Spas versus tradition

– By Shoba Narayan


Walk into any spa from Bali to Boca Raton, Florida, and the menu is likely to include Chinese reflexology, Tahitian fruit wraps and Thai massages. Such treatments are so commonplace these days that it’s easy to forget that just a few years ago, hardly anyone outside of their native countries had any clue as to what they where. Now, once obscure practices have the spa industry to thank for removing them from the “endangered traditions” list.

Ayurveda, virtually unknown outside of India a decade ago, has become the pride of trendy spas world-wide. Ayurveda is a 5,000-year old system of medicine that incorporates oil massages, yoga, meditation and a balanced diet. This fairly sophisticated form of healing was practiced by Indian sages for centuries, until Western medicine became the norm. Ayurveda is now enjoying a renaissance in India, thanks in part to the spas which have made it fashionable again.

The spa industry may seem an unlikely champion of traditional medicine. Only a decade ago, spas took pride in sanitizing and deodorizing all beauty and healing rituals. European spas modeled themselves after the clinical exactitude of hospitals. Even Elizabeth Arden’s famous Red Door spa in New York boasted pristine white walls and lab-coated employees. Most spa and beauty-product companies purposely distanced themselves from messy treatments: Grandma’s traditional oatmeal and raw-egg face mask was repackaged as cold cream—without any color or odor that might offend. Such Spartan products and minimalist spaces appealed to increasingly stressed out modern women; and spas made a killing in the process.

Later, in a quest for market differentiation, spas turned to exotic treatments. Treatments that were once considered questionable suddenly became a chic way to set oneself apart from the competition. Thai massages suddenly threatened to overtake Swedish ones as the massage of choice; scrubs and wraps from the South Pacific to Asia became desirable. Slowly but inexorably, the spa industry began co-opting the very practices that it had once scorned. And while of course they didn’t intend to revitalize traditional beauty practices, that was a happy byproduct of this new interest.

In Kerala, India, for instance, ayurvedic schools that were once decrepit and without students a scant three years ago are now oversubscribed with both men and women who hope to become full-time masseuses in Kerala’s new spas. The wages that these spa practitioners make are equivalent to those earned by a local doctor. Ayurvedic treatments that were once relegated to academic studies are now catching the fancy of spa professionals. Ancient Sanskrit textbooks are being dusted off and their methodology translated. And now, a significant number of young people want to study the same ayurveda that they had once cast aside as old-fashioned.

In Indonesia, Javanese women have passed on the art of making jamu (NEEDS DEFINITION) from generation to generation. These jamu healers mix fresh herbs such as ginger, pepper, turmeric and galangal every morning, then go door to door trying to sell bottles of their product. Today, these jamu healers are employed by modern Indonesian beauty companies like Martha Tilaar, Mustika Ratu and Nyonya Meneer to teach ancient herbal treatments and recipes to their college-trained technicians. Ancient techniques are fused with modern scientific practices, and everyone is happy. The spa industry gets exotic treatments and experts who are dying to revive them. The ancient medical practitioners get newfound respectability, acceptance and a chance to make a decent living.

Of course, there are those who question this fusion. Traditionalists will argue that the spa industry is diluting ancient herbal recipes to make them palatable to modern people. They say that popularizing these venerable treatments will somehow remove their purity and authenticity.

Such contrarians would be displeased with Singaporean company Eu Yan Sang, which measures and packages traditional Chinese herbs with scientific exactitude and markets them in the form of pills and capsules at mass outlets such as Giant, Carrefour and Watson’s. One of the biggest challenges that the company faced was from its Chinese customers who believed that Chinese herbs ought to be smelly, as well as weighed and mixed on the spot. Even today, many older Chinese believe that unprocessed herbs are more potent than the packaged non-odorous variety.

Then you will always find those who protest these fusions by painting modernity as the enemy of tradition. But those who make that simplistic argument would do well to remember that the spa industry has rescued some of these traditions from the brink of extinction.

© 2005 Dow Jones Reuters Business Interactive LLC (trading as Factiva). All rights reserved.

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