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Skin care, back rubs ... spiritual healing?

Even though a 50-minute session costs $110, guests at Miraval spa in Arizona who request craniosacral therapy receive no guarantees.
A model is given a therapeutic stone massage using heated black basalt stones and cool white marble stones at the Miraval Life in Balance Spa in Catalina, Ariz.
A model is given a therapeutic stone massage using heated black basalt stones and cool white marble stones at the Miraval Life in Balance Spa in Catalina, Ariz.Jacob Chin / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Even though a 50-minute session costs $110, guests at Miraval spa in Arizona who request craniosacral therapy receive no guarantees.

It won't soften their skin like facials or relieve muscle aches like deep-tissue massage. Some sessions yield little more than a fleeting sense of relaxation. And yet this treatment — therapists using their hands to tap into a patient's energy — has become one of Miraval's most popular, according to Tama Anderson, a therapist at the spa. Reiki, a related form of energy work, is a close second.

Spas and independent practitioners across the country offer an increasingly wide range of "energy therapies": from well-known treatments such as acupuncture and reflexology to lesser-known methods including crystal healing, color therapy and watsu, or water shiatsu, a form of aquatic massage that some believe releases physical and emotional pain.

These alternative therapies are rarely covered by insurance, and the science behind them isn't well-documented. But a growing number of Americans are trying them.

The treatments aim to unleash people's ability to heal themselves by clearing energy blockages at points along the body, referred to as chakras. Some use sound vibration or therapeutic touch; others claim to access a flow of energy in the atmosphere. It's a complicated mix of science and spirituality, and even the most basic treatments can sound farfetched.

The National Institutes of Health says the existence of energy fields that purportedly surround and penetrate the human body has not been scientifically proven. But the NIH's National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine is researching the validity of energy work.

Clean your chakra
Unusual as these treatments may seem, they're embraced by more than just aging hippies and impressionable college students. Great Jones Spa in New York sees plenty of investment bankers who steal an hour from their Wall Street jobs to have their chakras cleansed.

Annie Shaver-Crandall, a painter and retired art-history professor in New York City, began using energy work to complement traditional medical care in 1989. Six years ago, she survived breast cancer after opting for treatment that focused on energy work.

"I don't know if it would have been the best choice if I'd had a more aggressive cancer," she says. "But I knew how my body would respond to radiation, and I said, `I don't think that's right for me.'"

Shaver-Crandall found energy work by accident; she won a gift certificate at a charity auction. Others hear about it through friends or experiment while vacationing at a spa.

Ron Monteleone, a graphic artist who works in New Jersey, tried meditation and chakra-centered massage for the first time in 2004, while visiting La Costa, a resort in California. On vacation, he says, "You're much more open to things." Today, he meditates regularly.

Sometimes, when conventional medicine fails to help a specific ailment such as chronic fatigue, people turn to energy work. Others discover that a caregiver they already work with, such as a massage therapist or registered nurse, also offers energy treatments.

Many are drawn by the proactive approach: Energy work is meant to improve health before disease occurs. Also, practitioners can teach clients to do work on their own. "I call it homework," says Brigit Krome, a psychotherapist and energy healer who sees patients at Great Jones spa and also privately. "My clients have to do a lot of things at home."

In the end, she says, "this is about self-responsibility and taking a stand — doing the work as opposed to leaving it up to a doctor or chiropractor."

Complementary care
But Krome doesn't suggest that energy work replace other medical care. Rather, more Americans are now using it as an additional method of disease prevention, along with vitamin supplements and exercise. United Healthcare offers a 20 percent discount on some medical plans for services offered by designated acupuncturists and other therapists.

"These therapies are formally non-invasive and non-toxic, so the cautions in the conventional sense are nil," says Dr. Richard Shames, a physician in San Francisco and expert on thyroid problems. But, he says, "a person should be well-diagnosed by a regular doctor."

The challenge is choosing a reputable provider, given the lack of standardized training and certification. Most states offer licensing for acupuncturists. But there is no license available for practicing Watsu — only certification issued by the Worldwide Aquatic Bodywork Association. Other associations exist for other therapies, but requirements vary.

That may be why many people seek treatment at well-known spas like Miraval or La Costa, despite the high prices. Practitioners there likely have thorough training, and there's a comforting accountability.

Lorraine Stobbe Goldbloom, a certified yoga instructor who also does energy work in New York, carries practitioner insurance and offers clients detailed information about her training. But some remain wary.

When choosing an energy therapist, Goldbloom says, "ask questions, do research and then trust your instincts." Dishonest practitioners can often fool a client into believing they're being helped. "It doesn't take a lot to boost your system temporarily," she says. "But can they get to the source of the problem?"