By Danielle Belopotosky
The notion of hot stones, heated in a large roaster-like oven, which are then placed on your body, sounds primitive. At least it did to me. While the history of stones used as a massage tool date back to the Shang Dynasty (circa 2000 B.C.E.) in China, according to Massage Magazine, the practice is precisely the opposite. Used to relieve sore muscles 4,000 years ago, the modern hot stone massage still aims to relieve stress, tension and physical pain.
Today, hot stone massages are new additives on many spa menus. In New York, discovering a hot stone massage is a treat. Offered at spas such as Acqua Beauty Bar, StoneSpa and Avon Spa and Salon, a one-hour treatment can run from $100 to $130.
Carla Ciuffo and Andrew Schwartz introduced hot stone massage to the East Coast in 1998 when they opened the StoneSpa. Ciuffo attended the Desert Institute of the Healing Arts in Tucson, AZ, where she studied the technique of integrating hot stones into a body massage. Hot stone massages are a combination using stones and hands, alternating them throughout the massage. “It’s like a dance,” Ciuffo said. “At a certain point during the treatment, you don’t know what’s the hand and what’s the stone.”
On a cold, rainy night in November, I wandered into the StoneSpa on Fourth Avenue, one block south of Union Square. The spa, with its 20-foot glass storefront, is nestled in between the neighborhood bodega and candlelit restaurants. It’s upon entering the spa, with its delicate floral aroma, soothing yellow walls and tranquil lighting, when you are transported from the bustling city streets into your personal Eden.
I was greeted and then guided through a narrow hallway, which led to a “tea room.” The dark Moroccan-themed room with an Asian infusion was outfitted with wicker chaise lounges, deep red and purple silk linens draping from the ceiling and of course, hot tea, lemon water and biscuits.
It was in the tea room where I met Kayo, my massage therapist. Kayo was slight, urban-hip and unaware that I was a “tester” of sorts. She led me into a small, dimly lit massage room where I spent the next 60 minutes receiving the Signature Full Body Stone Massage, followed by a Lemon Ginger Shea Butter Salt Scrub.
As I lay, stomach down on the table and naked under a towel, I was somewhat anxious to feel the hot stones on my body. I was told by my sister to expect the stones to be “extremely hot.” So hot, she said, that the therapist might even be wearing gloves (which is perhaps why I associated hot stones with torture).
Warm with oil, Kayo rubbed my neck and back first with her hands and then with smooth, black, hot river-washed stones. The stones seemed to be about the size of an open hand and were at a hot, but comfortable temperature.
The hot stones are used to introduce heat, allowing for a “deeper massage in a less intrusive way” said Ciuffo. Heat also speeds up the “de-toxic processing,” improves circulation, and is more gentle than say, shiatsu.
As many as forty stones are used, and some of the stones are strategically placed on the bodies’ chakra points to encourage the body to open up, Ciuffo said. Chakra, which means wheel, is the vortex of the bodies’ spiritual or energy centers. There are seven chakra points: groin (lower stomach area), upper stomach area, base of spine, chest, throat, forehead (also called the “third eye”), and top of the head (crown). For instance, if you experience digestive problems, a stone would be placed on your groin and upper stomach area.
StoneSpa customizes each massage to the individual. Each client completes a brief questionnaire before the massage, which asks about any health concerns or conditions, from back or hip pain to abdominal discomfort. “Everybody’s touch is different and everybody’s body is different,” Ciuffo said. The spa trains its therapists to attend to the individual client.
This being my first week at a new job, the timing couldn’t be better. I carry stress in my neck and shoulders. I also have a compression fracture in my lower back. Kayo placed the stones on my lower spine and then up the center of my back. This process continued down my arms, hands and then to my legs and feet. Somehow the stones made my body feel weightless. At times, I wasn’t aware of my appendages. This was merely the penultimate moment of bliss.
While on my back, I experienced the spa’s signature “Hot Toe Voodoo,” a toe and foot massage where small smooth stones are placed in between the toes. Sounds simple, yet it was delightful. Then, with more stones the placed underneath my calves, kidneys, upper back, and behind my neck, Kayo unleashed her craniosacral magic (for which she is trained) by taking her hands and shoving her fingers into the back of my head. I wasn’t sure if she was using one of those secret-agent tactics to put me to sleep, and I didn’t care. It was at this point that I felt as if I was levitating.
It was soon thereafter when my body was being scrubbed (for an additional $25) with a Lemon Ginger Shea Butter Salt. The scrub was recommended for dry skin, perfect for this time of year.
My hot stone massage wasn’t torturous or primitive. It was splendid. As I walked to the C train in the rain that night, my body aglow, I wasn’t bothered by the rain, the puddles, or my drenched clothing.
Some believe the stones are therapeutic, and others seek an aura; Ciuffo just wants her client base, as many as10,000, to have fun. ” A little bit of levity goes a long way,” she said.
I couldn’t agree more.