Face it: New Year's resolutions usually last as long as the breath it takes to say them. Even though grandiose, self-improvement promises for 2005 may be shelved already, there's no reason to abandon them entirely. If your resolution, like mine, is to relieve stress and take better care of yourself, skip the gym and head to the spa.
It's a good time to be spa-minded in Boston; several new spas have opened in recent months, and other establishments, such as sports clubs and hotels, are expanding their range of spa-like services. More than just a spot for manicures and massages, spas have emerged as the place for one-stop holistic shopping for everything from Botox treatments to body-sculpting and meditation. And from January to March, an assortment of local hotels is offering spa packages in a program called "Boston Overnight," promising relaxation and a shot at overall self-renewal. Think of it as getting away to recharge, without having to leave town.
Boston's newest spa, Exhale, on Arlington Street, is a self-described "transformational mind-body spa" addressing the body and soul. It's been all the rage in New York City since opening in 2003 (with three locations so far) because of its signature program, "Core Fusion." It's billed as a combination Pilates, yoga, core work, and orthopedic stretching class that gives fast results. (A 30-minute "express" session is $20, and an hour-long class is $30. A 10-pack costs $235, and monthly unlimited classes run $310.) Although the class sounded intimidating, I was promised a new level of awareness -- how could I turn down an offer like that?
Entering the spa was soothing enough. The dcor is all linen and green glass and carved wooden doors. The elevator to the changing room doesn't go down, it "transcends." For the trip back up to the studio, I pushed "transform." So far, so good.
The hourlong core-fusion class, designed by former Lotte Berk Method instructors Elisabeth Halfpapp and Fred DeVito, is nothing if not intense. Once class started, I quickly became aware, all right -- aware that all the muscles in my body were quivering. I wasn't the only one finding it hard work, but it didn't matter to the others in my class. Two women had taken it the day before and planned to come back that week, already converts, even though Halfpapp, who comes up from New York to teach once a week, kept saying, "Relax those facial muscles!" I guess grimacing in effort is not part of the program. After class, a spell lounging in the "Zen Den" with a cup of Shanti tea restored me somewhat. A visit to the sauna also helped, and, I admit it, I did feel pretty good.
Exhale also offers all the usual spa services, plus some unusual ones. Julia Sutton, the company's chief operating officer, says many offerings there border on medical, such as the "skinmedica vitalize peel" ($135 for a 30-minute treatment) that leaves no tell-tale red marks on the face. "People want to see results," said Sutton. "They are so time-starved." For the really stressed, there's even a "Guided Relaxation" class ($30 for 18 minutes).
When Lavinia Borcau, who owns a salon bearing her name in Brookline, added a second-floor spa late last spring, she introduced what she calls a "European Method" yoga class ($20 for a one-hour class, or 10 classes for $160). Borcau says the class, which sounds as hard-core as Core Fusion, yields obvious results in just six weeks. Borcau, a ground-breaker in the New England spa world, was also one of the first in the area to offer Endermologie, a cellulite-reduction machine, whereby a technician uses a suctioning tool to massage cellulite-prone areas on the body to increase circulation, which is supposed to get rid of toxins and excess water.
At 30 Newbury Spa, owner Lee-Ann Blair added the "MedSpa" to her 23-year-old salon in September. A renowned New York plastic surgeon, John Anton, does Botox, collagen, and restlyn procedures once a week. Microdermabrasion processes, as well as peels and laser hair removal, are also available. (MedSpa procedures start at $150.) Blair said she saw the writing on the wall a few years ago. "The next level [in spa services] is medical," said Blair. "Everyone wants everything yesterday." Many of the new procedures, she said, provide immediate results. Plus, Blair added, many people prefer the salon atmosphere to a doctor's office. After all, at the doctor's, you can't get a manicure and massage along with your collagen.
Elizabeth Grady Skin Care Salons, with 25 locations in New England, recently opened another one in West Roxbury and plans to open additional salons in Saugus, Plymouth, Dartmouth, and Mansfield. The salon has also jumped on the medical bandwagon with its "Where Beauty Meets Medicine" offering of microdermabrasion treatments starting at $125.
At Splash, the spa at the Sports Club/LA in downtown Boston, recent additions to the staff include a Chinese medical practitioner and an internist from Massachusetts General Hospital. Both doctors stress that stress is unhealthy and offer remedies from acupuncture to proactive healthcare, where a doctor works with you and your trainer to devise an individualized program that takes into account not just your fitness goals, but your health considerations as well (prices for this service vary widely).
Giuliano Day Spa, long the city's hottest spa, has also added new programs. The "Thai Massage" ($80 for 50 minutes) is a combination of Pilates, yoga-like stretches, and acupressure-point massage -- no passive lying on a table for this one. Another popular new program is "Massage Partners" ($160 for 100 minutes), where a massage therapist teaches each partner how to massage the other. Or, if you know the lesson will be lost on one or both of you, opt for the "Couples Massage" ($160 per couple for 50 minutes; each person gets his/her own massage therapist), as my husband and I did. The massage sounds sexier than it is. We found out it meant we had our massages in a room with an accordion wall that was closed before and after our massages. So much for togetherness, although we did relax in the lounge afterward with tea and cookies.
So am I sticking to my resolution? We'll see, but the prospect of kicking my stress habit at a spa is a lot more appealing than trying to do it at a gym. After all, if you can't hack a spa's exercise classes, there's always the promise of a massage. Now that's stress relief.