Education, Health and Wellness, Massage, Politics, Secular Culture Wars, Spa, Spa Evidence

Spas, Spa Evidence and Interdisciplinarity

An interdisciplinary approach can help spas and spa therapists better understand the framework of academic research paradigms and move toward a closer alignment with academic disciplines on which all research is based. By familiarizing themselves with the structures of American academia, spa management and spa therapists can integrate more evidenced based practices into their existing paradigms of business operations and treatment offerings to keep pace with industry developments. An interdisciplinary approach can assist spa therapists in advancing their own skill sets to better meet the needs of a diverse clientele while advancing the interests of the industry as a whole. And finally, any rethinking or rewriting of existing narratives about spas and spas relationship with holistic philosophy should make provisions for the insights of non academic disciplines and for healing modalities from non traditional cultures.

Is Spa an interdisciplinary subject?

I am not aware of this question having been asked before. I believe it is. I also believe that spas should begin thinking in academic terms when approaching spa evidence and that the best way to accomplish this is to generate informed discussion. Let me begin by defining what I mean when I use the term interdisciplinary and holistic. Interdisciplinarity is grounded in the traditions of academia. Interdisciplinarity involves researchers, students, and teachers in the goals of connecting and integrating several academic schools of thought, professions, or technologies – along with their specific perspectives – in the pursuit of a common task. The least technical definition of interdisciplinary states that the term is an adjective, relating to more than one academic discipline such as History, English, Mathematics or Economics. Women’s studies or feminism has long been classed an interdisciplinary subject. Examples of medical fields which began their prestigious careers as interdisciplinary subjects are neuroscience, cybernetics, biochemistry and biomedical engineering. The most common examples of where interdisciplinary approaches work best are when new research developments highlight the need for involvement of more than one discipline, when traditional disciplines are unable or unwilling to address new problems, or as a remedy for the adverse impact of specialization. On the critical front, interdisciplinary work is sometimes derided as being soft on rigorous discipline or ideologically motivated.

In drawing lines of interdisciplinarity for spa and spa evidence, when I speak of holism or use the term holistic, I am referring to the philosophy of medicine wherein all aspects of people’s needs, psychological, physical and social should be taken into account and seen as a whole. I am not referring to holistic health or holistic education, wherein disease is seen as an imbalance of physical, mental, emotional or spiritual factors. If the goal of spa evidence is to create more inclusive relations with modern medical models and methods such as research, it is important to acknowledge that different models of disease exist in holistic thought and that within it, illness is approached and treated by different methods.

Are Spas promoting syncretism thru stereotypes?

With a chorus of voices championing the call for greater evidence based Spa and Massage research in particular, a recognition of the world of academia and it’s structure and methods will be needed in order to bring spa and spa practices in line with the standards of research. It can be challenging to envision a new spa paradigm of the future when well-known Massage Today authors make statements such as “We need to reach the public with a better product as an alternative to the allopaths, working with other alternative providers to challenge the monopoly of the pharmaceutical-allopathic cartel.” I for one, feel the need to draw a line between historical CAM narratives and conspiracy theory when encountering such statements. Such narratives contain strongly worded language and are intended to frighten and goad CAM practitioners into predefined political positions of the authors making, that he doesn’t clearly define in conjunction with the word cartel, which is behavior I find to be out-of-place in a professional setting.

In keeping with my secular philosophy, I happen to think that Mr. Stephens opinions have their place in the grand scheme of things, but I want to point out that I am bringing this up not to harp on his choice of words, but rather to highlight the role of stereotypes in our Industry discourses. Obviously I think to use the word cartel is a stereotype and a smear tactic. I also believe that ideals of gender, gender roles and even upper level discourses that include industry politics are prone to stereotypes and that the use of them is prevalent in the spa industry and in allied industries such as Massage Therapy. Stereotypes of the kind Mr. Stephens raises, have historical antecedents in the history of both CAM and traditional medicine which have shaped and will continue to shape our thinking. And not always for the better. All too often individual and group ideals about the feminine and the masculine are woven with cultural or religious associations that stereotype entire discourses and fields of inquiry as being gendered in nature. This is particularly the case with holistic thought and CAM therapies, which are said to be ‘soft’ or ‘feminine’ when contrasted with ‘hard’ or ‘masculine’ sciences such as medicine or economics even within academia itself. This is what is referred to as syncretism and has become prevalent across several industries, spa included. Syncretism ‘is the combining of different (often contradictory) beliefs, often while melding practices of various schools of thought. Syncretism may involve the merger and analogising of several originally discrete traditions, especially in the theology and mythology of religion, thus asserting an underlying unity and allowing for an inclusive approach to other faiths. Syncretism also occurs commonly in expressions of arts and culture [and] politics’. Some examples of syncretism in Spa would be massage or bodyworkers doing generic energy work without the benefit of training that provides a framework either philosophical or religious in character for the practicing of the therapy or forgetting about scope of practice entirely and claiming that energy work, whether by someone licensed or certified in the practice or not is ‘healing’ sick people and giving credit to a generic universal energy or to a religious deity ultimately. It is my personal view, that any individuals religious or philosophical views of spa therapies should be handled with discretion out of respect for clients and coworkers who may have different views and that spas guiding philosophy should reserve a space for the secular, as befits a scientific institution as I understand it.

What will it take to achieve greater spa evidence in our industry?

The article cited above from Massage Today about education in the massage profession can serve to at least provide a starting point for a discussion about any interdisciplinary role for Spas and evidenced based research in the field. One thing that I found valuable was the comment from Ruth Werner. “Right now, if you want to get an advanced degree in massage, what we’re talking about is a master’s or PhD in public health, nursing, psychiatry or gerontology. Those are the only advanced degrees I know of. It’s time for us to have bachelors, masters and doctoral degrees in massage therapy — and not for everybody — but for the people who want to do it.” If the massage profession which is vital to the overall health of the spa industry has reached a point where a certification and licensure are no longer enough for many of its practitioners, how can Spas assist their employees in advancing their knowledge and the scientific prestige of the industry as a whole, while retaining this top-level talent who choose higher education? Further, will spas be willing to pay their employees for such advances in training to make the investment in higher education worthwhile for the spa therapist who advances the interests of not only themselves but of the industry? To answer these questions, let’s first ask ourselves what is the future of spa in an era of evidenced based client/guest outcomes? There are no quick or easy answers to these questions and the answers will be different for each spa. But by beginning to ask them openly, perhaps we can generate some discussion amongst managers and others who have the ability to solve these problems and to compensate spa therapists for their labors.

An interdisciplinary view of where spas are with regards to spa evidence now

There has always been a tendency in Resort spas of my acquaintance to err on the side of holistic philosophy rather than holistic health when it came to greater involvement in the medical arena, which I think preceded the push for spa evidence by relatively new organizations such as Spafinder. Philosophically it is synchronous with modernism and simplified the process of marketing and defining their product for spa managers. Ultimately, the trend toward corporations and other organizations creating health and wellness programs for their employees may circumvent this alliance between spas and holism and spas of the future may need to be well versed in both evidenced based practices as well as holistic philosophy to maintain their position in the public eye. Traditionally, academia has centered on scientific progress when incorporating new disciplines. It is only in the past fifteen years that public funded education has incorporated fitness and recreation as valid scientific pursuit, by making it an academic discipline in its own right, thereby encroaching on territory previously reserved for private educational institutions. Spas for the time being, are still firmly anchored outside this sphere of inquiry in U.S. public education and instead, wellness centers have emerged in public universities and in hospitals to deliver care that used to be found only in spas, such as yoga classes or massage. This is exactly the case at my University.

There is room for debate and prediction about what kinds of outcomes will result from a push toward greater evidence based paradigms for spas and I have no doubt that a debate will ensue in the coming decades as more corporations begin to create health and wellness programs for their employees. The question should however be asked, to what extent do spas of today see themselves as having a role to play in this conversation and do they want to participate at all? Global Spa Summit is already active in this discussion and their words bear watching.

Questions asked as we move toward greater spa evidence

With the uptick in employee benefits packages including additional resources for preventative health and wellness, this trend toward evidenced based outcomes will only continue. The questions spa therapists and spa managers need to ask themselves as I see it, are in two camps.

For managers

  • How committed are you to spa evidence?
  • Is the current business model suited to providing evidenced based preventative wellness for guests and clients?
  • If not, how should we go about changing the business model or adding new best practice methods to make it more conducive to this end?
  • Is it realistic or even desirable to shift away from a focus on beauty and luxury which historically are spas bread and butter?
  • How do you as a manager feel about providing follow-up care for guests/clients with the new advent of wellness coaching?

If the advent of resorts such as SpaWorld mean anything, it means that innovation is still possible.

For spa therapists

  • Do you feel that you are able to reach your full potential professionally with the level of education that you currently possess?
  • If not, how should you go about securing additional education to reach your goal if an option is not provided by your employer?
  • Is it necessary to move beyond a professional identity based in spa to reach these educational goals?
  • And finally, what role do you as a spa therapist see spas as playing in the overall fabric of national cultural and economic life over the next 20 years?

The value of an interdisciplinary approach to spa evidence

For spa therapists who are seeking to make the most of their profession and who also want to add to their existing skill sets, I believe an interdisciplinary degree can be of great  benefit and value. For one, it can move a therapist with a focus in spa and it’s related disciplines toward greater integration with the evidenced based disciplines of academia if not Health Care directly. Learning to think as an interdisciplinarian provides greater awareness of traditional disciplines and how they operate as well as opening new doors toward solving existing problems in spa and spa related research.

However, many spa related holistic disciplines such as Ayurveda and acupuncture are not traditional academic fields of inquiry in U.S. public education and any push for an interdisciplinary approach to spa will need to account for the discrepancy between public and private colleges in the U.S. Despite this, an interdisciplinary approach can also be taken to alternative education and I believe would produce stunning results. There are many private colleges of holistic health in the U.S.  If holistic health disciplines are for you but you are unable to obtain a private education, you may want to integrate sociology into your interdisciplinary work to better understand systems of social knowledge. If naturopathy is more your speed, you would want to look into diet and nutrition. You can obtain a quality education thru a public university and the institution of public education in the U.S. it is not the demon it is often stereotyped as. Additionally, holistic health is a wonderful field of inquiry despite it usually being absent from public sector academia and an interdisciplinary approach can serve to help integrate some of these non academic treatments into an existing spa menu of services if your spa does not provide them already. As an example of what you can do with an interdisciplinary degree, my interdisciplinary degree combines Health and Management with a minor in History as a research anchor. When I graduate, I will be able to seek employment not only in spa but also with government, in mainstream or allied Health Care, in the insurance industry or with a spa product line company.

Spa evidence, indigenous cultures and the historians method

The push toward evidenced based spa practices will require from all spa participants a greater understanding of how spas and the philosophy of holism fits or doesn’t fit into modern research paradigms. Too often logical fallacies built into holistic philosophy and its inherent subjectivity are used as reasons why spa therapies and holistic disciplines are unable to meet the rigorous testing standards of modern science. An example would be a Reiki practitioner explaining why an energy treatment didn’t work would be that the client or guest was resisting the flow of universal energy thereby alleviating the practitioner of fault or failure in the treatment. That this model of disease falls outside the realm of modern science is yet another reason to draw clear distinctions between the medical philosophy of holism and the holistic health model.

Much of the literature available on holistic health treatment is historiographical. Even within academia, social historiography is not without its critics and any approach toward spa evidence must be weighted against such charges of culture bias be it a majority or minority culture. There is also the need to consider the ramifications of over-investing in a culture based or post modern approach for spa evidence therapies. Any society based on the consumption of fixed resources will eventually consume itself and in many ways indigenous cultural practices are fixed resources. Just as a family is a fixed resource for its members, so the cultural traditions of a given population are in essence unique to those groups and dependant upon their survival as a people, for a proper structural context. Marketing a spa therapy as the product of an indigenous culture may eventually undermine the sociological structures which initially gave birth to the practice and preclude a modern advent for these cultures of origin. To put it another way, can an indigenous healing practice once removed from its culture of origin still carry the same benefit when transplanted to a culture not of its own creation, where the beliefs and practices of those receiving the service are often quite different from those in traditional societies? As an example, I once worked with a woman who trained in LeStone therapy and who came back to our spa and trained us in ‘Hot Stone.’ She was later contacted by the originator of LeStone therapy and told that The Great Native American Spirit would be sent after her as she had ‘debased’ a traditional Native American healing practice by not giving them credit for the process and training others without permission. Despite this, hot stone therapy is a very popular and common treatment across the spa industry today.

So far spas have proceeded on the premise that they are not doing harm and abiding by the first maxim of the medical profession with all the treatments they offer. However, this has not stopped some spa allied therapies from being derided as pseudoscientific, religiously syncretic and culturally destructive with regards to indigenous cultures. A good book to read on this topic is New Age Capitalism by Kimberly J. Lau. Such moral and historiographical dilemmas are at the root of charges of spas as centers of elitist decadence and pseudoscientific thought, where all therapies should be for entertainment purposes only, rather like the disclaimers that are found in fine print while reading your horoscope. Such narratives do not serve the spa community and should be evaluated so that the evidence based practices of spas have an opportunity to be made manifest and formatted so as to remove the historiographical error of both Western culture bias and social historiography.

In summary, an interdisciplinary approach can help spas and spa therapists better understand the framework of academic research paradigms and move toward a closer alignment with academic disciplines on which all research is based. By familiarizing themselves with the structures of academia, spa management and spa therapists can integrate more evidenced based practices into their existing paradigms of business operations and treatment offerings to keep pace with industry developments. An interdisciplinary approach can assist spa therapists in advancing their own skill sets to better meet the needs of a diverse clientele while advancing the interests of the industry as a whole. And finally, any rethinking or rewriting of existing narratives about spas and spas relationship with holistic philosophy should make provisions for the insights of non academic disciplines and for healing modalities from non traditional cultures.

* Special Thanks to Sara Firman of Vision Spa Retreat who shared the editing burden and provided feedback.


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s