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Modern Applications of Traditional Spa Therapies

By Kristi Dickinson Director of Spa & Wellness, Rancho Valencia Resort & Spa

The wellness industry boom has largely a been a positive force as habits shift and the wellness lifestyle becomes more accessible to the masses. Many businesses sprouted up overnight wanting a piece of the $4.2T pie, a frightening thought considering how many segments of the industry are unregulated. Sadly, many of these Charlatans are now touting "immune boosting" lotions and potions to capitalize on the fear of our global pandemic.

Evidence from clinical trials on what best supports immunity points to what we already knew; optimal health is achieved through exercise, good sleep, a balanced diet, and stress reduction. We should set aside the beauty and pampering for a moment and re-focus on results-driven therapies. Wellness arose to supplement what the healthcare industry was lacking. Now is the time to be a support to our clients to ensure they come out on the other side of this pandemic healthier and more resilient than ever.

Outlined below are several evidence-based approaches which are deeply rooted in spa and quite appropriate for fortifying the wellbeing of your guests.


Composed of a wide range of treatments including body scrubs, wraps, and assorted baths, hydrotherapy is the use of water in its various forms for manipulation of the circulatory system to optimize circulation efficiency and the life-giving qualities of blood. Hydrotherapy treatments are effective in addressing common disorders both chronic and acute, including fatigue, anxiety, muscle debility, circulation/inflammatory issues, skin conditions and joint problems.


Water has been used medicinally for thousands of years, with traditions rooted in ancient China, Japan, India, Rome, Greece, the Americas, and the Middle East. There are references to the therapeutic use of mineral water in the Old Testament. During the Middle Ages, bathing fell out of favor due to health concerns, but by the 17th century, "taking the waters" at hot springs and spas became popular as a wellness modality across Europe (and later in the United States).

Modern hydrotherapy originated in 19th century Europe with the development of spas for "water cure" ailments, ranging from anxiety to pneumonia to back pain. Father Sebastian Kneipp, a 19th century Bavarian monk, spurred a movement to recognize the benefits of hydrotherapy. His methods were later adopted by Benedict Lust who immigrated to the United States from Germany in 1896 and founded an American school of naturopathic medicine.

Lust claimed to have cured himself of tuberculosis with Kneipp's methods, and hydrotherapy was included as a component of naturopathic medicine. (Global Wellness Institute, n.d.) In fact, many naturopathic colleges still teach these hydrotherapy techniques under the category of "Spa Cure".


  • Stimulation of circulation

  • Increased elimination via the skin

  • Relaxation, body more readily receives other treatments

  • Sedative effects on sensory nerve endings


Three general physiological principles are employed when water is applied to the body. These principles, not the water itself, create a positive effect on the body.

  1. Thermal - Water is applied at temperatures above and below the temperature of the skin. Alternating cold with hot temperatures is suggested to alter blood circulation, enhance the immune system, and improve digestion. Applying warmth to skin surfaces does cause vasodilation (expansion of blood vessels), which brings blood to the body's surface. Cold temperature has the opposite effect. Warmth also causes muscle relaxation.

  2. Mechanical - The added stimulus of water pressure or friction enhances the therapeutic effects.

  3. Chemical - The use of additives (such as bath salts and essential oils) can increase the stimulating, sedating or detoxifying effects of water.

Modern Applications

Hydrotherapy is broadly defined as the external application of water in any form or temperature (hot, cold, steam, liquid, ice) for healing purposes. Some spas are fortunate to have the space and budget for hydrotherapy facilities such as cold plunges, whirlpools, etc. and hydrotherapy equipment such as hydrotherapy tubs with massage wands and Vichy showers for ease and efficiency of applying contrasting water temperatures.

Most modern spas, unfortunately, are not designed with hydrotherapy in mind, despite the fact that it is historically critical to the very definition of a spa! Fortunately, modifications can be made to allow guests to experience some aspects of hydrotherapy. Salt scrubs are a great way to boost circulation. Use coarse salt for the most invigorating effect. Dry body brushing can also be used for a circulatory effect but also has a specific technique to improve the functioning of the lymphatic system and accelerating the removal of metabolic waste material allowing for the re-nourishment of skin and tissue.  

Heating compresses when initially administered, are of cold temperature. Once applied, a secondary action of derivation occurs and blood flows to the area, warming it. Blood flow will always draw first from a congested area before drawing from other parts of the body.

Cold sheet wraps likewise are applied cold, but the body works to create heat. The entire body application is great for guests in a chronic stress pattern and with an overactive mind.


Thalassotherapy, as a curative method, originated from the Greek ("Thalassa" means sea, "therapeia" means healing) and it is defined today as a seawater treatment in a wellness environment. It is not only limited to the sea water itself. Thalassotherapy treatments apply seawater, seaweed, mud, and any substances coming from the sea used for therapeutic purposes.

Characterized by their distinct mineral and trace element properties, a seaweed (or a combination of different seaweeds) is selected for its therapeutic effect. Seaweed properties are such that they increase circulation thus activating a mild detoxification without raising body temperature.


Hippocrates is the first physician on record to advocate Seawater Bathing. As with every other form of bathing, it fell into disfavor as Europe entered the Dark Age. The medical use of seawater as a form of therapy once again became popular in France in the 1800s. Then in 1904 Rene Quinton, a marine biologist, determined that blood plasma and lymph were quantitatively identical to seawater.

Quinton believed that life originated in the oceans and each human body is like a small ocean where cells float. If this inner ocean maintains its physical conditions (pH, salinity, temperature, etc.) similar to those of its origins, the body will maintain its balanced natural state we call health.


  • Re-mineralized and toned skin

  • Detoxification: Stimulates the blood and lymphatic system, encouraging the production of white blood cells

  • This increased circulation improves oxygenation and thus nutrient delivery to the connective tissue

  • Rich in antioxidants creating and anti-aging, anti-inflammatory effect


Seaweed acts like a sponge to deliver the best of seawater. Delivering a potent concentration of mineral elements (including iodine, calcium, phosphorus, potassium, magnesium, copper, zinc, cobalt, iron, fluorine) seaweed also contains nearly all vitamins and amino acids. These trace elements are believed to be absorbed through the skin. Due to this particularly nutrient-rich composition, seaweed contains antiviral and antibacterial properties.

Metabolism is increased due to the presence of organic iodine and the digestive tract is purified.  Seaweed fortifies the immune system via the production of thyroxin. Thyroxin, in turn, stimulates the thymus gland - considered our 'immunity' master gland. High levels of magnesium and potassium help fight off stress while improving all neural functions. The anti-aging properties including anti-oxidants (beta-carotenes, superoxide dimutase) amino acids (L-lysine and L-Methionine) combine with selenium and ascorbic acid to act as free radical scavengers, providing a comprehensive immune defense program.

The presence of phycocolloids in seaweeds offers elasticizing qualities while toning even the most sensitive skin. These qualities, combined with the boost in circulation and reduction in inflammation results in a natural radiance to the skin.

Modern Applications

Seaweed wraps were popular in American spas in the 1990s for the cosmetic benefits and tonifying effect on the skin. As we face rapid mineral erosion in our soils and look for alternative sources of nutrient density, Thalassotherapy treatments are again growing in popularity for their transdermal nutrition benefits. 

Seaweed can be incorporated in treatments in the form of baths and wraps. Be creative in your wellness programs by adding Beach Walk (marine ions penetrate transcutaneously under conditions prevalent at seaside) or incorporating seaweed into spa cuisine (Nori, Wakame, etc.).

Manual Lymph Drainage

Anti-inflammatory, decongestive and deeply relaxing, Manual Lymph Drainage (MLD) features light, precise pumping movements applied in specific areas for the purpose of increasing lymphatic flow while encouraging the removal of metabolic waste.


The original method of Manual Lymph Drainage was developed by Emil Vodder PhD and his wife, Estrid Vodder, ND in the 1930s. In 1936 Vodder presented his method to the world as "Manual Lymph Drainage according to Dr. Vodder", during a congress in Paris.

It was not until the early 1950s that Vodder received invitations from European countries to teach his method.  In 1966 Günther Wittlinger and Dr. Vodder founded the Association of Dr. Vodder's Manual Lymph Drainage and also founded the very first Dr. Vodder School in 1972 in Walchsee – Austria.

In Europe, MLD has since become a widely used and reimbursable physical therapy technique. It is the most prescribed and reimbursed physical therapy in Germany.

The Dr. Vodder method of MLD was first introduced to North America by Hildegard and Guenther Wittlinger at a conference in New York in 1972. Full certification has been available in North America since 1993 and is taught in other countries such as Australia, Singapore, Japan, New Zealand, Ireland, UK and other European countries.

While different schools of MLD have been established, the underlying features and principles of the MLD technique remain similar across the different methods. Each MLD school requires  robust  training  and  continuing education to ensure practitioners are highly skilled and manually precise, in order to achieve a positive outcome for people with Lymphoedema and other conditions.


In a spa setting, the preventative applications of MLD would be utilized.

  • Decongestive

  • Analgesic

  • Improved circulation

  • Deep relaxation (improved sleep)

  • Reduced inflammation / fluid retention

  • Improved respiration


MLD optimizes the five primary functions of the lymphatic system:

  1. Protein Regulation/Circulation

  2. Improved Immune Function

  3. Maintain Blood Volume

  4. Removal of Metabolic Waste

  5. Fat Circulation

Modern Applications

The Vodder Technique Manual Lymph Drainage (MLD) is a versatile, non-invasive, light-touch therapy indicated for over 60 different pathologies including Chronic Fatigue, Fibromyalgia, Cellulite, Chronic ENT Infections, Burns, Acne, Scars, Digestive Issues, Bells Palsy, Eczema, Psoriasis, sport injuries and various inflammatory processes. The therapy can be a standalone treatment on a spa menu or an "add-on" but is best done in a series for cumulative benefits.


Employing the internationally recognized Ingham method to address corresponding organs and structural imbalances via pressure points, Reflexology is based on the theory that specific reflex areas in the feet and hands correspond to the glands, organs and physiological structure of the body.


The earliest discovery of Reflexology was found in Egypt based on the observation of daily life activities including the medical practices. Other studies have reported that Reflexology emerged from China 5000 years ago but documentation is scarce. With the finding of a hieroglyphic mural depicting Reflexology in an Egyptian pyramid, Reflexology is considered a part of Egyptian culture dating back to 2330 BC.

In the late 14th century, Reflexology was being administered throughout Europe with another name, Zone Therapy. The father of modern Reflexology, Dr. William Fitzgerald (1872–1942), discovered that Zone Therapy had been used by American aboriginal communities as well. The Fitzgerald study brought was a catalyst for Reflexology to be more widely used in the United States. The discovery of Zone Therapy was developed from the finding that pressure applied on many parts of body such as hands, nose, ears, etc. can relieve pain sensation.

Dr. Joe Shelby Riley, conducted many studies, including Reflexology, and has used this therapy for many years. Eunice Ingham (1879–1974) worked with Dr. Riley in 1930s and brought a widespread understanding of Reflexology to the public/masses/people. She shared the technique of Reflexology with others through many published works, most notably  "Stories the Feet Can Tell, Stories the Feet Have Told, and Stories the Feet Are Telling". (Nurul Haswani Embong, 2015)


  • Relaxation

  • Increased circulation

  • Structural balance


Reflexology is a study of how one part of the human body relates to another part of the body. Reflexology practitioners rely on the reflex map of the feet and hands to all the internal organs and other human body parts. They believe that by applying the appropriate pressure and massaging certain spots on the feet and hands, the corresponding connected organs and systems can be energized and rejuvenated.

Modern Applications

After dialogue with the guest regarding areas of distress, tension, or structural imbalance, the therapist applies a methodical, structured whole-foot routine. The goal is to bring balance to the entire body and systems which will address the specific concern of the guest. A full 60-minute session is suggested. This is an ideal treatment for those less comfortable with touch or disrobing. It is also a great treatment for the elderly and less mobile.


The use of selected fragrant substances in lotions and inhalants in an effort to affect mood and promote health. Also called aromatic medicine, conventional aromatherapy, or holistic aromatherapy. (Global Wellness Institute, n.d.)


Fragrant oils have been used for thousands of years to lubricate the skin, purify air, and repel insects. Ancient Egyptians used fragrant oils for bathing and massage. Essential oils of plants have been used medicinally through application directly to the skin (usually diluted), as a part of massage, added to bathwater, via steam inhalation, or in mouthwashes.

Aromatherapy is a technique in which essential oils from plants are used with the intention of preventing or treating illness, reducing stress, or enhancing well-being. Fragrance oils and products containing man-made compounds are not used in the practice of genuine aromatherapy. Although many gift shops sell scented candles, pomanders, and potpourri as "aromatherapy," genuine aromatherapy treatments use higher strength (concentrated) essential oils drawn from various herbs. (Global Wellness Institute, n.d.)


  • Deeper sleep

  • Emotional balance


A variety of mechanisms have been proposed for the reported effects of aromatherapy. It has been suggested that following placement of oil onto the skin, or breathing in fragrant air, the odor-sensing nerves in the nose are stimulated, sending impulses to the limbic system of the brain (the center for processing emotions). A different theory is that some oils interact directly with hormones or enzymes in the blood to stimulate the adrenal glands.

Modern Applications

Essential oils are able to penetrate the emotional realms of the brain and interrupt stress patterns. In effect, the interrupted pattern provides emotional relief, restoring normal sleep patterns which, in turn, allow for cellular repair.

While many essential oils have anti-viral, antibacterial, anti-fungal and antiseptic properties, the spa therapist's goal should be restoring balance and optimizing the natural processes of the body.  Well-curated essential oil blends are recommended for this purpose.

The simplest way to incorporate aromatherapy in a spa setting is to add a few drops of an essential oil blend into a carrier oil and perform a massage. It is important to never put essential oils directly on the skin, as the concentration can cause irritation.

There are many benefits of receiving touch through aromatherapy massage such as:

  • Decreased cortisol (stress hormone) levels

  • Emotional balance by increasing serotonin and dopamine levels (improving mood)

  • Increased oxytocin (a hormone known to facilitate social bonding) release

A sleep-promoting aromatherapy massage could utilize a blend of lavender, Roman chamomile, Valerian, and sweet marjoram. A stress-reducing aromatherapy massage could utilize the relaxing blend above or a blend of Ylang Ylang, Rose, and Bergamot. A Swedish Massage or Lomi Lomi style of long, flowing strokes is advised (vs. deep tissue) to create a soothing sedative effect.


It is encouraging and exciting to be able to call upon centuries of wisdom on optimizing human health. Our guests are keener than ever to take responsibility for their own wellbeing, and your spa can be of great service by offering these science-based treatments.

Please note there are contraindications with all the treatments outlined above. Formal certification (from organizations such as the Advanced Spa Therapy Education and Certification Council and the Vodder School) in each modality is prudent, if not absolutely necessary, and will ensure optimal results for your guests.

To learn more about each modality and review various research articles, visit The website provides easy access to thousands of medical studies for countless wellness approaches.

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