LENOX -- The camera looked old-fashioned, as if a photographer might duck under a black cloth to snap the picture. But this camera was hardly a vintage model. Behind it, a color therapist named Vera waited to capture not me, but my aura on Polaroid film.
Because an aura is sometimes defined as invisible, or a luminous radiation from the body, I was less than convinced that a so-called "aura camera" could photograph the intangible. But I sat for the camera anyway, as if I were mugging for some kind of new-age driver's license, and placed my hands on two small blue boxes with wires attached, lining up my fingers on the hand-shaped metal plates.
I had chosen color therapy as a curiosity among the multitude of massages, body wraps, and other spa treatments available at the Canyon Ranch health spa in Lenox. While I was persuaded by the spa's eating and exercise advice and could even buy into the benefits of meditation and acupuncture, I questioned whether slathering colored clay all over my body or soaking in a colored bath could make me more powerful, spiritual, or even relaxed.
The camera, said Canyon Ranch massage director Karen Watson, measures the body's energy field with biofeedback technology. Vibrations and electricity travel from the hand plates through the wires to the camera, which translates the energy into color. "Red is powerful because the energy is moving a lot faster," she said. Blues and violets, on the other hand, mean a slower energy, reflecting calm and peace. Part of me was intrigued; part wondered why I didn't just choose a Swedish massage.
When the Polaroid popped out, Vera explained the colors that made up my aura, each said to represent a different chakra. The word "chakra," familiar to fans of yoga or alternative medicine, comes from a Sanskrit term for wheel and refers to energy centers along the spine. Each chakra corresponds to a color: Violet, at the crown of the head, represents spirituality; indigo, at the brow, signals intuition; a lighter blue at the throat corresponds with communication; green, at the heart, with love; yellow, at the solar plexus, with wisdom; orange, at the abdomen, with creativity; and red, at the lower pelvis, with power. At least that's what Vera's chart said.
If only I were as wise as my Polaroid aura indicated: It was blindingly sunny, full of yellow, a bit of orange, and some green. "I can tell you're a yellow because you're so curious," Vera said.
Next came the decision: Which chakra to strengthen? Should I be slathered with purple clay and become more spiritual, or swathed in indigo to get in touch with my unconscious? ("If I'm in touch, how can it be unconscious?" I asked Vera. She seemed stumped.) Green for love was appealing, but so was red for energy.
"There should be one for decision making," Vera said, pokerfaced, as I contemplated the rainbow.
Watson said she has taken an orange treatment, for creativity, before a business presentation.
"I was kind of amazed at how everything rolled off my tongue," she recalled. She swears a blue treatment once made her intensely relaxed: "I could have gotten hit by a Mack truck and not minded."
For me, the mother of an adolescent, communication and calm seemed most important, so I finally chose the turquoise blue. Vera took me to a Swiss shower where 15 jets exploded with water, then she plastered me with mud. Next, while I lay on a plastic sheet, Vera picked up her paintbrush, covering me like a freshly primed wall, front and back, with the turquoise goop. She gently rubbed small circles along my spinal column, presumably encouraging my stubborn chakras, then wrapped me in the sheet and, while the blue mud worked its magic, shined a small flashlight with colored lenses along my spine.
Whole books have been written to convince people that this kind of colorful handiwork outside the body can do something inside. Author Ted Andrews has written "How to Heal With Color," "How to See and Read the Aura," and other new-agey tomes.
"The body absorbs light frequencies," Andrews said in a telephone interview. "Each color has its own light frequency just as every musical tone has its own vibrational tone or frequency." Color, he said, affects mood much as music does.
All right, that made some sense: Mozart is calming; my preteen's passion for punk is not. But color?
"We know that men are more attracted to women who wear an orangey-red," Andrews continued. "And women are drawn to men wearing a bluish red, a darker red." Red, he said, stimulates blood flow and increases energy levels, while a pastel yellow can ease indigestion. (Note to self: Wear light yellow to Thanksgiving dinner.)
But soaking in it? Andrews said that's not really necessary; you can derive the same benefits through breathing exercises in which you visualize yourself inhaling the different colors. He figures that skeptics are more likely to accept a clay color treatment like Canyon Ranch's.
"With most people, the idea of just visualizing a color seems too mystical, too magical, too unreal, but painting with color is more tangible," he said. "They can relate to it; it seems a little more substantial."
But what if -- chakras and energy fields and breathing techniques aside -- it's really all about the power of suggestion?
"What difference does it make whether it's in your mind or it actually took place, if it elicited a response that was beneficial to you?" he said.
According to the aura camera, my color treatment was markedly effective. The Canyon Ranch treatment, like a diet ad in a tabloid paper, comes with before and after pictures. When Vera photographed my aura after I showered off the turquoise treatment, blue dominated. The yellow was gone from the Polaroid (was my creativity sapped?). I did feel calmer, but how did the camera know I'd just been painted the color of the sky? Vera said that 70 percent of the time, people's auras have more of the color of the mud they chose in their after photos, but my results were especially striking.
My new aura showed some pink too, which meant I was nurturing, according to Vera. The photo even had white, which she said referred to spirituality.
Spirituality? I pondered the possibility.
It was either that, I figured, or overexposure.
Gail Friedman is a freelance writer in Lexington.