Recently, a blog post I read by a beauty editor, who went on about why she considers spa treatments a punishment rather than a reward, flashed across my mind…

On a half-day outing to a spa positioned as one of the country’s top treatment concepts offering an authentic experience, I found it difficult to reconcile promise with practice. From the moment we arrived, my body went into sensory overload as pungent incense wrapped around me in an unrelenting fragrant assault.

We gathered by the entrance and upon receiving our group assignments, we were ushered to a table that caught the worst of the incense and the doorway traffic. A cursory glance at the cotton gowns on our chairs was enough to know that these would leave little to the imagination, being both very threadbare and ill fitting.

After we took our seats, we were offered a drink, just before plates of food were unceremoniously thrust in front of us. For a mind and body wellness centre, the lack of consultation regarding food preferences or intolerances was startling.

Once we had finished eating, our assigned group coordinator rattled off the afternoon’s programme before insisting we fill in our ‘visas’ – apparently the gateway to guaranteed spa heaven. The brochure requested basic personal information and we had to mark our pressure preference: light, medium or firm, without any initial demonstration of these relative terms. I hesitated between light and medium, knowing my sensitivity levels but very aware of my body stress level. Medium it was, then.

Heavy Handed

A quick trip to the change room saw our gowns exchanged for better fitting, slightly thicker ones, and we gathered in the garden before being shuffled along to the ‘head and neck’ massage section, where we were assigned a therapist. Our day of relaxation was about to begin… or so I thought. Granted, the view was spectacular and the atmosphere quite idyllic for nature lovers; that is, until the hands of Thor took my shoulders in a death grip that would not let up for 40 minutes.

My pleas for a little (meaning a lot!) less pressure fell on deaf ears and my hunched shoulders were a futile exercise in body language. Trying to get my Zen on in an effort to block out the pain, I dismissed my instinct to flee. I am a survivor, if nothing else. I would persevere, and then I would ensure that the next session would be less medium than this.

The Bone Cruncher

Drumbeats indicated the rotation of treatments, so we tried to hook up our bra straps without losing a grip on our gowns in an effort to preserve our own dignity and that of the two men in our group. #BoobsMustFall was not part of the programme!

A few minutes later we were seated on the other side of the retreat, alongside the river again, preparing for the foot massage. A firm favourite in my everyday massage repertoire, this soon turned to a heightened awareness of the number of tiny foot bones I have, as well as just how much I appreciate my toes actually being attached to my feet.

A crunch here, twist there and tug everywhere and I immediately understood Roald Dahl’s description of the despicable bone-crunching giant. The brief moments of pleasure were marred by aching discomfort and I began to pray for the familiar sound of drums in the background to signify the end of this foot attack.

Just Plain Awkward

I then gingerly headed off for the promised full-body massage. I seriously considered skipping this entirely, but that little inner voice chastised me for being a quitter. Confidently, and with therapist number three in tow, I stepped into the, uhm, rustic wooden shelter and hesitated, expecting the canvas flap to be released to offer a little privacy. But it wasn’t. This must be the most awkward I have ever felt at a spa, being exposed to the elements, both natural and human.

As someone who really loves a good massage, my body flooded with disappointment the moment the masseuse laid her hands on me. First, the massage started with me lying on my back, whereas they usually end this way. And, again, we had the clear misunderstanding of medium. The twisting and kneading was nothing short of agony, but she would move on to another body part just as I was about to say ‘uncle’. Just another three, two, one section to go, I chanted inwardly for encouragement.

In those moments of uncomfortable exposure, I realised just how traumatic the day had been. My senses are quite acute; odours are more potent and pressure is more acute, while I am disturbed by sounds that many would consider to be white noise. Being thrust into this environment with little preparation felt like a violation of mind and body.

By the time she had finished, I didn’t care that I was half-naked in the bush with countless equally skimpily clad strangers roaming around. I just wanted out! As I marched to the change room, it struck me just how impersonal the whole process had been. I usually like a little sweet talk before I let anyone into my undies, but that day three different people ran their hands all over my body without so much as a ‘how do you do’. I believe I now understand why the alcohol flows so freely – dull the senses you must, Yoda would advise.

Upon relaying my experience to a good friend, she suggested it sounded like a sausage factory and I couldn’t agree more. If you need someone to work out that kink in your neck or release those tight muscles, I know several independent therapists whose hands work nothing short of magic, regardless of the kind of pressure you prefer. More importantly, they communicate with you and adjust their skills according to your needs, always with the clients’ comfort in mind.

There are also many other retail spas that make you feel like you are the only one in the building, so size is never an excuse, as well as those that offer a variety of authentic experiences. While I truly appreciate the attempt at community upliftment or empowerment, I am a firm (not medium) believer that massage is a therapeutic tool and a skill not everyone possesses. Energy needs flows from masseuse to client in seamless, healing movements.

By the end of the afternoon, I felt ‘pumped and dumped’. This was definitely all buck for no bang and I seriously doubt I’d ever recommend the large-scale spa experience to anyone.