Contemporary spa culture is a compelling fusion of ancient traditions and modern mechanical wonders. The evolution of the "wellness industrial complex" reveals interesting implications on how we view our bodies in an increasingly contaminated world.
In the Northern hemisphere, there's formidable emphasis on appropriated Asiatic mysticism, ancient healing and indigenous-inspired treatments. The Southern hemisphere seems more fixated on super slick, "Western-style" spa experiences. And the continuing spread of luxury hotel chains to the farthest reaches of the planet bucks both these trends as their accompanying spa franchises follow a cookie-cutter mould to achieve brand cohesion.
In such a varied industry, there's continuous flux and exceptions to every rule. For the most part, at remote-destination spas it's all about over-the-top luxury. At leading urban spas, opulence and indulgence are giving way to a focus on results-driven, needs-oriented treatments, ranging from de-stressing to nutrition.
Switzerland: Set on the idyllic fringe of the ego-boosting altitudes of Gstaad, the Grand Hotel Bellevue is renowned for its spa, a star attraction for those who appreciate touch over technology. Top-notch wet facilities spoil jet-setting spa-goers. Think perk-me-up ice grotto, immune-boosting steam bath and a let-it-all-go salt grotto. The only great project at hand is simply to slow down and breathe. The elegant genius of this spa appeals to Fortune 500 "ski hippies" and serious athletes alike. Must-try treatment: sonic meets sensual touch in a massage using Tibetan Singing Bowls. After a relaxing session at the spa visit the SPA Bar for a healthy mocktail and freshly made sushi courtesy of Norihiro Ogura, the Bellevue's own Japanese sushi master. Grand Hotel Bellevue at Hauptstrasse, Gstaad 3780, Switzerland; 41-33-748-0000; bellevue-gstaad.com
U.S.A.: Mii amo Spa of Sedona, Ariz., embodies the high touch, emotion-driven ethos, and every treatment pretty much ends with an embrace from your therapist. This is the nation's ground zero for "hugging it out." Surrounded by Arizona's majestic red rock canyons, this spa is an authentic beacon of spirituality and healing. After a deeply nurturing Shirodhara, I'm goosed enough to lay a metaphorical golden egg. A subtle therapy that allows a continuous stream of ayurvedic oil to run onto the forehead, this treatment is thought to be beneficial in balancing hormones as it is associated with the pituitary - the "third eye" area - the gland responsible for regulating hormonal secretions. The goal of Shirodhara is to establish a state of parasympathetic repose, an ego-less state. It's Mii amo's answer to "wiping the slate clean." For even more touch-based life-affirming sessions, the menu incorporates many touch-based healing rituals passed down from the Navajo, Yavapa-Apache and Havasupai people. Mii amo Spa at Enchantment Resort, 525 Boynton Canyon Rd., Sedona, Ariz.; 888-749-2137; miiamo.com
China: A spirituality-driven spa leader for the metaphysical age, the Anantara mantra focuses on therapeutic dynamism - localizing the transformative power of touch therapy over a visit to the chiropractor. Nestled in the heart of Shanghai, the Anantara Spa at The PuLi Hotel is a passport to the ancient healing philosophies of China, Thailand and India. Both ancient and modern details grace the Anantara experience, creating a distinct sense of place - an urban oasis featuring the intricate metalwork of Han dynasty bronze accents alongside lustrous silks in vivid modern hues. Blending hand-crafted treatments and cutting-edge interiors, this spellbinding space induces a sleep quality scripted by Rumi himself - sailing to uncharted shores, sensing the secrets of the stars. The PuLi Hotel and Spa at 1 ChangDe Rd., JingAn District, Shanghai; 86-21-3203-9999; thepuli.com
Canada: More than mere pamper palace, Ancient Cedars Spa at Tofino, B.C.'s Wickaninnish Inn is a positive, emotionally validating ecosystem. Sheltered by the forest fringe, the spa offers spectacular views overlooking the Pacific. Nutrient-rich seaweed is hand-harvested off the coast of the spa's own setting of Vancouver Island, producing certified organic SeaFlora Skincare. The handmade concept continues with a unique Hishuk Ish Tsawalk Awakening Treatment; my therapist presses into me with the soothing rhythm reminiscent of kittens kneading a mother's belly to keep the milk flowing. In short, it's a drool-worthy throwback to the embryonic. This is what we mean when we call spa culture "special." Ancient Cedars Spa at 500 Osprey Lane, Tofino, B.C.; 250-725-3100; wickinn.com