You Call It Sawdust – I Call It Bliss

Fit Magazine

I am getting married in eight days. In. Eight. Days. I still don’t have all the RSVP’s so I can’t tell the caterer final numbers, the adorable tin bottles I got to put flowers in turned out not to be waterproof. El Nino shows no signs of abating an it’s supposed to be an outdoor ceremony, my future mother-in-law won’t come to the family dinner because we invited my fiancĂ©’s father, and I recently took the cat to the vet so my arms are covered with scratches and I’m wearing a sheer-sleeved gown. I Am! Stressed! Out!

Of course, because I am wired tighter that Jan Brady’s braces, I could not possibly get away for my spa column this month. There is no time. Ah, the bitter paradox-when I most need a spa vacation, I cannot have a spa vacation.

However, I have to turn in something or Lisa will fire me and I won’t get to go to the spa in Bali for my honeymoon. So I forced myself to take a break from seating arrangements and choosing thank-you notes and hied myself to a day spa in northern Sonoma County. I didn’t actually think I could relax in a single day (this column is usually about overnight spas), but at this point, taking a week off was as probable as eloping with Leonardo DiCaprio.

Destination: Day Spa

My friend Abbe had raved about Osmosis. “It is the only enzyme bath place outside Japan,” she told me in the hushed tone of the truly devout. “I can’t really explain what it is-you have to experience it yourself. But I can tell you that you cannot help but be serene when you’re there. The place is soooo beautiful, and the enzymes make a real difference in you body, you’ll see.” Abbe has hippie-freak leanings, so I’ve learned to take her recommendations with a grain of salt (She once had me go to a Yom Kippur service with drumming and interpretive dance. I reject this)

But as I said, I had a deadline. So I drove to the postage-stamp town of Freestone, an hour and a half from my house in San Francisco. Apparently it once was a bustling lumber town, population 10,000. Freestone was especially busy after the San Fran earthquake of 1906, when rebuilding the city required a great many wood planks. Today, though, Freestone is a tiny, sleepy little hamlet. Driving there, as city traffic and tall buildings gave way to silent green hills and cows and sheep and silence, I started to breathe a little more deeply. Eventually I pulled into the parking area of what looked like a storefront in a fake Old West move set. I expected to see John Wayne smoking on the front porch, or a stunt man tumbling off the tall, flat, faux facade, clutching his chest as fake blood bloomed on his shirt. An exuberant garden surrounded the building; the air smelled like lavender and redwood. There were trees and gently sloping grassland as far as I could see. It was utterly, unnervingly silent, except for the trilling of songbirds. And it wasn’t even High Noon.

Wood Pulp? You’re Soaking in it!

Despite the Wild West exterior, inside Osmosis is pure Japan, philosophically and decoratively. Sliding shoji screens give way to a spartan private tearoom with a breathtaking view of a perfect little Japanese garden. I sat on a little cushion on the floor (there’s also a couch) and watched Koi fish dart around in a clear pond. A curved wooden footbridge arched over a burbling waterfall. Bonsai trees and flowering bushes shared space with a rock garden. It was a perfect little snap shot of Japanese beauty and serenity – like the vast grounds of the Golden Door Pas compressed into one small space.

Unlike other spas that have a vast menu of treatments and services, Osmosis only offers two choices. You can either have an enzyme treatment and a blanket wrap, or an enzyme treatment and a massage. That’s it. But Osmosis turns its limitations into assets. What it does, it does flawlessly.

I sat gazing at the garden for several minutes. Then a women wearing a yakuta (a Japanese robe) entered with a beautiful iron mini-kettle and a simple ceramic cup. While pouring the fragrant chamomile-peppermint-yarrow brew, she informed me that it was made of over 600 active enzymes from more than 25 plants. She then slipped out silently as I drank my tea, listening to the pretty New Agey music playing softly in the background (afterward, I was told the tunes incorporate nature sounds and inaudible tones designed to help balance and relax brain-wave activity, to which I say only, you betcha). While the ear candy soothed my soul, I continued to commune with nature in the garden. Soon a heated herbal neck wrap, smelling deliciously yeasty, was placed on my shoulders, its gentle weight pushing tension down and away. Then I was led into a room overlooking a pretty fenced yard and bonsai garden, with green hills stretching behind it and a stream dancing off to the right. After undressing, I climbed into a huge sandbox-kind thing containing pulverized cedar chips treated with enzymes similar to the ones I’d just drunk. An attendant buried me up to my neck, like a little kid playing at the beach. I gather the name “Osmosis” was supposed to indicate that the enzymes inside us pass back and forth through the permeable membrane that is our corporeal selves and we are all one with the universe – or something Zen like that. Anyway, the chemical activity of all those enzymes fermenting heats up the cedar chips. There’s no external heat source, just wacky chemistry. It’s like a mud bath – yet dry. ‘Tis very strange.

Then Some Cellular Thing Happened

What, precisely, are those fun-lovin ‘enzymes supposed to do, you ask? Good question. I’ll do my best here. According to Michael Stusser, the owner of Osmosis, “The skin, the largest organ in the body, comes in direct contact with the intense enzyme activity in the enzyme bath, which, in addition to heat, produces its own electro-chemical environment. The enzymes in the tub and your body communicate, and a dynamic, energetic exchange occurs. The combination of heat and energy influences your body chemistry and natural cleansing processes and breaks down body wastes and cleanses the skin, down to the pores themselves.” Um, okay. I can tell you it felt both extremely hot and extremely relaxing. As I sat in the tub, the windows of the room began to fog. Periodically the attendant came in to give me a sip of cool water through a straw. I could feel my muscles melting, softening, and unknotting. The heat got stronger and stronger, after ten minutes I had to raise my arms out of the sawdust. I started to get lightheaded. After 15 minutes, it was time to exit the mush. The attendant led me to a shower, where I brushed myself off with a little hand-broom thingy and then rinsed off the last bits of wood. Thanks to the rice bran, a natural exfoliant added to the wood, I felt totally soft and smooth, like a baby. I felt wobbly, but very clear.

Who came up with this? Stusser, a student of Buddhism, whose background was in gardening (it shows), discovered the joys of ‘zyming when he was studying at a Zen monastery in Japan. He had sciatica and couldn’t sit for mediation without pain. Finally he tried an enzyme bath, which he says was a tradition in Kyoto, where people use them for arthritis, high blood pressure, and gastrointestinal problems. His ailment improved instantly, and he swore to bring the treatment back to America.

Of course, FDA regulations being what they are, Stusser can’t make health claims in America for the baths. He says only that they often provide relief from aches and pains, and are especially beneficial for people suffering from tension, fatigue and stress. But anecdotally, he says, there are thousands of people who have found relief for serious medical conditions with enzyme baths.

Like a cooked piece of linguine, I headed upstairs for my massage. After relaxing on the table in pure calm-bliss, I remembered – ugh! – in my wedding-planing hysteria, I’d forgotten to bring massage oil! ( I usually pack my own, because I’m allergic to the nut oils found in many massage potions>) I bolted upright in panic. Sherill, my massage therapist, was utterly gracious about it, running around to find nut-free massage oil while simultaneously managing to soothe my moans about being a moron. When the non-nutty oil was found and the massage began, I realized I was in the hands of a true pro. I was beyond linguine and into cappelini, If I were anymore limp, I’d have dissolved.

Ahhhhhhhhh.

My treatment over, I floated down to the gift shop, where I sniffed the cedar lotions, ignored the blue-green algae, and read the label on the container of Digestive Enzymes ($39.95). I bought a bottle of lavender lotion from little Bonny Doon Farm, and the lemon verbena soap smelled too heavenly, so I bought it too. I pondered getting a scented eye pillow and a Yucca Herbal Neck Wrap, like the one that had relaxed my shoulders earlier, but managed to restrain myself. (After—- all, I do have an upcoming honeymoon to finance.)

If you’re too zoned to drive after this experience, you can spend the night in a homey little B&B down the street, called the Green Apple. There are also more lodging options in the town of Occidental, 10 minutes down the winding road. Freestone is definitely quirky, with a hippie vibe (no wonder my friend Abbe digs it). Its single little main street, which looks like another set from a Hollywood Western, is lined with covered porches, art galleries, feminist bookstores and cozy little restaurants. I got a divine blueberry scone at a cafe, and ate it outside on the porch. It was the first piece or food I’d really tasted in days. My enzymes musta been charging around because I felt good – clear and sane and at peace.

Of Course, it didn’t last. I’m home. The rabbi wants me to promise I’ll have four (!) children, my fiancee has suddenly decided that we really have to serve artichokes at the pre-wedding barbecue, and guests are calling to demand rides from the airport to the ceremony.

I think I need to get ‘zymed again.

San Francisco writer Marjorie Ingall already has her non-nutty massage oil packed for her honeymoon.