Picture wellness. Visions of soft music, massage tables, and deep yoga poses often come to mind. Throw in a hot tub, some steam, pools, cuddly robes, healthy meals and a glass of wine. Lovely. Now picture a vigorous scrub brush, wet hay, freezing vapors, and a shaman. Still feeling peaceful? Let’s go ahead and add a birch whip and some snakes to that picture.
We often equate wellness with relaxation. While winding down certainly has its role, some prefer their health treatments with a bit more of a kick. If you’re looking for to break out of the standard and come home with a story, the world has some wild treatments waiting. These 7 experiences involve the weird, uncomfortable, and even the dangerous elements for a completely novel adventure.
This steamy bathing ritual tends to be both wildly overwhelming and deeply relaxing for novices. Hammams started in the Middle East and are now found worldwide. There are Turkish and Morroccan variants, but all are committed to cleansing and relaxation. First thing to know: prepare to get at least partially naked and steam with strangers. Public and more affordable hammams will likely have gender specific shared rooms for bathing and steam. Private hammam spa treatments in hotels have more privacy with the price tag..
Ingredients of a good hammam: washing, steam, exfoliation, massage, cool down. And sometimes there is literally a rinse and repeat. Attendants often bathe you and most certainly will exfoliate you after applying a masque. The scrub and rub downs are professional and vigorous; one of the most common reviews is that you will lose a layer of skin. After all the heat and detoxing comes the cool down room, complete with lounge chairs where you can sip your mint tea.
Nothing like having a bunch of snakes slithering on you for a relaxing massage. Believe it or not, some people swear by it. Pythons, the preferred snakes, apparently move in ways that human hands can’t. The snakes are first cleaned, then placed on your torso and face (!) and allowed to move freely. Devotees swear to the practice’s safety but you do have rules to follow. No screaming or shouting, avoid sudden movements, and no blowing air on them. You don’t want the snake thinking you’re a predator. Or prey.
This massage actually brings on the adrenaline. That rush reportedly gives you not just a psychological release, but a metabolic one as well. If you’re one of those people that actually becomes more anxious in a traditional massage, maybe consider the pythons. Snake massages are more common in Russia and Thailand, but are spreading throughout other countries.
Go old school with your spa treatments and lie under some hay like history’s herders. Shepherds in the Alps were known for their immunity to colds and their resistance to joint achiness and arthritis. The Hotel Heubad in northern Italy is taking advantage of the hay bath’s reputation for re-energizing those mountain-roaming herders with an exclusive hay treatment.
Not just any old straw will do. “Fatty” hay is the key: a mix of specific alpine grasses and flowering hay that makes sure to bring the right oils to your treatment. Local, fresh hay is brought to the spa and heated. You get covered in that warm, moist hay, are wrapped in linens, and then lie for 30 minutes on a waterbed and let the hay do its work. Just make sure to check your allergies before you take a roll in the hay.
Russian Venik massage
Heads up, this one involves a bit of a whip. A venik is a bundle of leafy twigs used to stimulate the max amount of heat benefits at the end of a sauna. Different tree types bring out different benefits (all-purpose oak or birch, juniper if you’re sick, linden to relax.) A Russian sauna starts with choosing and soaking a venik in warm water. Then you head in and out of the sauna itself, allowing yourself several sessions to acclimate to the heat. Now grab your venik .It’s time.
Grab a hat to protect your head and ask the house masseuse or a friend to use the venik while you lie on a bench. Technique is important here: this involves pressing and rubbing the venik with a few final slaps (versus full on whipping.) Watch others for tips if needed. The venik releases natural healents and improves breathing, circulation, and aches. Once you’re done, go jump in some snow (or chilly water) and seal it in.
While most wellness treatments use heat, this one gets cold. Really cold. For just a few minutes you are exposed to near-freezing temperatures (often with nitrogen vapors). Cryosalons and treatment facilities offer whole body cryotherapy, local treatments (legs and arms), cryotherapy facials, and cold compressions.
This is a typically a dry treatment, a quick in and out procedure. Cryotherapy research is still evolving, but it is believed to help with swelling, pain, metabolism, and tissue healing. This is definitely a procedure that you should check with a doctor before doing as there are several contraindications. Cryotherapy can be found worldwide.
Float Tanks (Sensory Deprivation)
If you’ve seen the movie A Cure for Wellness the thought of a float tank might be alarming. And while sensory deprivation tanks can be anxiety-provoking for some, in the real world you always have control over the process.
The dark float tanks are filled with salt water heated to body-temperature and are specially made to cut out sound. The idea is that you float, released from gravity, and that without external stimuli your attention and energy become more meditative. Most initially report this experience to be a bit disturbing as we are ultimately “sensing” beings and there is nothing to sense in the float tank. Some experience ongoing claustrophobia and anxiety. Many, however, are able to go into a state of deep relaxation both physically and mentally. Proponents note growing evidence that float tanks can relieve pain, improve sleep, and reduce stress. Be aware, some report a hallucinogenic experience (even without the LSD the float tank’s creator briefly incorporated in the 60’s.) Once found only in high-end medical spas, sensory deprivation tanks, or “float centers” can be found throughout developed countries.
Traditional Temazcal Ceremony
The Temazcal ceremony is an ancient Mayan ritual that involves both sacred shamanism and a heavy sweat. Participants are lead through the experience by a shaman, set their intentions in an initial ritual outside, and then enter the steamy, heated stone hut. The ritual itself can vary, but ultimately pulls in elements of the earth and the spiritual world (earth, air, water, fire.). Darkness, drumming, and chanting are all part of the sensory experience. Participants strive to move past resistance and discomfort and partake in a deeper meditation. The experience is physically and mentally strenuous for many and the shamans and attendants watch for signs of intense distress. Participants are able to leave the Temazcal at any time and this is not unusual nor seen as a failure. While this ceremony, like most sauna activities, aids with circulation and healthy skin, most people focus on the spiritual and mental experience in the Temazcal.
Several resorts and spas in the Yucatan offer Temazcals. Look for ceremonies with a reputation for education and traditional elements and rituals (versus rushing into a sauna.) Local Temazcals throughout Mexico are available. Again, make sure you know what the experience entails and who is officiating for the full experience.
contributed by Rebecca Toy
Rebecca Toy is the creator of Travel Your Bucket and writes for Matador Network’s Health and Wellness department. After 15 years of helping people recover from trauma and manage mental illness as a therapist, she finds nothing cleans the soul better than packing a bag and experiencing something new. She is passionate about helping "everyday" people live their someday experiences with meaningful and personal adventures. While Rebecca's often buried in a book or frantically searching for passports as her husband patiently watches, you can find her on Instagram and Facebook.