas near the Salmon Creek.

There, you will spend the next 75 minutes receiving a truly delightful massage. Finally, you make your way to the main meditation garden, a place reminiscent of the Zen gardens in Kyoto. Like any serious Zen garden, the stones and plantings tell a story — the parable of ox and the ox herder — but you don’t need to follow the story to absorb the quiet beauty of the place.

The Journey of Creation

The Osmosis treatment is deeply relaxing and can be profoundly transformative, but to understand why it earns our first Most Spiritual Spa award, you have to understand the journey and the levels of healing that went into creating it.

When Michael Stusser bought the abandoned building 20 years ago, it had been through a foreclosure and was surrounded by piles of junk. The adjacent Salmon Creek was devoid of salmon, the local community was short of water, and the last thing the local zoning officers would permit was a spa, where water usage is typically exorbitant and which would likely overrun the small septic system and pollute the creek. Stusser, however, never intended to create an extravagant spa. The former organic gardener and Zen practitioner was on a mission to create a sanctuary for healing the earth, as well as the minds, bodies, and spirits of his guests.

Stusser’s mission began in 1980 when he traveled to Kyoto. There, he experienced the beautiful Zen gardens as the manifestation of the deep peace and tranquility he found in his meditation practice. Entranced, he apprenticed to a local landscape gardener, which he describes as an almost medieval practice, living and working with gardeners seven days a week. After six months he left to join a Zen monastery in Kyoto, where he spent two and a half years of intense meditation while continuing to learn about Zen gardens. But then, he was forced off his cushion by sciatica. Crippled by pain, he spent months searching for a cure, and that’s how he found himself in a ritual enzyme bath of hot wood shavings.

Says Stusser, “It was unbearably hot. I thought I was going to be burned and there was no way to get out. ‘Be the cold!’ I told myself. ‘Accept rather than resist.’ And suddenly, I was cast into the experience of cascading through the universe at the speed of light. Everything I had been working toward in my practice was suddenly happening. And I knew in a millisecond what I was going to do with my life.”

Stusser spent the next four and a half years learning to create and to tend the living organism that is the enzyme bath. Then he had to raise money and find a building, clear the junk, and create a spa and organic Zen garden that uses no more water or energy than a typical American home. Along the way, he realized that the standard treatment schedule of most spas tends to burn out the therapists, so Osmosis allows time for the therapists to recover and to be fully present for each new guest. Not surprisingly, the therapists tend to stay for years.

Lately, Stusser has been building wetlands to clean the water he does use and has been working with a local salmon restoration team to improve the riparian areas along the creek. Meanwhile, Osmosis has become a place for community gatherings and small concerts.

Mary Bemis, the Editor of Organic Spa magazine says, “Many spas lost track of what spas are really supposed to do. They were seduced by the ’90s and have now hit bottom. Yes, the need for spiritual spas is back because people are looking for transformative experiences and places where people really care for you. People are so much more fragile now.”

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