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To spa or not to spa?

What's wrong with scented oils, mood music, and a relax-you-to-the-core massage? Amelia gives a witty look at the "spa culture" of our day and explains how it stands in contradiction to the goals of an active Orthodox spiritual life.
I'm not a nun. I can't claim that I live any kind of ascetic lifestyle. I eat what tastes good. I exercise because it feels good. I wear makeup, polish my nails, and get my hair cut because I like to look a certain way. I like to be clean and smell good, and I enjoy being around other people and things that are clean and smell good. In other words, I'm okay with doing certain things simply because they feel nice. There's a limit to that, though.

One thing that I'm simply not okay with is this new "spa culture" idea. Yes, I know that there were Turkish baths hundreds of years ago; I'm talking about day spas on every corner and spa getaway advertisements in every magazine. Going to the spa doesn't mesh well with the concept of trying to live as a Christian. (Going to the Turkish bath didn't, either.) Spas are about sensuality, decadence, being served, and indulging the flesh in pleasure. These are things that Christians are supposed to avoid. Even if there's no inherent sin in them—although there very well could be—they're the first step down a very slippery slope.

One of the cornerstones of the spa experience is massage. While the expression "massage parlor" implies something different from "spa," and while the former may offer a variety of post-hoc services that the latter doesn't, the first 45 minutes or so are pretty much the same.

Medical massage.

Don't yell at me just yet. I recognize that there are certain people with physical conditions that require medical massage. The problem lies in distinguishing people who need this type of therapy from people who don't. I think a lot of people don't care to recognize that there's a difference—a big one.

For example: The person who survived being crushed in a car accident might need it. The one who's stressed from being stuck in traffic all day, on the other hand, doesn't. The physical manipulation of muscles and joints can be critical to pain management and/or the recovery of people with certain injuries, disabilities and health conditions. It's not critical, however, for people who are simply looking for stress relief, emotional catharsis, or a mental vacation. I would argue that it's not even truly therapeutic in these situations because all it does is distract the person from his or her problems without helping to solve them.

One way to tell whether massage is truly medical in nature is to look at who administers it and under what circumstances. If the practitioner is a physical therapist, a chiropractor, an orthopedist, or a sports doctor, you're probably receiving a medical treatment (although chiropractics sometimes crosses over the border into Far Eastern spirituality). During this type of treatment, you wear either comfortable clothes or, if necessary, a hospital gown. Your therapist typically wears scrubs or a lab coat and, quite possibly, disposable gloves. Alternatively, he or she might wear athletic-style clothing that allows for his or her own maximum range of motion. The office where you receive this treatment has florescent lighting and a sterile smell, and the massage table is strikingly reminiscent of a gurney.

In short, medical massage looks something like this:

It does NOT look like this:

or like this:

or involve any of this:

For those who don't know how to interpret my picture metaphors, here's some further clarification.

Medical massage doesn't require dim lighting or scented candles, and it's not improved by mood music. There's no medical need to be naked, as thin clothing doesn't get in the way of kneading sore muscles. It does get in the way, however, of hot, slippery oils and the feeling of skin-to-skin contact, neither of which is in any way medical or necessary. In a medical massage, if something does need to be rubbed into your skin, it's cold and goopy and comes out of a jar or metal tube (not a pretty wooden bowl with a flower in it), and it doesn't get slathered all over your whole body. You'll never receive a medical massage in a cabana on the beach or in a zen-inspired theme room. There's no medical cause for any therapist to wear a traditional Asian costume, a tight white uniform, or to be a handsome 25-year-old boy with no shirt. These are all clues that your massage is more for your enjoyment than the healing of any physiological pain or illness.

A word on spa spirituality.

Sadly, the hedonistic massage isn't the worst part of the whole spa experience. Far worse is the spiritual context that often frames it. Many spas, particularly the ones that involve overnight stays, are steeped in either pagan or atheistic practices. They offer yoga classes, meditation sessions, "cleansing" and "purification" rituals, and who knows what else. Even though I've said all of this a thousand times before, I want to offer yet one more crash-course in what's wrong with everything I just listed:

Yoga isn't about exercise and flexibility. It may seem to have evolved somewhat into that, in order to be welcome in gyms and fitness centers and in order to entice Christian people to participate in it, but yoga is still the combined mental/physical practice of a pagan Indian philosophy. The word yoga means "to yoke," and it's not the Lord Jesus Christ to whom yoga yokes its adherents.

Meditation isn't about relaxing; it's about centering the mind. Centering means focusing on the self or one's surroundings or the immediate moment, but not on God. While there is such a thing as Christian meditation, it has nothing to do with incorporating Christian beliefs into the Far Eastern way of meditating. Christian meditation isn't about suspending consciousness or "feeling God" in the moment; it's about prayerful reflection and communication with God. Eastern meditation doesn't involve reflection on anything, because thinking isn't allowed. Neither does it involve prayer of any kind, because belief in God isn't allowed. Some people think that the Jesus Prayer is a form of meditation, but it's not—at least not in this existential sense of the word. It's not a mantra that we chant until we enter into a trance. Every utterance of: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner," is a solemn, active, communicative prayer for mercy. If it's not—if it's just empty words, not only is it in vain but it can even be spiritually destructive. And for the record, I've never heard of a spa that passes out prayer ropes, or one that teaches quiet contemplation on Christ. If there were such a "spa," it definitely wouldn't offer massages. If you want spiritual healing combined with a nice getaway, visit a monastery or take a pilgrimage.

As for purification rituals, they're completely unnecessary from the Christian spiritual standpoint. Cleansing out the nasal cavity with a special pot filled with a special potion doesn't rid us of anything except boogers. The same goes for ritual baths; unless there's scrubbing involved, they can't even remove physical dirt, let alone metaphysical. It's true that sin corrupts us, but this isn't a predicament that can be fixed at the spa. It requires baptism (not a ritual bath, by the way), prayer, repentance, confession, Holy Communion, and the saving grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. At best, spa purification rituals are a waste of time. At worst, they're an initiation into the devil's private club.

Christians have absolutely no business participating in these kinds of activities. I have nothing more to say about that.

But I need peace in my life!

You can still have peace in your life. Pray to God to give you peace. When He gives it to you, don't chase it away by doing things that He forbids, things that upset your conscience. Don't be angry with people, and don't give people cause to be angry with you. Don't worry about things you can't control, but do fulfill your responsibilities: You have responsibilities to the Lord, to your fellow man, and to yourself. Don't focus too much on yourself, but don't mistreat yourself, either. Focus on loving and helping other people, but not on controlling them or trying to make them into what you want them to be. Do things that you enjoy, but don't let them become chains that bind you. Adopt healthy eating and exercise habits, but don't become obsessive about them. Get enough rest so that your body can function, but don't sleep your life away—too much sleep isn't just a waste of time; it's spiritually dangerous. Make time to go to church, and make sure that your soul actively participates while you're there. If your soul talks with God in church and listens as He answers back, you won't want to stop doing so when you come home.

Enjoy your life, but remember that this one is only temporary. Work hard to make it good, but be more concerned with what's to come in eternity.

Read the follow-up to this article, No pain, no gain, which substantiates the above perspective by referencing Scripture and the Holy Fathers.