Massage on the Rocks

Relaxation is just a stone’s throw away. Spas across the country are adding a new type of treatment to their standard Swedish massage routines. It’s called hot stone massage, and its popularity is spreading faster than lava from an erupting volcano.

In 1993, Arizona resident Mary Nelson-Hannigan had a vision, which inspired her to use, heated river rocks to massage her clients. She called her technique LaStone Therapy, and she’s since conducted workshops to train other massage therapists in this form of relaxation.

While Nelson-Hannigan strives to add a spiritual element to her massage, some practitioners consider this too New Age, and have amended her techniques to provide a luxurious massage that triggers a relaxation response without delving into meditation and spirit guides.

The Elizabeth Arden Red Door Salon & Spa on Fifth Avenue in New York City calls their technique Desert Stone massage, and they use flat black rocks found in rivers to cater to clients’ needs. Ula Polansky, a massage therapist at the spa, explains, “It’s much more profound than regular massages because of the waves of heat that penetrate your body and relax your muscles.” Their treatments last one long, luxurious hour, and leave clients coming back for more.

There are different variations on the hot stone theme, but all use the same basic equipment: flat rocks – usually basalt – that are oblong and smooth to the touch. “We use so-called Mexican river stones,” said Polansky, “but they ‘re also found in Arizona and California. These stones were originally lava that came out of erupting volcanoes. Somehow this melted stone found its way into a river and was cooled there. After the passage of millennia, the running water made these stones round, flat and extremely smooth.”

These volcanic stones have a high iron content, so they retain heat for an extended period of time. They also have a complex crystal structure. “They can carry information about the energies that created them, like the fiery power of volcanoes and the energy of the running water that smoothed them out. This is actually imprinted in the stone,” explains Polansky.

She adds that although this might sound too New Age for some people, it’s backed up by science. “It’s not mysticism,” she says. “It’s physics. Silicon chips are used in the computer industry because of their ability to store information.”

Elizabeth Arden’s version of hot stone massage, the therapist leads you from a reception area with a waterfall into a softly lit room. You disrobe and crawl under plush towels on a massage table while listening to soothing music piped in through the loudspeaker.

On one side of the room is a Hamilton Beach meat roaster. No, you’re not going to have pot roast for lunch. Stones are immersed in the roaster’s water, which is heated to 175 degrees. Ms. Polansky quells fears about burns. “If I can pick up these stones with my bare hands,” she says, “then they won’t be too hot for you.” She adds that her clients can always request a lower temperature. But few do.

She starts off by rubbing lemony-scented oil all over your back and shoulders. This will make it easier for the stones to glide across your body. She picks up two heated stones – one in each hand – and gently rubs them across your skin. Exquisite waves of penetrating heat radiate throughout your body. All your kinks and knots melt away. Polansky quips that it’s almost like ironing clothes and smoothing out the wrinkles.

After the heat of the stones has relaxed your muscles, the therapist applies her bare hands for a regular massage. Then she lovingly covers your back with a thick towel and places several hot stones in a row, following the curve of your spine. She leaves for ten minutes while the luxurious heat penetrates your muscles even deeper than before.

Next, you turn over, and the front of your body gets the same sumptuous treatment. Finally, small, flat pebbles are placed in between each of your toes. As the massage comes to an end, you’re again covered with plush towels, and heated stones are placed along your chest and abdomen, with one added indulgence: a warmed, toweled stone placed beneath your neck.

The only difficult part of this massage is having to get up off the table. But even after you leave, you’ll experience an inner glow. It’s the mental and physical strength that comes with total relaxation.

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