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Take your vocation on vacation

Massage therapists are notorious for neglecting self-care. Dedicated holiday time falls by the wayside because if we’re not massaging we’re not earning money.

September 27, 2013  By Jules Torti

Massage therapists are notorious for neglecting self-care. Dedicated holiday time falls by the wayside because if we’re not massaging we’re not earning money.

Egyptian sand saunas offer a unique spa experience for the adventurous type.


However, I fall into a different category – after 14 years in the industry, I question my career motives. It appears I prefer receiving more than giving. It’s an honest and selfish statement. When my high school guidance counsellor suggested I refine my focus and find an honourable vocation, I thought she said vacation.

Always committed to marrying my passions, I’ve been travelling the world and taking my vocation on vacation. I’ve sniffed out the best body treatments to quell jet lag, career lag and nagging posterior neck musculature from a 2010 running wipeout that resulted in a concussion.


The global spa and massage industry adds an entirely new dimension to bodywork. The stringent draping rules and rigid consent to treatment observations of Canada are politely glossed over in other countries. Sometimes vodka is involved; other times it’s hot hay, seaweed and sand.

Toronto’s Chinatown
I’ve been a rabid fan of Chinatown massage clinics for several reasons. They are open late, they accept walk-in appointments, there is always complimentary hot herbal tea and often a good schmaltzy samurai movie playing in the waiting area. Post-massage, everything else in Chinatown is open late, which means I could pick up some sticky pork buns, Peking duck or a few skewers of grilled lamb on Dundas Street.

Toronto’s Chinatown offers instant gratification in so many forms: shiatsu, cupping, Tuina. I am always a sucker for the hour-long reflexology sessions though. If you walk east on Dundas from the Spadina intersection, there are half a dozen reflexology joints. For $35 you get a rose petal foot soak (that doesn’t cut into your hour session of an otherworldly foot massage) and the most intense foot rub around. I have never stayed awake until the end. Nursing cups of tea and flipping through dated gossipy magazines, I’d pass out in no time. In the deep freeze of January, the sleepy soak and full-on foot assault were career savers.

Sometimes, after a jammed workday, I’d trudge over for a Tuina session – again, a Chinatown niche treatment, heavy on the elbows and on stretching. It’s like having yoga done for you. After a lineup of five or six hour-long massages, a bout of Tuina would remind me of how sensational it feels to be the recipient – and, how lazy I could be in my actual yoga attempts.

Test-driving different modalities also allows for some unique adaptations to occur in your own massage sequences. Whether you insert a few reflexology hot spots or adapt a new Tuina pec stretch, receiving a treatment outside of the Swedish massage scope is always a surprising investment.

Then again, sometimes you just want things done to you for no reason other than the restorative effects of touch. You want to let your brain flatline and to transition into a carefree client. This is exactly what I did in the Siwa Oasis in Egypt.

Buried alive
I had dog-eared our copy of Lonely Planet, automatically curious and persistent in finding out where exactly we could have a “sand sauna.” The guide stated that those who decided to partake in a sand sauna should be monitored by a doctor, for days, as the treatment was intense and could have adverse reactions.

Walking up and down the sand over the body makes for a more solid mold; for the one buried, it’s like lying in drying cement.


The traditional Egyptian sand sauna required a three- to five-day commitment, which we didn’t have. We had to make our way across the White Desert and back to Luxor so we could squeeze in a few days on the Red Sea. Surely we could do a single sauna and feel minor benefits after 20 minutes? Three to five days promised a cure from rheumatism and arthritis.

In pursuit of such bliss, I am known to throw caution to the wind. Anyone reading this would sense clear and present dangers in hitching a ride with a guy named Mohammed and his donkey, Ali Baba, deep into the Gebel Dakrur desert. We forgot to grab some water. We forgot to tell anyone where we were going. It was near sunset – but still, it seemed like a very promising idea. We had requested camel stew for dinner at the Shali fortress where we were staying, and Mohammed promised we’d be back in time for that.

I knew we were going to get buried, but I pictured us standing upright in the sand for some reason. We quickly learned that we would be lying on our backs, and buried much as children at the beach are buried by older siblings.

Mohammed led us a mile into the dunes. The desert sun was characteristically searing. We loped along, grinning, marvelling at the landscape and ignoring apprehensions. My partner opted to be buried first – she is like the canary in the coal mine. Kim has asthma, so, I figured that if she didn’t have a panic attack with a ton of sand piled on top of her chest and body, I’d be OK.

Mohammed expertly scooped the sand over her body (we wore bikinis) until only Kim’s head was showing. Then he walked up and down the length of her body in tiny steps, packing the sand into near cement. Kim gave the nod that she was OK, and then I volunteered to be buried alive.

Arms at my side, I immediately felt a bit of panic from being so confined. Reminding myself of the arthritic cures, I had some self-talk and let myself engage deeper in the moment.

Mohammed walked up and down my body too – his weight was like cat paws over my quads. After this walkover, the sand formed a solid mold around me – and a slight wiggle left me hoping Mohammed wouldn’t take off and abandon us. It was like lying in drying cement – I’m not sure if we could have wriggled out of our sand cocoons.

There was immense exhilaration as we were scooped out of our saunas. After 20 minutes, the initial coolness of the sand has reversed properties. It was like being inside a body heat-induced oven. Our skin was slippery with sweat and, when we emerged, the sand felt like fine talcum as we brushed it off.

Desperately thirsty, we drank from Mohammed’s bottle of local water (which probably was the source of our diarrhea for the rest of our time in Egypt) and hiked back to our  donkey cart.

Mohammed took us to a secret cold spring and made a fire quicker than a Boy Scout to prepare hibiscus tea. The cold plunge, long inhales on the sheesha pipe and hot, cleansing tea were the perfect balm for our sauna-weary bodies. The healing powers of the desert were quietly revealed – and, we arrived early for our camel stew.

Russian banyas
When I posted a call-out to friends on Facebook for zany massage experiences around the world, a schoolmate from high school, Greg Jacklin, replied in a minute from Seattle. “I went to a Russian banya with my brother-in-law in St. Petersburg. It’s kind of an involved process – involving smoked fish, vodka, beer and getting whipped by birch leaves and branches, jumping into freezing water and repeating the process. I had pretty bad congestion before this, but I left the banya drunk and completely rid of my cold. The sauna where you ‘whip’ each other is much hotter than what would be considered legal in Canada. You literally fight off the heat until you can’t take it anymore. The branch whipping is quite painful but it was one of my highlights of my trip to Russia. But then I fell asleep at the ballet…”

I had read about a banya in North York, Ont. (1027 Finch Ave. W., Unit 7) in Toronto’s entertainment weekly, the Grid. The article also spoke of the whippings (where writer David Sax felt like a dusty human carpet getting a thorough whack) – this time with a sauna “whisk” fashioned from oak leaves.

Banyas are traditional bathhouses and as central to a Russian’s life as saunas are to the Finnish. A good shvitz (Yiddish for “sweat”) has evolved from earlier male-centric days when banyas were synonymous with card games and cigar smoke. Shvitzing now involves soaking and decadent snacking. Sax remarked on a menu that puts urban spa juice bars to shame: pumpernickel croutons, borscht, beef Stroganoff, air-dried anchovies, oily mackerel, pickled herring, onions, steamed crayfish, honey-sweetened tea, cherry preserves and pitchers of beer – all worthy of a whipping, I think.

And, as Sax testifies after a beating from the banshik (sauna master), “After a few hours in the banya, each bite tastes more alive than any you’ve ever had, and the sleep it brings is what the dead can only dream of.”

Get bogged down in Ireland
If you’ve ever been to Ireland there are three things that may race to the forefront of your mind: Guinness, verdant everything and the smell of burning peat, which  permeates every tiny village and is addictively comforting to inhale.

Returning home on an Air Canada flight from Banff, I ripped out a feature by Charlene Rooke in enRoute about Ireland’s jump onto the spa treatment bandwagon. Irish bathhouses existed a century ago, and the seaweed soaks of yore are experiencing a revival.

Rooke’s account of her Voya treatment at the Ice House Hotel and Spa was intended to be a recreation of the seaweed soak. She described a bundle of what resembled “dry squid-ink pasta” being placed in hot water. The bundle expands “incredibly to become two-metre-long, 15-centimeter-wide green tendrils that ooze a silky, aloe vera-like gel and a pongy waterfront smell.” Seaweed harvester Neil Walton explained to her, “We’re not going to pretty it up for anybody. This is a wild, natural product.”

A sustainable choice (with a rapid growth recovery like bamboo), seaweed is a logical and authentic Irish spa product. Bladderwack and sea salt scrubs are offered at private golf clubs, rivalling the resurgence of peat. Some locals up the ante – eating a spoonful of peat a day. Rooke discovered that bog peat replaces “toxins (positive ions) with minerals (negative ions) like magnesium, copper, manganese and zinc.”

If you’re eager for an organic skin detox, a good dose of peat power or a peat wrap could sucker punch acne, psoriasis and eczema to the curb. And then you can have a pint of Guinness to cure anything else that might ail you.

Roll in the hay in Northern Italy
Dina Bennett, a Matador freelancer and author of Peking to Paris: Life and Love on a Short Drive Around the World, received her bit of bliss from Italy’s South Tyrolean farmers. Hay baths have been a long-reputed folk cure for rheumatism and arthritis – and an ideal excuse for socializing.

When not trotting around the latitude lines, Bennett lives on a ranch in Colorado and was leery of the healing virtues of hay. “I know for a fact its prickly stalks are more likely to induce allergic reactions than soothe,” she was quoted as saying. Bath attendants deliver 10-gallon cauldrons of hay that have been steaming for two hours. Bennett describes the “fragrant cloud redolent of ladies’ mantle and mountain arnica, thyme and cinquefoil. It’s grassy, fresh, an alpine meadow in a pot.”But this is highly regulated fodder, subject to Italian government regulations on content, altitude and minimum distance from roads at which the grass, with its 40 native herbs, can grow.”

Dark green wet hay is first spread on a waterbed. Bathers lie on top of the hay and are covered with more hot hay before a flannel blanket is placed on top. A vinyl sheet is the top layer, sealing in the vital heat. The combination of heat, naturally aromatic hay and the rough, scratchy texture provides a 25-minute sensory stimulant.  As Bennett muses, “I think this is what it must feel like to be a tea bag.”

Finding rejuvenation through body treatments when we travel is essential for self-care and career sustainability, and an inadvertent learning tool for massage therapists. Knowledge always sneaks in, and experiencing global traditions can add a dynamic and unexpected twist to your practice.

Where are you going to shvitz next? I’ll be soaking in the geothermal waters of the Blue Lagoon in Iceland this fall, continuing my vocation vacation – the ongoing search for total mind and body satiation.

Jules Torti has been an RMT since 1999 and a freelance writer since age six. In between massage engagements, she travels to Africa to be with chimpanzees and writes about her zany travels for Matador Network.

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