The Lore of Natural Products

By Anne Williams
[Spa Elan]

This issue of Massage & Bodywork magazine is dedicated to the intangible elements that make clients’ experiences unique. In spa treatments, it is often the special products and the way they are applied to the body that create the subtle nuances of clients’ enjoyment. Think about the rough, yet pleasurable scratch of a dry brush, the smooth all-encompassing warmth of therapeutic mud, the tingly shiver of mint lotion, the delicate flicker of cool mist over a hot forehead, and the rapturous scent of orange blossoms. These sensations speak a rich language to clients’ senses.

The Stuff of Legend

Natural materials that are popular in spas, like herbs, natural aromas, seaweed, and therapeutic mud, often have a long history of use by the local people in the areas where they originate. Over the ages, beliefs, lore, myths, and superstitions developed as people tried to understand and explain the workings of the world around them. In spa treatments, therapists can accent these ancient associations in promotional descriptions that link clients to the mystical, ethereal aspects of their sessions.

People love a good story, especially when it contains otherworldly elements and magical possibilities (think of all your adult friends who read the Harry Potter novels). In our hardwired world of e-mail overload, non-stop advertising, and task lists, these spa intangibles allow clients to escape modern worries and surround themselves in the mysterious powers of the natural world, if only for an hour.

ancient Mud baths

The Italian towns of Abano, Battaglia, Galzignano, and Montegrotto lie in a broad green plain northeast of the Euganaean Hills in the Veneto of Italy and are famous for their ancient thermal mud baths. At the spa at Montegrotto, the remains of Roman spas in the area are still visible. Abano Terme (terme means thermal bath) is considered to be one of the oldest spa centers in the world. The area boasts 130 hot springs, fed by an inactive volcano, that still flow at a constant temperature of 188?F. According to legend, the Abano waters were warmed when Phaeton, the offspring of the sun, fell and landed in the mineral springs. People walked from long distances to soak in Phaeton’s springs and cover themselves in the mineral-rich mud, believed to channel the healing powers of the sun. People left the springs revitalized in body, mind, and spirit. Today, thousands of people still visit the Euganaean region and enjoy the legend of Phaeton while covering themselves in mud. Modern research has shown that the microorganisms contained in the mud have therapeutic properties useful for arthritis, muscle soreness, and some skin conditions.

Even without legends, clients like mud. Perhaps it takes them back to childhood summers spent making mud pies. If you deliver a lot of mud treatments, you may notice that clients make all sorts of noises as mud is applied. They sigh deeply; they squeal; they open their eyes and laugh. No doubt about it, mud is fun.

mystique of the sea

We can only imagine what our ancient ancestors felt as they gazed out at a huge, turbulent ocean, not knowing where it ended. We still feel awe in the presence of great bodies of water, and the mystique of the sea may be one reason that seaweed treatments are popular with clients. In lore and history, the sea is associated with emotions, inner peace, intuition, the moon, the subconscious mind, and wisdom.

The French were the first to recognize the therapeutic benefits of sea bathing in the early 1800s, and by 1824 they had set up facilities to warm seawater for treatments. In 1869, the term thalassotherapy (thalassa is the Greek word for sea) was coined by Dr. de la Bonnardiere. In 1960, the French Medical Academy officially defined the word: “Thalassotherapie uses seawater, seaweed, sea mud, or other sea resources and/or the marine climate for the purpose of medical treatment or treatment with a medicinal effect.” In France, thalassotherapy is covered by medical insurance as a standard treatment for arthritis, developmental disorders in children, digestive problems, endocrine imbalance, musculoskeletal injury, respiratory ailments, skin conditions, and sore throats.

It is interesting to watch clients and their response to seaweed treatments. (Note that seaweed is contraindicated for clients with sensitive skin, shellfish or iodine allergies, thyroid conditions, or for those who are pregnant or in a weakened condition.) Very natural and pure products (like micronized seaweed that is freeze-dried and powdered, but not processed, stripped of some natural chemicals, and fragranced) smell just like the seaweed you might encounter on a beach. Some clients love the smell and feel instantly transported to the seaside. Others find the smell overpowering, unsettling, and even intolerable. Physical reactions often mirror emotional reactions. Seaweed can cause the body to feel energized, refreshed, and vital. Alternately, it can cause jitteriness, sensations of anxiety, or strong skin reactions. The iodine contained in seaweed and its action on the thyroid gland is one reason for these feelings, but seaweed seems to penetrate into the very being of a client, and reactions to seaweed are not always explainable based on physiological effects.

attention to aroma

People of antiquity enjoyed aromas with an intensity that we can hardly imagine in our modern world. Roman philosopher Pliny writes in the first century that, “The pleasure of perfume is among the most elegant and honorable enjoyments in life.” Incense was burned liberally in homes, outside temples, and in the marketplace to perfume the air and please the gods. In fact, our English word perfume means through smoke, indicating the importance of incense to the ancients.

Aromas were viewed as an essential ingredient for social gatherings, sports events, and funerals in Roman times. A dinner party planned without a keen attention to aroma invited gossip and could leave a host vulnerable to social disgrace. Fresh flowers were made into garlands to crown the heads of guests and strewn on the floor of the banquet room. This enhanced the olfactory pleasure of the gathering and served a practical purpose, because fresh flowers were believed to alleviate the effects of drinking. The dinner table was prepared by rubbing it with mint leaves before it was laid with the dinner service, and scented waters and unguents were passed between courses so guests could wash their hands and refresh their personal perfumes.

Dry powders, flower infused liquids, oils, and thick unguents were smeared generously over the body. The poet Antiphanes writes of a Greek who “steeps his feet and legs in rich Egyptian unguents; his jaws and breasts he rubs with thick palm oil, and both his arms with extract of sweet mint; his eyebrows and his hair with marjoram, his knees and neck with essence of ground thyme.” When you imagine these aromas melding together, you begin to understand the highly developed sense of olfactory aesthetics practiced by the Greeks. Author Constance Classen writes in Aroma: The Cultural History of Smell that the Greeks wore “nothing less than a complete olfactory wardrobe.”

Many of these graceful ancient gestures of refinement are preserved in spas. The age-old custom of washing the feet of guests with fragrant waters is maintained in the welcoming foot soak. Essential oils and naturally fragranced products enhance clients’ olfactory enjoyment of a service, while fresh blooms are often used to adorn treatment rooms.

Tea Rituals

My mother-in-law is British and she recently said, “There is nothing so bad a cup of tea can’t make better.” When I visit England, I find that tea precedes and concludes any important event. It’s common that someone in the house will take a guest a cup of tea so that it might be sipped in bed before arising in the morning. A pot of tea is served before and after taking a walk, visiting friends, and eating a meal. At the end of the day, a cup of tea is taken upstairs and enjoyed over a good novel before bedtime. Tea drinking is so prevalent in England that it’s hard to imagine that it originated anywhere else, but it is a custom born in the East.

Two legends abound surrounding the origin of tea. In Chinese lore, Shen Nung, an emperor and renowned herbalist, was boiling his drinking water when leaves from a nearby shrub blew into the cauldron. He tasted the resulting infusion and found it refreshing and invigorating; tea drinking was born.

In Indian lore, a prince named Bodhidharma chewed the leaves of the tea shrub to help him stay awake for meditation and prayer. Later tea leaves were brewed with water and Bodhidharma introduced the drink in China when he traveled there to spread the word of Buddhism.

Tea drinking was well established by the time of Confucius (circa 551–479 BCE) and grew in popularity in subsequent dynasties. In the eighth century, a Chinese scholar named Lu Yu wrote the Ch’a Ching: The Classic of Tea, which elevated tea drinking to near religious status. The Ch’a Ching outlines in vivid detail a tea ritual that includes the use of specific implements endowed with spiritual significance. It explains the appropriate state of mind for the tea drinker and the proper atmosphere in which the tea should be drunk. This ritual of tea mirrored the Taoist faith where every detail of life was viewed as a means to practice beauty, harmony, and tranquility as an act of celebration.

Tea drinking still carries with it an air of social sophistication and elegance. When we offer clients a cup of finely made tea at the beginning or end of a spa service, we extend Lu Yu’s quest to find what is gracious and exalted in small moments of pleasure.

Seasons and Landscapes

Folklore makes many associations with the seasons, landscapes, and places that can support our understanding of subconscious connections in spa treatments. Summer is associated with brightness, joy, openness, strength, the sun, warmth, and with citrus, floral, spicy, and tropical aromas.

On the other hand, winter is associated with the end of a cycle, going within, hibernation, and aromas like apple, cinnamon, clove, fir, frankincense, peppermint, pine, and nutmeg.

In spring, new beginnings provide new opportunities and we experience childlike enthusiasm. Spring can be rainy and so treatments like Vichy showers are perfect compliments to the season.

In the fall, people start to slow down and prepare for quiet and reflection. Autumn is associated in olden times with the pitch black of midnight and with the moon. Earthy, homey, warm, and woody aromas are comforting, while detoxification treatments like herbal wraps help to prepare the body for winter.

Treatments developed around a desert theme connect clients to heat, open spaces, and the transformative nature of the sun. Purification is strongly associated with the desert and with aromas and herbs like juniper berry and spices and sage.

By contrast, forest settings link us to adventure and exploration, to grow and find strength, to our innate inner wisdom, and to universal protection.

If you want clients to feel civilized, mannerly, and tranquil, you might create a treatment around a garden theme, as gardens remind people of abundance, cultivated beauty, and refined manners. Smells from the South or Central American jungle, like ambrette seed, amyris, black pepper, cascarilla bark, copaiba balsam, elemi, peru balsam, rosewood, tagetes, tonka bean, vanilla, and West Indian bay create links to instinct and impulse. Exotic treatments feel adventurous and exhilarating.

In ancient times, the Mediterranean was a byway for trade between peoples of the region, including the Egyptians, Greeks, Middle Easterners, Phoenicians, and Romans. Treatments with Mediterranean flare connect clients to an open exchange of ideas and to integrated culture. Herbal aromas like basil, clary sage, hyssop, laurel, lavender, lemon balm, myrtle, rosemary, sweet fennel, and sweet marjoram are strongly associated with this region.

Wonderful Moments

As therapists, we can enhance clients’ enjoyment of treatments by knowing the history and lore of the products we use in the service. These stories, shared in quiet moments, enrich our understanding of the world around us and connect us to what is lovely, simple, and wonderful in each moment and in every experience. 

 Anne Williams is a licensed massage therapist, esthetician, aromatherapist, certified reflexologist, registered counselor, educator, and author. The work outlined in this article and the images are adapted from portions of the author’s textbook, Spa Bodywork: A Guide for Massage Therapists (Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2007). Williams is also the education program director for Associated Bodywork & Massage Professionals. She can be reached at or