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Massage Today
September, 2002, Vol. 02, Issue 09

The Eighth Element: Cultural Expression

By Robin Zill, LMT

The 10 Elements of the Spa Experience are designed to teach the consumer and professional about the integrated nature of the spa experience. This is the ninth article in a 12-part series and focuses on the eighth of the 10 elements: Cultural expression.

"Every few hundred years in Western history there occurs a sharp transformation.

Within a few short decades, society-its world view, its basic values, its social and political structures, its arts, its key institutions-rearranges itself. And the people born then cannot even imagine a world in which their grandparents lived and into which their own parents were born. We are currently living through such a transformation."

- Peter Drucker, Post-Capitalist Society

Cultural expression, the eighth element of the spa experience, embodies much of what often goes unspoken or unacknowledged in our daily lives. Yet like a mirror, it reflects back to us who we are and who we can become on our own life journey. Most simply, cultural expression refers to the science, politics, belief systems and arts of the time and how we perceive them using our minds, emotions, senses and souls. We are not separate from the world we live in, and we constantly re-define ourselves according to norms and constructs within our culture. Cultural expression embraces this process of self-discovery through the following four categories: values and beliefs, science and technology, political climate and the arts.

Values and Beliefs

What are the prevailing religious and belief systems, and how do they relate to the spa experience? Our belief systems help us to form concepts of what is right and wrong and what is attractive and unattractive. Cultural expression is important to the spa experience if only to understand simple things such as how modesty and nudity are addressed in the spa setting. The human body and our sexual/sensual concept of what makes us who we are is one example. Europeans are characteristically much less modest than Americans, and Americans less modest than the Chinese, and so on. Nudity, draping issues, touch and gender issues differ according to age, upbringing, culture, and religious beliefs. Belief systems can make or break a spa experience, whether the client is a novice or a discerning spa consumer.

Treatments with religious or spiritual overtones are also a new issue surfacing in the spa industry. Although there is a general interest in exploring spirituality, and a growing tolerance and acceptance for the beliefs of others, there are still problems. For example, providing spa treatments that lean toward Eastern or esoteric philosophy may not be appealing to a dedicated Christian, and vise-versa.


How do science and technology change our idea of an optimal spa experience? How will the spa experience be affected by the shifting scientific paradigm from mechanical reductionism to the emerging paradigm of wholeness and dynamic interrelationships? What kind of treatments appeal to us: do we want pure, natural and organic treatments, or the latest in scientific discovery to remove wrinkles and retard the aging process?

For example, consider current scientific research, the long and high cost of the FDA approval process for bringing a product to market. What is funded, why is it funded, and who provides the funding? I remember how hard it was for our industry to raise funding for the first scientific research on "massage and touch therapies" at the Touch Research Institute in Miami years ago. It would be interesting to compare research dollars spent on touch and hydrotherapy to those spent on laser resurfacing and botox treatments, for example.

Political Climate

Often we don't stop and think how the political environment and ruling party of the time affect a spa experience or even our daily living. Are we at war? What is the climate for trade, social programs, health benefits and insurance? For example, how will social security and health benefits affect the baby-boomers as they age - will they be able to afford spa treatments? Government organizations and political lobbyists help determine what will be available to us: everything from organic food, to beauty aids, to genetic engineering. We must begin to think ahead and become more conscious of the political climate. Do we want spa to become more medical? Should spa treatments be covered by insurance? Who will qualify for new anti-aging therapies and how will they be paid for?

Also, the political climate of the time affects our global trading opportunities from a business perspective. Costs of goods and unique sourcing directly affect the therapies that we can offer and the profit they deliver.

The Arts

In the words of Dr. Lawrence Van Der Post: "Nations decay when the arts decay." What the arts really do is connect people to the culture and the stories we are telling. I went to Karlsbad in the Czech Republic with Dr. Jonathan DeVierville a few years ago, a trip I highly recommend. Karlsbad is an architecturally beautiful city built around an array of spas and mineral springs for drinking. It is obvious the city planners knew the importance of art and beauty to health and well-being. I remember hearing music in my room only to find out that it was the orchestra actually practicing in the spa we were staying in. Here people stay for at least two weeks or longer. The concept is basic; integrated medical/wellness care combined with spa treatments in a beautiful culture where people have the time to change from the inside out.

Are we surrounded by beauty in today's contemporary spa experience? Do we support our government and local community to capture the story of our times through the arts? How do we incorporate art and music into the spa experience? Yes, new age music is often a staple to the experience, but are we consciously bringing this to the spa guest with the goal of transformation?

All of these considerations weave together the importance of cultural expression in the spa experience. It is true, we have experienced much criticism in regards to the eighth element: "it is too obtuse, too vague, not related to the rigors of daily spa business..." This element may have seemed out of step with the spa experience before September 11. But after this catastrophe, the complacency of our political, social, and spiritual lives blew up -- literally. For the first time, this cultural dimension of the spa experience became the core of how people organized or reorganized their businesses.

Traveling less and spending time with family at home became more appealing and cash became tighter, so selling strategies needed to change. People were more likely to visit a day spa than a destination resort, showing us the diversity of needs within our profession. We saw the ugliness of war on the homefront, and we experienced the impact it had on our artistic communities. We became intimately aware of how political choices, actions and bureaucracy affect the stock market, home security, international trade and travel. Our first reaction was to cocoon and process, the next to connect. No longer was pampering and pleasure the essence of the spa experience, but rather stress reduction, self-discovery, and reassessing of values.

That is why it is imperative that we look to spa as a cultural movement, not just as an industry. This search for the soul of spa is something we can all share together. Imagine this movement becoming the vessel for cultural renewal, one in which people come together to share at a deeper and more meaningful level. We must recognize that it is our responsibility to listen to these inaudible murmurings of our collective unconscious. They are what call us to simplest purpose of the human experience, the search for who we are and that which connects us to something greater than ourselves.

Click here for previous articles by Robin Zill, LMT.


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