I’m hiking at almost 8,000 feet, an elevation that is straining my east coast sea-level lungs. We’re at a brisk pace and I should be doubled over, but the conversation and the scenery are working hard to distract me—and they are doing their job well. We are in majestic Yosemite National Park where the mountains rise from the valley like ancient deities and the ecology and geology are one of the most dramatic displays of the natural world I’ve ever seen. An equally compelling and spiritually grounded subject is my hiking partner, Michael Stusser: organic gardener pioneer, health and wellness innovator, spa-owner, master of fermentation, Zen practitioner, and co-conspirator in the sustainable spa movement among other things. I’m at the 8th Annual Green Spa Network Fall Congress and while many parts of this gathering were very inspiring, my hike with Michael was a genuinely moving experience filled with lessons that are still resonating with me.
One: Good food nourishes the body; Beautiful places nourish the soul
Hiking at its best is a deep conversation with the natural world. Footsteps consult the earth’s topography, breath is exchanged with the surrounding plants, eye contact is ever-present with views that seem to reflect back a sense of true self. Yosemite is hiking at its best. I’m part of a large group of Congress attendees that has embarked on its way to Sentinel Dome via Taft Point. A small group of us stops for lunch. Mimicking the depth of our exchange with the trail’s ups and downs, we begin to talk. Michael brings up the subject of healthy food and we all quickly launch into the complexities and problems plaguing our modern food system. How can we ensure that all Americans have access to healthy, affordable and safe food? How can move away from industrial agriculture? How can we engage communities into growing gardens to feed one another?
When it comes to answering these questions, Michael is the sage. He’s no recent kale convert. He’s been living this lifestyle for decades as an integral part of the food movement vanguard. I learn that he and his roommate, John Powell, were there at the conception of Allan Chadwick’s first gardens at UC Santa Cruz in the summer of 1966. Chadwick is arguably one of the forebearers of the organic movement and these gardens have grown into UCSC’s Center for Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems–an undisputed leader in education and the hands-on practice of sustainable and regenerative agriculture. After studying intensive horticulture production under Chadwick, he spent ten years growing produce professionally and personally, including five years at an intentional community called Camp Joy Gardens and five years at the Farallones Institute, now known as theOccidental Arts and Ecology Center. Michael’s bright eyes, clear thinking and lean and healthy physique are no doubt related to his commitment to healthy food. As I eat my carrots and hummus, I find myself hoping that I’m as vital as he thirty years from now.
The view from Taft Point
We eventually get up from lunch to continue our winding journey to the top. Michael’s own journey from farmer to his status as a noted and influential leader in the spa world has had its own curious turns, too. As we ascend, we become hiking partners and he tells me part of his life’s story…a story unequivocally intertwined with the origin story of his groundbreaking spa Osmosis Day Spa Sanctuary.
During a stopover in Japan while on his way to tour sustainable agriculture techniques in China with the New Alchemy Institute, he met the head gardener of Myoshinji Temple in Kyoto. Whether through luck or divine intervention, the gardener invited him to be an apprentice. At this point I began to gain insight into the bravery and trust with which Michael Stusser lives his life: with little prior planning, he committed to live in Kyoto with a 4th-generation traditional landscape garden family. It was here that Michael fell in love with Japanese style gardens. Today he speaks with deep respect and love as he describes the sense of peace and stillness that gardens can evoke—a welcome contrast from the measured chaos that often erupts while farming vegetables.
I knew that good food nourishes the body, but it was here that I realized that nature’s beauty nourishes the soul.”
He stayed for a number of years in Japan and became a full time Zen practitioner at a monastery. From farmer to novitiate monk. There’s still a few more details that led to Osmosis, but at this point I’m already hiking–and listening to him–in awe. This guy helped to start the modern food movement, and he’s also a Zen practitioner! His is an amazing life, and I’ve only had about a mile’s worth. At this point I have fully accepted Michael Stusser as my guide for my experience in Yosemite. I’m eager to learn more.
We’re deep in the woods, surrounded by trees and as I’m processing what I’ve learned, we crest a hill and turn a corner and come face to face with the northwest side of Half Dome. The awe continues.
Two: Allow Yourself to Be Amazed by the Natural World
Half Dome and Yosemite Backcountry
Our group gathers and we stop to take a breath. A picture. A deeper breath. Another picture. It’s difficult to describe the feeling of seeing such a clear view of 50 million years of geological action. From this point it is almost possible to envision the giant glacier that covered, and slowly carved, the sheer face on Half Dome. Michael has been coming to Yosemite since he was a teenager. He’s hiked much of the backcountry, the forecountry—hell, he even spent a night once on top of Half Dome. He points out several different sections of the park and tells us about hikes, mishaps and starry nights here and there. He’s about as familiar as one can be with any land, and yet he looks at it as if it is brand new. A newbie to the park, I’m floored by the view—and Michael is right there with me. This is a man who knows how to fully embrace the natural world and see its newness and beauty everywhere.
We see a Jeffrey pine and someone picks up one of its large cones. “How do you get out the pine nuts?” someone asks the group. We discuss the process and Michael observes that while humans have a difficult time extracting these seeds, squirrels are very efficient. He tells us a story:
I was on a vision quest and I hadn’t eaten or had any water in many days. I came across a cone and while contemplating it, I found one lone nut inside! It seemed that the squirrel had either forgotten it, or perhaps even left it there for me. It was the most delicious pine nut I’ve ever had in my life. Ever since then I’ve held pine nuts with the highest reverence.”
There’s no ego in his story. It is clear that he doesn’t care if we are impressed that he went on a vision quest—just an honest recounting of a time that he felt completely connected to the natural world. This story stuck with me. I was impressed with the way he took such a playful question and turned it into a nice little lesson. The juxtaposition of the vast expanse of Yosemite, Michael’s magnanimous squirrel, and the lone pine nut stuck me as an example of how we, as humans, are simultaneously so big and important, yet so small and fragile. We continued on to Sentinel Dome.
Three: Follow your own path
During his study of Zen, Michael developed a serious case of sciatica. He sought a cure exploring traditional allopathic medicine as well as other healing modalities. His search led him to the fermentation bath, which is now the signature treatment at Osmosis. While it provided relief to his pain, this bath, the very first enzyme bath that he took, also changed the course of his life.
To hear Michael wax poetic about fermentation and the Cedar bath treatment is to hear a master explain his true passion. Microbes work within and without to cleanse the skin, boost metabolism, break down lactic acid, balance body chemistry, promote a better night’s sleep, improve digestion… the list goes on. He’s a believer in the healing powers of these baths. His very first bath in Japan inspired him to enter into the world of spa and to offer his powerful healing experience to others. He felt it was a calling and a mission. Here it is in his words:
As the healing warmth of the bath enveloped my being, the whole picture of a healing sanctuary with a magical fermentation bath at the core surrounded by meditative Japanese style gardens, architecture and gracious hospitality flashed before my mind’s eye. From this remarkable moment I knew it was my calling to come back to Sebastopol and make recreating the Japanese enzyme bath my focus. I knew nothing about spas or business.”
Over thirty years later, his business is thriving. What I love about Michael’s story is that each piece of his life clearly led to the birth of Osmosis and his commitment to providing a healing modality to the world. From farmer, to monk, to bather, to healer, to successful businessman and pine nut connoisseur–his trusting approach to life made it all fit together. At any point along the way, it could have gone a thousand different directions. What if he had declined the offer to go to Kyoto? What if he hadn’t been afflicted with sciatica? To me, the story that he shared is a reminder that we can’t be sure where our lives are taking us, but if we are open to possibilities and working to authentically connect with our natural selves, then we can find our own peace and purpose.
Michael and me in front of Half Dome on the way up to Sentinel Dome
We sat on top of Sentinel dome, reconnected with the rest of our group, circumnavigated the dome’s top and took in the 360-degree view of Yosemite and the Sierras beyond. The wind blew and the slightly overcast day provided a complementary backdrop to the mountain range’s jagged undulations. During that moment, contemplating Michael’s story and taking in such a dramatic example of the Earth’s beauty, I felt an overwhelming sense of calm and peace.
Michael describes the healing power of the natural world as “a magic balm that soothes the soul.” My experience of hiking in Yosemite with him exemplified that. A hike in a beautiful place with a great person can go a long way to inspiring happiness and a desire to do good things in the world. I felt very lucky to stand over 8,000 feet in the air with such a grounded guide.
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In the month of November, a time for giving thanks, we’d like to highlight and honor some of the ancient Eastern healing modalities that bring well-being to our guests every day.
While Western massage focuses on releasing tension from your muscles, Eastern massage focuses on releasing stagnant life force energy, or Qi, and balance the flow of Qi (pronounced chee) through the energy pathways of the body. Thai, Shiatsu and Essential Meridian Massage are based on the understanding that our body is not just flesh but rather a network of energy pathways. Stuck, weak or imbalanced flow of Qi underlies pain or dis-ease. However, if the energy body is in balance with abundant and fluent Qi then the physical body can be strong and healthy. A vital Qi body is the foundation of health and longevity. Eastern massage modalities bring balance and vitality to this flow.
Shiatsu is a more active style of massage, applying pressure in a rhythmic fashion over the Meridian energy pathways of the body, clearing stuck energy – we call that “tension” – and restoring balance to the energy flow.
Thai massage, like Shiatsu, also incorporates palm and finger pressure massage, but also includes many stretches. Thai is often referred to as “applied yoga,” perfect for someone who enjoys stretching.
Essential Meridian Massage combines Chinese T’ui Na Massage with aroma acupressure. T’ui Na is a brisk-paced style of moving and balancing Qi. This is balanced with the quiet, meditative application of specific essential oils to specific acupressure points to address your health concerns. Essential Meridian Massage is useful for not only musculoskeletal concerns, but also issues with sleep, digestion, fatigue, menstrual/menopausal balance… to name a few.
In addition to these fantastic massage modalities, we offer the Zen Harmony facial. This treatment employs a Japanese facial massage technique that stimulates the muscles and lymph below the surface of the skin, strengthening health and immunity while also improving elasticity.
In November we’re highlighting our Eastern massage and facial modalities with a special “Qi Harmony” package with an Eastern modality massage, Zen Harmony facial, and as a thank you to you, our valued guests, a Gratitude Journal in which to record your blessings.
Thank you for blessing Osmosis Day Spa Sanctuary with your love and presence.
Autumn is a dramatic and breathtaking season. The palate of the landscape transforms into a bursting exhibition of golden, warm hues. The flavors of local crops are rich and sweet and filling. It’s a time to begin preparing for winter. Plants and animals focus their energies on building up their resilience for winter, and we can do the same. The dark of winter brings unique challenges to all creatures of the natural world. One challenge that many face is depression.
About 10% of people in the U.S. suffer from depression at any given time and the seasons of autumn and winter trigger the onset of depression for many more, so it’s no surprise that October was chosen to be National Depression Awareness Month. Chances are, you or someone you know has suffered with depression. Depression is characterized by low self-esteem, feelings of hopelessness, disturbed sleeping and eating patterns, and loss of energy. It is a very serious condition that should not be taken lightly nor should those suffering be blamed for the onset of their condition. We can, however, do our best to support one another in coping and building resiliency through healthy habits and routines. Make no mistake, it is difficult to make lifestyle changes while one is in the grip of depression, but even modest changes can lead to marked improvements for those suffering from depression and, for many, helps prevent the onset of depression.
Exercise, yoga, and meditation have all shown to be highly effective in improving mood and stress-coping abilities. Time spent outdoors is especially helpful in the winter months when our exposure to sunlight has decreased. And of course: rest and relaxation. Scheduled downtime and relaxation practices help the mind and body maintain balance and also play a major role in managing stress which is often tied to depression.
So as we move into this new season, let us stay mindful of both the beauty and the suffering that the darker months bring. Let us support one another in preparing for winter, collectively, compassionately.
Be sure to catch the next Sonoma County gem on August 19th—an evening of wine, foot baths, music and dinner at Osmosis Day Spa Sanctuary in Freestone. From 6 pm to 9 pm, guests will be serenaded by the Latin-soul-jazz inspired music of Rupa Marya in the meditation garden and enjoy a farm-to-table dinner catered by Fork Roadhouse Restaurant. For only $35, it’s an zen-loving and foodie’s dream come true. This event is only one of many, so be sure to check their website (https://osmosis.com/events/) for upcoming events.
For those of you who haven’t been to Osmosis, you’re in for a treat. After visiting the day spa last Sunday, it’s my opinion that Osmosis should be written “Ahhh-smosis.” At least, that’s how I was pronouncing it by the end of my visit. Instead of taking your breath away, it brings it back to you. Suddenly, time stretches, an hour seems like three hours, your mindfulness seeming to expand with each deep, restful breath.
In our crazy, hectic world, a sanctuary like Osmosis is most needed. Osmosis claims it offers a “pathway to peacefulness.” However he did it, founderMichael Stusser created that pathway, and I walked on it for a while. It was easy to connect with nature as I sat in the Kyoto-style meditation pagoda overlooking the koi fish pond, lured further into peacefulness by the sounds of bubbling waterfalls and chirping birds. For a long time, I watched the red dragonflies zip across the ponds and drink. I watched the golden and red koi fish dart around the white lilies and wiggle up the sides of the pond to nibble algae.
My treatment was the unique Cedar Enzyme Bath, a bath actually made up of soft ground cedar, rice bran, and living enzymes. If you’re like me, you love trees. Love to climb them, meditate in them, read books under them. But how often can you say you’ve been encased by a tree? This fermentation bathing ritual originates from Japan, and Osmosis is the only spa on our continent that offers the treatment. It’s the strangest, softest feeling—imagine stepping into a sauna that has been turned into soft fluff, then imagine the fluff pillowed all around you. When you move, it heats up because you are activating the enzymes which then stimulate metabolic activity inside and out. The Cedar Enzyme Bath is known for improving circulation, relieving muscle pain, and deeply cleaning your skin. During the treatment, my attendant Ariel was most attentive, placing cold towels on my face and serving me water with electrolytes to help restore the toxins leaving my body.
Before I began the process, I was served a tea made up of nettle, herbs and digestive enzymes, meant to begin the process of cleansing from the inside out (in simple terms, designed to make you sweat). I was served the tea in a room overlooking my very own private Japanese tea garden—which I promptly walked into, exploring the tiny arcing bridge and the shape of the rocks, the tranquilwaterfall, the sculpted bonsai trees.
After my Cedar Enzyme bath, I received a brain-balancing Hemi-sync sound therapy session on a wide, padded hammock. As I laid there, listening to a soundtrack titled, “Wind Over Water,” I watch the wind move the trees, and then felt it move me, slowly, back and forth. I don’t think I ever have watched the willow trees of Salmon Creek quite as intensely as I did last Sunday. Cabbage butterflies flitted together; an occasional hawkcircled overhead. I wasn’t really sure when the 30-minute soundtrack ended and the real nature sounds began, since there was still the sound of wind, birds, and an occasional chime. The smile that had been forced to my lips at the beginning of the day now floated permanently, effortlessly across my face.
It’s now been less than 24 hours since I left Osmosis’ perfectly manicured gardens and ponds, but I’ve called to mind the peaceful scenes I witnessed many times. Already, it’s helped me through the beginning of a fast-paced week. I can’t help but think of Wordsworth’s poem, “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey,” specifically the references of how memories of harmonious nature can get us through anything, of how even in the din of towns and cities, our memories can fill us with sensations sweet.
When you visit, be sure to check out their membership club. One club option is a 75-minute Swedish massage once a month and unlimited access to the tranquil gardens—all for only $99 per month. An organic lunch (catered by Fork Roadhouse) can be savored while you sit overlooking Salmon Creek. Meat-loving and vegan options are available.
For tickets to the August 19th outdoor concert and dinner, or to schedule your next spa treatment, contact Osmosis at www.Osmosis.com or call 707-823-8231. The day spa sanctuary is located at 209 Bohemian Highway in Freestone.
There is a general consensus that spending time outdoors is good for you. Fresh air to revive the senses, sitting by a stream to calm the spirit. We know these activities are not only good for us, but feel wonderfully refreshing, even euphoric.
Like many activities that have been practiced throughout the ages, modern science is backing up what we’ve experienced empirically for so long. In 2015, Stanford University completed two studies on spending time in nature, one studied the psychological effects and the other was a cognitive neuroscience study. Not surprisingly, both studies showed dramatic differences between individuals who took a walk in nature compared to those who took a walk in an urban environment. One marked difference between the groups was the abatement of “brooding thoughts” in the group who had been in nature. “Brooding” or “rumination” was defined as repetitive, nagging thoughts with negative and self-critical messages. This internal chatter and self-criticism leads to serious depression and severe anxiety in some, though it is familiar to all of us. Fortunately, many practices have been developed over thousands of years that help us free ourselves from our own worst enemy. Practices like meditation, prayer, yoga, selfless service, self care, body work… all have shown to deliver us from our merciless inner judge. Past generations may have not needed to include “spending time in nature” in their self-care activities, as that was once a staple of daily life, but in this day and age, as more humans inhabit urban, concrete environments, an effort must be made to get our needed dose of greenery and fresh air.
This communion with nature as spiritual practice was built into the design of Osmosis. We recognize it as a key element to healing, rejuvenation, and mental and physical wellness. The majority of our grounds are designated to giving our guests unique experiences in nature. We encourage each of our guests to find a cushion beside the Heart Mind Pond in the meditation garden and open to all of their senses, or lay in the Field of Hammocks while swaying in the breeze listening to meditative sound therapy music. A massage in an outdoor pagoda, a walk through the forest, lunch beside Salmon Creek… these all offer a healthy dose of outdoor tonic.
Henry David Thoreau reminded us that “we need the tonic of wildness.” Do yourself a favor this month and spend some time out of doors, whether it be in the Osmosis gardens, the Sonoma Coast, or your own backyard. You deserve it.