By Hillary Johnson
I remember back when anything exotic and luxurious had to be French. Spas had pink walls and Greek statues in alcoves and offered things Vichy and Parisienne: facials, massages, and whirlpool baths—the water flecked with glitter if you were at a really classy joint. These days, French manicures are about as exotic as french fries, and the simple townsfolk of Beverly Hills are flocking to spas around town that offer Balinese Lulur and Ayurvedic Shirodhara treatments.
In Bali, the Royal Lulur is a forty day long ceremonial treatment reserved for royal brides to be, and involves multi-stage rice rubs and massages with spices, yogurt and frangipani. Presumably, this long ordeal of beauty is meant to traumatize and/or hypnotize the poor young thing into tolerating whatever royal pain in the side she’s being hitched to. When you go to the Beverly Hills spa called Lulur to get their version of the treatment, the authenticity of the experience is certainly open to question, and this is probably a good thing. At the very least, your Royal Lulur will be a merciful thirty-nine days shorter than the real thing.
But rather than indulging in the ersatz ethnicity on offer in Beverly Hills, you might try venturing into some of LA’s more authentically exotic venues, to experience some real multi-cultural healing at the hands of people who come from—or at the very least have been to—the mystical lands where hedonistic therapy is considered normal.
If you’re the kind of person who doesn’t blink at using your Thomas Guide to reach a mini-mall in Alhambra for a bowl of authentic Vietnamese Pho, then you might want to take yourself a few miles north to experience some authentic spa treatments in equally esoteric surroundings. Tucked away next to a freeway exit in downtown Ventura is the Lu Ross Academy, an ordinary beauty school whose students have become the spa world’s equivalent of Harvard Business School grads, under the direction and ownership of Chrys Huynh, a former Vietnamese refugee who piloted her own fishing boat out of Saigon in 1978.
You enter Hyynh’s spa through a rather bleak formica-encrusted beauty salon where students cater to senior citizen wash ‘n sets, but back in the treatment rooms, the atmosphere and the service are indistinguishable from any high-end day spa. Huynh has developed a signature service she calls the Tibetan Eye Treatment that is meant to reduce puffiness and rejuvenate the eye area, but the treatment itself is a whole-body experience. First warm stones are placed on your feet, then a warm, heavy, herb-infused pillow is lain across your stomach. An acupressure massage of the head, shoulders, hands and feet follows, and the face is massaged with a jade roller. “The treatment pulls heat away from the eyes, calms the stomach, and drains the lymphatic system,” Huynh explains. The only things to touch your eyes are a couple of slices of cucumber. Recent graduates are set to offer the Tibetan Eye Treatment at the Beverly Hills Hotel and the Ojai Valley Inn, but why go there when you can get it done at Lu Ross for thirty bucks and you may even get to meet the master?
If you want an Asian spa treatment that is obscenely luxurious and still authentic, you need go no farther than the Wilshire district. The Aroma Wilshire Center is a Korean American mini-metropolis, a complex with shopping, dining, and a multi-level rooftop driving range. For only $22,000, you can become a lifetime member, or for many many thousands of dollars less, you can get a day pass to the Aroma Spa and experience the Korean purification ritual known as the body scrub. After soaking in a series of tubs, pools, saunas and steam rooms designed with the austere elegance of a stone temple, you will be fetched into a brightly lit white-tiled room where spry, elderly Korean women dressed in black lace bras and panties work over their clients’ naked bodies, vigorously slapping, pummeling and scrubbing every inch of flesh. If you are not shy (shy people should never, ever go to Korea, and may want to avoid even driving down Wilshire Boulevard) then the Korean body scrub as performed at Aroma Spa is something like having every inch of your public and private skin worried until your naked soul shines through. If you’ve ever seen a mother cat lick a blind newborn kitten all over with her 80-grit sandpaper tongue, then you’ll have a general idea of the nature of this experience. It is rough, and comforting, and leaves you feeling as if you have just been born.
If you’ve ever wondered why the Polynesian Sumo wrestlers are so much suppler yet tougher than the Japanese guys, you should pay a visit to Wesley Sen, a practitioner of authentic Polynesian Lomi Lomi, a form of therapeutic massage that is a carefully guarded secret passed on from master to apprentice. Sen, who lives half the year in Hawaii, demonstrates his art at the Burke Williams Day Spa in Sherman Oaks, alongside his master, a round, jolly 60 year-old named Uncle Freddy who has a velvety singing voice and legs like tree trunks. Freddy is a crown prince of the Cook Islands, but he chose to spend the 60’s in Vegas, hanging out with Sammy Davis, Jr. and Frank Sinatra instead of assuming the throne. Now he is working on a project to bring cellular service to Polynesia, in addition to coaching Wesley in the art of Lomi Lomi. Freddy claims that he can make me an inch taller, then he and Wesley walk up and down on my spine, expertly kneading my muscles with their powerful toes. It’s wonderful. Brutal, but wonderful. And worth it, afterwards, when Uncle Freddy shares his secret of how to stay in shape the Cook Islands way by jumping across the floor like a frog twice a day.
Still, by far the most ground-trembling, body-altering treatment I’ve ever had is one where the practitioner never so much as laid a finger on my person, and it comes via Africa. Travelling drummer Toby Christiansen, who books sessions locally through Yoruba House, has developed an African-inspired technique he calls Sound Attunement Therapy. Toby is a handsome blond guy with surfer-dude looks, but he has studied African drumming and shamanic healing for twenty five years, and has come up with what I can only describe as a sound wave body massage that is as ecstatically pleasurable as it is therapeutic. Toby begins a typical healing session with a native American hoop drum, which he plays close over your supine form. It functions almost like a shamanic stethoscope: the reverberating tone of the drum indicates where your problem areas may be. Once he has ready your body’s particular form of rhythmic impairment, Toby stands over you, with the base of his African djembe drum centered over your heart and begins to play. What follows is the most shockingly sensual full-contact concert experience one could possibly imagine.
Though Toby never touches your body save with the waves of sound emanating from his drum, the sensation is extremely physical. The drum beat seems to paralyze, then liquify, then vaporize your flesh. And then it melts your bones. Toby carries around a sheaf of research studies on the healing properties of sound, and drumming in particular, especially for people suffering from chronic illnesses, but the proof is in the experience, as you feel the song of the djembe literally calling your body’s cells to fall in step with the heartbeat of the universe.
The song Toby plays for each client is unique.
Everyone has their own rhythm, and part of my job is to find it and bring it out. — Toby Christensen
During both the sessions I had with him over a two day period, I experienced almost hallucinatory dream-like imagery, and after each hour-long session, I walked away with a pleasant buzzing sensation coursing through my body, a feeling that lasted literally for days. And though I went to Toby mainly out of curiosity, I found after two sessions with him that the PMS I’d been struggling with for years completely disappeared.
So unless I’m suddenly invited to marry into the Balinese Royal Family, you’ll find me spending my spa dollars in the global village’s raucous marketplace, where a little sense of adventure goes a long way, where crown princes do turn into frogs, and where miracle cures do happen.