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Close your eyes, take a deep breath of lavender and citrus oils, and allow the flute music to soothe your soul. As a massage therapist's hands knead the knots out of your back, you relax into a deeper and more tranquil state. Pretty soon, you're on the verge of sleep.

As you slip into dreamtime, your mind visits a funny place indeed. It is the health spa of 1984. All around you, wealthy women lounge about sipping tea, nibbling low-calorie food, and indulging in treatments such as manicures, facials and massages. The country-club setting is quite exclusive. The pampered ones, pretty in their pink workout jumpsuits, are discussing the latest episodes of Dallas and Dynasty.

When the massage therapist whispers in your ear, you awaken from the dream. Lo and behold, you're in the Modern Spa of 2004. A warm feeling washes over you, and you smile. Reality is going to be better than the dream.

Today's health spa is no longer for the super-wealthy. It's gone mainstream, and the variety of treatments is mind-boggling. The spa industry has expanded like a sponge left soaking in a honey-papaya enzyme bath. The United States now boasts more than 12,000 spas, up from 1,374 in 1990. The International SPA Association reports that 45 million Americans visited spas from June 2002 to June 2003.

"Today spas are like Starbucks. They are everywhere. There is a flavor for every taste," said Melinda Minton, founder of The Spa Association, the largest of its kind in North America.

A spa for all seasons ... and reasons
Joining the original destination and resort spas are fitness-club spas, medical spas, adventure spas and holistic spas. Spa Finder, a travel and marketing company that publishes Spa Finder magazine, now lists 30 special-interest categories on its Web site. The connoisseur can select from budget spas, beach spas, eco-spas, Pilates spas, spirituality spas, stop-smoking spas, vegetarian spas, yoga spas … the list goes on. Pressed for time? America now boasts 8,734 day spas where you can slip in for a quick treatment.

Make no mistake. The modern spa can still be a shrine to vanity. Step inside, and you'll find spray tanning booths, lasers for hair and vein removal, microdermabrasion and other exfoliation machines, and microcurrent facial toning units to provide temporary facelifts. Le Boe European Day Spa in Coral Springs, Fla., even offers the "Bootylicious Bottom Facial," a combination of microdermabrasion, shrink wrap, and contouring airbrush tanning for your derriere.

But the modern spa can offer something more significant and longer-lasting than a beautiful behind. Susie Ellis, president of Spa Finder Inc., said the modern spa is a place of renewal for body, mind and spirit.

"I also like to add that a spa done really well is a place of transformation," Ellis said.

Fitness, nutrition, relaxation, and pampering treatments will always be available. But now, a mind, body, and spirit component has emerged.

"In other words, we have recognized that health and wellness isn't just about the physical, but also about mental, emotional and spiritual dynamics. So spas have become places of healing and rejuvenation like never before."

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Changing direction
Years ago when Ellis worked at the Golden Door Spa, people would ask what you can accomplish in just one week at a spa. Her answer? You can change directions.

"Spas are such a great place for people to make lifestyle changes. They are also excellent places for education, and at times, places of instant change. I have seen so many people quit cigarettes, reduce alcohol, get committed to a better diet, begin an exercise program, drop some emotional baggage which was affecting their health, etc., that I am a true believer in spas being able to change your life."

Medical spas, which have doubled in numbers in the last year, can also bring about profound change. The United States has 471 of them.

"The medical field and the spa field are becoming intertwined — and this is very exciting," Ellis said. "Our Spa Finder studies show several reasons for this trend. Consumers want the expertise of the medical community but they love the spa environment."

Now the medical spa customer can receive Botox treatments, liposuction, acupuncture, biofeedback for chronic pain such as migraines, hormone therapy, bone density scans and treatment for diabetes.

Karen Phillips, spa director at the Hyatt Regency Coconut Point Resort and Spa in Bonita Springs, Fla., agreed that spas can bring enormous medical benefits.

"People with chronic joint pain, arthritis or fibromyalgia may find relief," Phillips said.

Folks who fear the dentist's drill may be pleased to know that dentistry is also becoming intertwined with the spa industry. The Discovery Springs Life Enhancement Center in Madison, Wis., will include The Center for Cosmetic Dentistry. Dental patients can settle back in a "dental Zen chair" with special DVD goggles to watch waves breaking on a virtual beach. They will be offered a variety of massage prior to all injections.

At your service
When it comes to state-of-the-art, the spa industry continues to outdo itself. How about mind therapy, for example? In this treatment, guided imagery and mind machines create light and sound therapy with subliminal promptings and alpha and beta waves.

"Many think it retrains the brain and profoundly relaxes — the new version of meditation mixed with hypnotherapy," said The Spa Association's Minton. She is also founder of Spa Secure, an international licensing program that sets the standard for business practices, operations, quality of service, and health and safety for salons, spas, medical spas and wellness centers.

Don't need mind therapy today? The modern spa is still a great place for a good old-fashioned massage. After all, it's usually the first thing a beginning spa customer requests.

Ah, but what kind of massage? North of Los Angeles, the Oaks at Ojai offers powder massage using cornstarch instead of massage oil, Thai massage, Watsu (massage in water), hot river rock massage and acupuncture massage. The Grand Wailea Resort on Maui offers Hawaiian Lomi Lomi massage. Pure Kauai, an adventure spa on the island of Kauai, offers Watsu massage in the ocean. The Spa at the Hotel Hershey in Hershey, Penn., boasts a cocoa massage with chocolate-scented oil. Finally, some cutting-edge spas offer massage with two therapists at once. Ten Thousand Waves Japanese health spa in Santa Fe, N.M., calls this treatment, "Four Hands, One Heart."

Go ahead, indulge. The reality of the Modern Spa is better than the dream.

This article was first published on

Robin Dalmas is a freelance writer, former travel editor and producer, and a spa connoisseur since 1990.


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