Relaxation time

Helen Nelson closes her eyes while receiving a facial at the

Valerie Desoto’s mom said she had good hands. Maybe, she says,
that’s why she became a massage therapist. As she smoothes the warm
paraffin strips onto my back, I’m too pleasurably at ease to make
much comment.
Valerie Desoto’s mom said she had good hands. Maybe, she says, that’s why she became a massage therapist. As she smoothes the warm paraffin strips onto my back, I’m too pleasurably at ease to make much comment.

True, I’m aware that Naturals Day Spa is on a busy street – Monterey just south of Vineyard in Morgan Hill – but the frantic pace of my daily life cannot penetrate these walls. All I hear is the soothing music of the room, soft chimes and harp. The lights are dimmed and my eyelids begin to droop.

I can feel the warm wax transfer from its muslin sheet to my skin as Desoto applies gentle pressure. My face sinks further into the circular cushion at the end of the table. It’s the last thing I remember until a delicious scent – floral and sensuous – wakens me from sleep.

“Take a deep breath,” says Desoto who puts down the fragrant jar and deftly smoothes lotion onto my back.

Suddenly it occurs to me that the paraffin is gone, but before I am even cognizant enough to ask about it, a pair of warm, smooth stones are applied to my tense shoulders and I’m gone again.

Day spas, once a bastion of celebrities and the ladies who lunch, are popping up in middle-class communities around the country, and the business is gaining steam, despite the economy and an increasingly crowded market.

When Maria Turretto-Shropshire bought Naturals back in 1990 it was a haphazard mix of employees, renters and commissioned stylists.

She switched the focus to the customer by making all of her workers hourly employees and creating a mandatory monthly training program to ensure that all of her staff was up to date on techniques and customer service, said Naturals General Manager Cindi Torres.

“Nobody’s just sitting around in the back,” said Torres. “If my body person isn’t busy, she’ll come out and she’ll start doing a shoulder massage for someone getting a manicure or she’ll come out and she’ll rub people’s feet.”

The spa has diversified, too, carrying gift items, custom cosmetic lines by Hollister-based Acqua Cures, and offering everything from pedicures to hairstyling, massages to microdermabrasion.

That sort of can-do has done well by the spa. The business itself was opened as Natural Cosmetics in 1982, performing facials, makeovers, massage and nail care. Under Turretto-Shropshire’s ownership, it became a full-service spa in 1992, moved to a 2,900-square-foot complex in 1996 and now there are plans to break ground for a new, larger spa in March 2005.

Clients range from businesswomen and moms to high school students, and the spa includes a full line of men’s treatments.

The most recent addition to the line-up is something called the BioUltimate Facial Toning System.

Featured on Oprah, the machine uses a mild electrical current to tone facial muscles and give sagging skin new life.

For younger clients like me, it can also be used as an addition to regular acne treatments.

“Basically, it’s giving your facial muscles a workout,” said Hyon Marroquin, a spa trainer and the machine’s operator. “When you get older, the muscle really kind of loses its elastic, and this helps it to remember to stay where it should be.”

I elect for the turbo treatment, 30 minutes as opposed to an hour, and am surprised to find that it doesn’t hurt, aside from the occasional sting. Definitely not the strong jolt I was expecting, and my acne bumps have already receded quite a bit. By nightfall they’re hardly noticeable.

I emerge from Naturals feeling so relaxed I’m wobbly in the knees, but part of that credit belongs to another spa, this time in Hollister.

Nancy McDowell opened the Wellness Clinic and Spa in 1986 as a massage therapist and added services as she went – esthetics, permanent cosmetics, microdermabrasion – but embarked on a different path two years ago.

Debilitated by a childhood accident that left her with legs of differing lengths, McDowell had begun to seek out osteopathic care for her own injuries, but decided to go on and actually become a cranial sacral therapist after her son was in a bad motorcycle accident.

Pebbles, a Pomeranian, greets patients at the door and follows McDowell around her offices as she works, not only massaging clients, but adjusting their bodies to fall into more healthy lines. These days she’s devoted to helping people with pain, often chronic.

“Everything in your whole body knows where it’s supposed to be,” said McDowell. “Your body is fixing itself all night long. Sometimes when you wake up in these weird positions, it’s just your body trying to get right again. I help it along.”

McDowell tells me to lay on a massage table and, ever so gently, compares the length of my legs, the setting of my hips and ribcage.

She tells me I have a high hip on my left side, that much of the soreness in my back (which I thought was caused by tension) was the result of the shift I create as I walk.

Cranial sacral therapy is designed to deal with the problem by giving the body room to correct its own problems, pulling, pushing, rotating and pressing on areas with such little force it’s barely perceived by the client – she uses five grams of force, the weight of a nickel.

McDowell says her practice is analogous to untying knots in a tautly pulled string.

“What’s the best way to get the knot untied?” she asks rhetorically. “Give it some slack. That’s basically what I do. I ask the body where it needs to have that slack.”

My legs are bent from side to side, my chest is rotated.

All of the movements are small, painless. I’m still fully clothed, and to an outside observer it wouldn’t look like much, but I can feel my back going into place. I can feel my rib cage settling.

When I get off the table there’s a moment of dizziness until I get a feel for my surroundings. I have to because there’s no way I’m still in the same body. I can’t feel anything except wonderful.

McDowell is humble about her work. She says it has taken all arrogance out of her. She sees herself as a helping hand in the larger context of things. She probably undercharges. At $35 for a half-hour custom massage her services are nearly half the price of Naturals’ $60 half hour.

A man calls and says he’s been referred to a cranial sacral therapist by his worker’s compensation. McDowell doesn’t like the paperwork of such a system, so she offers to let him come in once for free. “It’s a good thing I have a very supportive husband,” she says with a wry smile.

As I walk out of the clinic feeling light as air, I wholeheartedly agree.

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