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Spa Session Was Not Nirvana

May 12, 2000|S.J. DIAMOND | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

I finally tried heaven. Didn't like it.

For years, I've clipped articles about spas, the ultimate make-over for body and soul. They ranged from day spas in the city for just a little patch-up to faraway oases for a total turnaround.

I didn't want a glitzy resort, but I didn't want boot camp either. I pictured yoga in the sun, weight rooms with gleaming equipment and warm towels. I'd get good exercise, great service, and someone else would do the cooking.

My choice was a middle-of-the-road retreat that emphasized health and fitness. To some extent, it was everything I expected. I, however, was not.

It should have been a good fit. I'm in fairly good shape and get regular exercise, if not enough. I don't drink or smoke. I mainline vitamin C and calcium and am ashamed that my favorite food groups are salts and oils.

I participated enthusiastically, but with growing irritation. It's not that I was faint of heart, just poor of sport.

There was something in me inimical to the whole gestalt. I forgot the original spa concept, which was less to improve your body than to soak it, pummel it and feed it faddish potions. It's not for someone who dislikes beauty parlors and physical handling, and who had a mother whose idea of dieting was "Eat less."

This spa had a mix of exercise classes and treatments, mostly massages and facials. The clientele was almost all women, mostly middle-aged and variously overweight; many were repeaters who come once, twice, three times a year. They were likable--friendly, casual, unpretentious in their old T-shirts--so it wasn't the people.

It wasn't just the exercise either, though I didn't really like the dance, body "awareness," relaxation and huge rubber balls mixed into it. Or the talk, a constant patter to soothe or inspire. Take the yoga, which I was trying for the first time. I'll bend and stretch on command, but I'm not suggestible: When told to close my eyes and "allow" myself to "go to a place that's special to you," I couldn't find a single haven. I called up my kitchen, my closet, my riverfront land. No transport.

Nor was it the food, though food concerns were intrusive. I like chicken, fish, salad and fruit, and for low-calorie food, it was attractive and filling, even if two hours later you were hungry. But we were forbidden sweeteners (except for some special proprietary honey product) and salt (sigh), and with no salt and considerable roughage, we spent as much time in the bathroom as at table.

Not surprisingly, the menu included health additives. There were daily vitamin pills, a midday break for a thin green sludge, and the evening feature was unsalted popcorn, not unlike packing material, that only made you yearn for the real thing. And more talk about food and food properties when what I wanted was to forget about food for a while.

It wasn't even the treatments, though there I really diverge. If it was already clear that this was less about fitness than weight loss, it also seemed that weight loss wasn't enough its own reward. The real treats were various massages (with or without aromatherapy) and facials. Just off the lobby was a real beauty parlor for nails and hair.

Puritan that I am, I found the indulgence distracting, even disturbing. Apparently, this is rather ineffective rehab for weight problems. You visit, go home, fall off the wagon, come back for corrections. You never really change, but coming back is such a treat, you feel good about it. If anything, you learn that fitness is a periodic sojourn, with indulgences.

I learned some things, too. If the spa experience is what real women like, I'm in trouble, but I'll save a fortune over a lifetime. And I learned that to lose 3 to 5 pounds in two days, just cut out salt. And eat less.

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