Thirty-four years ago, when Michael Stusser bought the picturesque farmhouse on the Bohemian Highway in Freestone, California, that is now Osmosis Day Spa, the building had been through a foreclosure and was surrounded by piles of junk. The adjacent Salmon Creek was devoid of salmon, the local community was short of water, and the last thing the local zoning officers would permit was a spa, where water usage is typically exorbitant and which would likely overrun the small septic system and pollute the creek. Stusser, however, never intended to create an extravagant spa. The former organic gardener and Zen practitioner was on a mission to create a sanctuary for healing the earth, as well as the minds, bodies, and spirits of his guests.
Stusser’s mission began in 1980 when he traveled to Kyoto. There, he experienced the beautiful Zen gardens as the manifestation of the deep peace and tranquility he found in his meditation practice. Entranced, he apprenticed to a local landscape gardener, which he describes as an almost medieval practice, living and working with gardeners seven days a week. After six months he left to join a Zen monastery in Kyoto, where he spent two and a half years of intense meditation while continuing to learn about Zen gardens. But then, he was forced off his cushion by sciatica. Crippled by pain, he spent months searching for a cure, and that’s how he found himself buried to his neck in a n enormous vat filled with hot wood shavings mixed with rice bran and fermenting with a tea of special enzymes.
Says Stusser, “It was unbearably hot. I thought I was going to be burned and there was no way to get out. ‘Be the cold!’ I told myself. ‘Accept rather than resist.’ And suddenly, I was cast into the experience of cascading through the universe at the speed of light. Everything I had been working toward in my practice was suddenly happening. And I knew in a millisecond what I was going to do with my life.”
Stusser spent the next four and a half years learning to create and to tend the living organism that is the enzyme bath. Then he had to raise money and find a building, clear the junk, and create a spa and organic Zen garden that uses no more water or energy than a typical American home. Along the way, he realized that the standard treatment schedule of many spas tends to burn out the therapists, so he created a treatment schedule to allow time for the practitioners to recover and to be fully present for each new guest. Not surprisingly, the therapists tend to stay for years.
Lately, Stusser has been building wetlands to clean the water he does use and has been working with a local salmon restoration team to improve the riparian areas along the creek. Meanwhile, Osmosis has become a place for community gatherings and small concerts.
When You Go
You leave your shoes on the front porch and enter through the small reception area into a simple locker room. You change into a robe and are ushered by your therapist into a small tearoom that opens to a small meditation garden. After a cup of herbal tea, your therapist escorts you to the treatment room, which overlooks another garden of raked pebbles. The signature treatment of the spa looks something like a giant hot tub filled with moist Lawson cypress shavings mixed with rice bran and fermenting with a tea of special enzymes. The enzyme bath has been scooped out for your body. You lie down, and the therapist gently covers you in the soft cypress shavings. You realize this stuff is warm — or you can wriggle down to where the soft shavings are seriously hot. For the next 20 minutes or so, you will quietly compost in this bed of cypress. Then you are gently exhumed, escorted to an outdoor shower, and ushered along a path to one of the small pagodas near the Salmon Creek.
There, you will spend the next 75 minutes receiving a truly delightful massage. Finally, you make your way to the main meditation garden, a place reminiscent of the Zen gardens in Kyoto. Like any serious Zen garden, the stones and plantings tell a story — the classic Zen parable of ox and the ox herder — but you don’t need to follow the story to absorb the quiet beauty of the place.
Stephen Kiesling is the editor in chief of Spirituality & Health magazine. He was the youngest member of the 1980 US Olympic Rowing Team and the oldest competitor at the 2008 Olympic Rowing Trials. A Scholar of the House in Philosophy at Yale, he was a founding editor of American Health and Spirituality & Health magazines. Stephen is the author of several books, including The Shell Game and The Nike Cross Training System, and has written for The New Yorker, Sports Illustrated, and Outside. He has been featured in The New York Times and The Boston Globe and has appeared on numerous television and radio shows, including Today and All Things Considered.
FREESTONE, CA– Senior Massage Supervisor at Osmosis Day Spa Sanctuary, Raizelah Bayen, is now approved by the National Certification Board of Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork (NCBTMB) to offer CEUs in massage and aromatherapy. Ms. Bayen’s NCBTMB Board certification is the highest voluntary credential available in the massage profession.
Ms. Bayen has lead Osmosis’s team of 35 massage therapists for over three years and has over 15 years of teaching experience in a state approved massage certification programs. Ms. Bayen has offered classes in Body Mechanics for Bodyworkers, Table Thai Massage, Table Shiatsu, Pregnancy Massage, Sports Massage, and Lymphatic Drainage Massage. Of recent merit was her leadership in the development of the Osmosis Essential Meridian Massage, which combines T’ui Na Chinese Meridian Massage with Essential Acupressure, and the Osmosis Fusion Massage.
Osmosis is excited to announce that Raizelah Bayen’s massage modality trainings are now open to the public, providing massage therapists the opportunity to enhance their skills while receiving continuing education credits. Upcoming trainings include Body Mechanics for Bodyworkers on May 10, and Foot Reflexology for Everyone on June 5 and 6. Trainings will be held at the Sebastopol Community Center. Class descriptions and registration are available at www.osmosis.com/events.
About Osmosis Day Spa Sanctuary Inspired by a vision of healing, beauty, and inner peace, Osmosis Day Spa Sanctuarywas founded in Sonoma County in 1985 by Michael Stusser. A leader in the day spa industry, Osmosis has established a reputation as a landmark hospitality destination in Northern California. The Cedar Enzyme Bath, a rejuvenating heat treatment from Japan is offered exclusively in the U.S. by Osmosis. Located on five secluded acres in a scenic valley 1.5 hours north of San Francisco, Osmosis is an Asian-style retreat with authentic Japanese gardens. Just minutes from the breathtaking Sonoma Coast, wine country and redwoods. For more information, visit osmosis.com or call Jennifer Klein at 707.827.1203 Link to High Res Photos: Press Kit
At the base of the Bohemian Highway, within a stone’s throw of California’s best coastal vineyards, is the tiny town of Freestone, tucked between the redwoods and the ocean. Blink your eyes and you’ll miss it—but consider it a destination for deep relaxation. Osmosis Day Spa & Sanctuary, founded by Michael Stusser in 1985, is a Zen meditation retreat here, at the center of which is a cedar enzyme bath experience.
A day at Osmosis begins with a welcoming cup of hot tea and a walk through the Kyoto-style meditation garden, whose labyrinthine paths are designed to bring you into the present moment. Based on the Zen parable of The Ox and the Herder, a metaphor for the experience of enlightenment, the ten-stage journey carries you through various elements of earth and water with opportunities to stop and reflect for as long as you’d like.
Zen Garden meditation space at Osmosis Day Spa. Photo by Kim Westerman
Designed by British horticulturist Robert Ketchell and built by the late Steve Stucky, once the Abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center, the garden is lovingly tended by unobtrusive staff who will come find you if you lose track of time. After all, that’s the point.
The lovingly tended rock garden at Osmosis Day Spa. Photo by Kim Westerman
When it’s time, you’ll be led back to the main building for a tea service in a private room overlooking a beautiful tea garden that you’re also welcome to stroll in. The tea is infused with enzymes designed to aid digestion and mirror the experience your skin will have in the forthcoming cedar enzyme bath.
Next, we had massages in the couples room, a quiet space where two therapists work in harmony on your respective sore muscles, tailoring the treatment to your specific needs. There are also outdoor pagodas available for massage therapy, a good option on warmer days. Our massage therapists were especially attuned not only to what we reported our bodies needed, but also what they sensed through their own intuitive assessment.
After the deeply relaxing massage, we took a break for lunch, which was a generous salad of local greens and an egg, served at a picnic table by the creek.
Lunch by the creek at Osmosis Day Spa. Photo by Kim Westerman
At last, the main event: the cedar enzyme bath, a therapeutic treatment from Japan that is the only one of its kind in North America. Wooden boxes hold the deeply aromatic mixture of ground cedar and rice bran, infused with enzymes created by a biological catalyst imported from Japan that triggers fermentation, hence the steam rising from the “bath,” which is, actually, not wet, but rather humid from perpetual fermentation. And warm. Perfectly, relaxingly warm.
The cedar enzyme bath is the only one of its kind in North America. Photo by Kim Westerman
The cedar enzyme bath takes about 30 minutes, all told, and an attendant walks you through the process, coming in periodically to wipe your face with a cool cloth and give you a sip of water (as your hands are buried in the mixture). Then, she brushes your skin off with a little broom—yes, a broom!—before leading you into the adjacent shower.
So relaxing was our time at Osmosis that it seemed like a crime to get in the car and drive back to reality. But it’s a comfort to know that this sanctuary is always there.
Aesthetic pruning is a living art form combining the skill of the pruner, the science of horticulture, and the essence of a tree. While the emphasis is on beauty, maintaining the vitality of the tree is just as important; aesthetic pruners make the right cuts for the right reasons. For Master Pruner Michael Alliger, this art is a balance between the present and the future.
In the 1980s, Alliger was eager for change from a career in retail; he felt an inner calling to work outside. “I thought you had to be a gardener to do that,” he explained, so he enrolled in a plant identification class at Merritt College in Oakland. “I found I had a facility for it. My passion just exploded! I had never been happier.”
He had grown up in the suburbs, surrounded by lawns. “I hated mowing the lawn, so it was such a surprise to me. I found a whole new world to walk into. Suddenly the streets of Oakland came alive as I got to know the plants—the world went from two dimensions to three dimensions, from black and white to color.”
In 1986, while studying horticulture at Merritt, Alliger met Dennis Makishima, a Japanese-American student from El Cerrito. Wanting to connect with his Japanese heritage, Makishima went to bonsai clubs to learn that art, and realized that he could take elements of bonsai and apply them to landscape pruning. One day, Alliger watched Makishima prune a Japanese maple. “I was transfixed. I knew that was what I wanted to do. It felt like home. I asked if I could follow him around and watch him work.” Their relationship evolved into a formal apprenticeship.
“Dennis is brilliant,” Alliger said. “He’s a visionary, a brilliant organizer and strategist and leader.” Makishima suggested to Merritt College that they offer classes in aesthetic pruning and asked Alliger if he would like to teach. “I taught an Introduction to Aesthetic Pruning for a half-day each month, and Dennis unfurled this whole series of classes.” The classes that Makishima organized and taught explored plant material, pruning for the focal point, pruning for the big picture, Japanese maples, pines and conifers, flowering trees, pruning as a career, and finding the essence of the tree. A year later, Makishima offered those classes to Alliger, who would teach most of them for the next 20 years.
The two men organized an informal pruning club that continues to this day at Merritt. “People could drop in or drop out any time. We would volunteer at schools, churches or parks. It was mutually beneficial. The students would get experience and the trees were cared for,” Alliger said.
Makishima also envisioned a professional organization for aesthetic pruning, similar to the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA); and he and Alliger were among the founders of the Aesthetic Pruners Association (APA), a non-profit that promotes the craft of aesthetic pruning and supports professional pruners in their work. This group sets the standards for aesthetic pruning.
Alliger explained the focus of the APA. “Our school of pruning is in the lineage of Japanese garden pruning, which is distinct from European pruning. Principles of the Japanese lineage are pruning to the human scale, size control and containment. The artistic model is based on nature as you see it, nature in essence. We seek both containment and natural expression. The overarching factor is garden design: to have the tree or shrub fit the garden design and still honor the natural form. Our approach works on fruit trees, too, but it’s different from pruning skyline trees, like redwoods and oaks.
“Unlike most animals, plants and trees have the ability to regenerate lost parts. Follow-up pruning requires consistency and has the potential to give the tree longer life. In order for pruning to be structurally sound, it needs to be continually applied—you can’t just do it once.” Some bonsai trees in Japan are 500 to 600 years old. Because these trees outlive human beings, their care has been handed down from generation to generation. For Alliger, “It’s all about love and all about care.
“While the school of thought comes from Japanese pruning, we are not pruning Japanese gardens—we are pruning California gardens, American gardens. But the principles are universally applied,” said Alliger, who is exploring working with native materials to find their potential. The idea of containment and structural pruning has not happened before with our native woody plants.
“I’m experimenting at home with buckeye—how old do they have to be before they flower? How small can they be and still flower? It’s so exciting to think about! The Japanese have been working with landscape plant material in their gardens for 1,100 years. Here, we’ve been doing it for only 75 years, and we’re in the baby stage of realizing the possibilities and finding out which ones are going to be functional in gardens from the point of view of beauty and containment. The more we use our own plant material, the more comfortable we feel. That sense of context is salubrious.”
A powerful part of Alliger’s exploration is in joining the stream of people who have been doing this work for centuries; now he is able to pass it forward. After moving to Sebastopol in 1992, he took on the aesthetic pruning of the Japanese-style gardens at Osmosis Day Spa Sanctuary in Freestone. While he continues to maintain those trees, most of his work is done in private gardens around Sonoma County. Retiring from teaching at Merritt in 2011, he currently offers an annual one-day, hands-on class in Aesthetic Pruning for the Master Gardeners of Marin County. He also writes a garden blog for the Osmosis Newsletter which you can sign up for here.