How to enjoy spas if you’re not a spa person

by Сашка

If you have trouble relaxing at a spa, you’re not alone.

A dozen or so years ago, a friend gifted me a treatment at the spa of a ritzy country club in Thailand. It was promised to be the pinnacle of relaxation: 90 minutes of muscle-kneading, my limbs lathered in aromatherapeutic oil and my back covered in flimsy patches of 24-karat gold that would supposedly do wonders to my skin.

Little did my friend know that this was the first time I had stepped foot into a spa.

As I lay facedown on the massage table, a soft-spoken therapist pulled and stretched my limbs into every direction. All I could think was: “When is this over?”

I’ve never been a “spa person.” As a luxury travel journalist, I’ve had numerous opportunities to enjoy world-class spa treatments on my employer’s dime. But more often than not, I’d pass — often to much ridicule. The idea of having a complete stranger touch me all over my half-naked body never enticed me. The pressure to relax stressed me out.

Although plenty of people happily pay top dollar for Ayurvedic rubdowns and herbal body wraps, many others shudder at the thought of a full-body massage. Their reasons could include insecurities about their body (and a fear of being judged by the therapist), an aversion to being touched, or the sense of losing control in a situation that’s intended to be relaxing.

Over the years, though, I’ve learned to appreciate the occasional massage. Through trial and error, I’ve learned about the types of treatments I enjoy, and the ones I should avoid. And by being upfront about a massage therapist’s do’s and don’ts during the pretreatment chat, I’ve learned to discuss boundaries and find focus points that allow me to (somewhat) relax.

These tips from experts can make a trip to the spa less intimidating for nervous visitors like me.


Talk during the take-in

Any spa or massage center worth its salt will start each treatment with a consultation session. Although these chats are mostly designed to discuss your problem areas (shoulder aches, stiff neck, etc.) and preferences for a therapist, they’re also the perfect moment to get to know your masseuse better. Starting off with some informal chitchat will allow both of you to loosen up and cut through the tension that might linger in a treatment room.

These sessions are the opportunity to voice your concerns and boundaries. If you’d like your therapist to avoid touching certain body parts (whether that’s your belly, scalp or nether regions), this is your time to tell them. Similarly, if you’re unsure about the spa’s clothing protocols or want to know exactly what to expect during a treatment, ask away.

The end of a consultation also doesn’t mean the conversation should be over. If small talk on the massage table helps you relax, it’s perfectly acceptable to babble away.

If nerves do get the best of you, and speaking up before or during a treatment feels daunting, know that you’re in good hands. Professional therapists will be able to listen to you, even if you can’t find the right words.

“We train our therapists on the importance of soft skills during a treatment session,” says Sirirat Chaikhampha, director of the Chiva-Som Academy, a wellness training facility in Bangkok. “Not every guest feels comfortable with voicing their concerns or needs, so our therapists are trained to pick up on nonverbal cues or body language. It’s a therapist’s job to create an environment that takes away stress factors.”


Choose a light (or no) touch

Not every massage is created equal. Although some are literally very hands-on, there are plenty of options on the spa menu that allow you to relax with minimal touch or nudity.

“There are several spa treatments that focus more on relaxation and rejuvenation without requiring physical contact,” says Brooke Riley, a licensed massage therapist and corporate training specialist for Massage Heights. “Touchless therapy, such as sound therapy, aromatherapy and infrared saunas, are a great way to introduce a person to the spa environment and allow them to become more comfortable.”

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Once that first session has been a success, Riley suggests trying a facial treatment. “It’s another way to slowly introduce a person to touch without having them undress and feel vulnerable,” she says.

If you’re touch-averse, “avoid treatments labeled four-handed or similar, which involve two therapists working on a guest simultaneously,” says Melissa Wilson, director of training and education at Woodhouse Spas. “Body treatments involving scrubs or mud application may also feel overwhelming if you’re a bit shy around spa services.”


(Un)clothing is optional

Although it’s customary to undress for most spa treatments that focus on the whole body, you rarely have to strip down to your birthday suit. Disposable underwear, provided at almost every spa, does a reasonable job at protecting your modesty, even if you’re not wearing a bathrobe. It’s often also no problem to keep your own underwear or bra on during a treatment; just let the therapist know.

“Well-trained therapists are equipped with techniques and protocols that ensure they’ll rarely have to see a client fully nude,” says Lorela Movileanu, spa manager at Armathwaite Hall in England’s Lake District. “For example, when rolling over on the massage table, the therapist will hold up a towel to give the guest more privacy.”

Similarly, therapists will leave the room when you’re changing, and will only return when you’re covered up in a bathrobe. During most massages, therapists use draped towels to make sure that no intimate body parts are exposed.

Still uncomfortable with stripping down? Most spas offer treatments that don’t require disrobing. During Thai massages and Shiatsu therapy, you can remain fully covered in loose, comfortable clothes. (Sometimes loosefitting pajamas are provided.)

Treatments that focus on a certain body part, such as the feet or neck, also allow you to keep most of your clothes on. If you voice your unease during the consultation, many experienced therapists will even be able to adapt traditional body massages so you can remain fully or partly clothed.


Remember: The spa is a judgment-free zone

Like doctors and nurses, spa therapists see and touch dozens of bodies of different shapes, sizes and ages every week. Yours will already be forgotten by the time the treatment is over.

“We look at our clients’ bodies as organisms and think about the different systems within that organism, such as the muscular and skeletal systems and how we can address any problems,” says Amanda Strowbridge, who is based in the U.K. and has worked as a massage therapist for more than 35 years. “If I’m working on someone’s back, I’m only thinking about their back, the tightness of muscles and where I need to work them.”

Besides, she says, therapists have a strict code of ethics, so no professional would ever discuss their clients outside of work.

Above all, communication is key. Remember that you’re paying for a service that includes making you feel at ease. “Be honest about your comfort level,” Wilson says. “Trust that the spa concierge and your therapist will steer you in the right direction.”

More travel tips

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Cheap flights: Follow our best advice for scoring low airfare, including setting flight price alerts and subscribing to deal newsletters. If you’re set on an expensive getaway, here’s a plan to save up without straining your credit limit.

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Expert advice: Our By The Way Concierge solves readers’ dilemmas, including whether it’s okay to ditch a partner at security, or what happens if you get caught flying with weed. Submit your question here. Or you could look to the gurus: Lonely Planet and Rick Steves.

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