Osmosis Day Spa: A Unique Meditative Retreat In California Wine Country

By Kim Westerman

Forbes

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

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

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 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.

Shiatsu Massage

By Raizelah Bayen

Shiatsu massage, an Eastern-based massage modality not only relaxes, but revitalizes you.  It provides not only the calming and quieting that you would expect from a Western massage, but so much more.  It moves and balances our Chi, our vital life force, increasing our vitality and building the foundation for health.

History

This style of massage, developed in Japan, is influenced primarily by the Chinese understanding of the body, asserting that we are comprised not only of flesh, but also a network of energy channels called Meridians. According the the ancient Chinese medical text, Nei Jing, “The function of the channels (Meridians) is to transport Chi (energy) and to nourish the body.”  While we cannot see Chi, it can be measured with devices that detect electromagnetic fields, and it can be felt by each of us. When we feel elated, we feel a surge of Chi moving through our bodies. When we feel depressed, we feel the stagnation of Chi, making us feel inert, stuck or unable to motivate.

meridian-shiatsu-chinese acupuncture12 Meridians

There are 12 Meridians that circulate Chi throughout our bodies. The Chinese understand that the the unobstructed or balanced flow of Chi through the Meridians in the foundation of health. Chi blockages are the foundation of tension, pain or dis-ease. These blockages may be the result of stress, injury, trauma, or bad living habits (in diet, addictions, or lack of exercise). The key to strong immunity, vitality and health, is to keep the Meridian pathways unobstructed and flowing with abundant Chi.

Shiatsu Builds Health

Shiatsu Massage is a technique developed specifically to balance the Chi flow through the Meridian pathways. In a full-body Shiatsu massage, each of the 12 Meridian channels are massaged using rhythmic finger and palm pressure along these pathways. This slow, rhythmic compressive style of massage will engage the parasympathetic nervous system, relaxing the nervous system, while simultaneously opening Meridian blockages and revitalizing Chi flow.  This is a massage that offers not only the sedating benefit of our Western Swedish Massage, but also the deeper benefit of increasing our Chi or vitality, and building a foundation for health.

Clothing Optional?shiatsu-massage

As all Eastern styles of massage, Shiatsu is received with soft, comfortable clothing on.  Traditionally, this style of massage is offered on a thick, cushy floor mat.  At Osmosis, we offer this traditional style, referred to as Floor Shiatsu, as well as a Western version, called Table Shiatsu. These are equally beneficial and can be booked with one of our highly trained and skilled massage therapists.

If you have never experienced Shiatsu Massage, you are in for a treat!  

Book your appointment today! 

Raizelah Bayen is currently the Director of Training and the Massage Therapist Supervisor at Osmosis Day Spa Sanctuary.  She has over 25 years in the field of massage, and over 15 years of experience an instructor in a massage certification program.  Her specialties include the Eastern Massage Modalities and Acupressure, Pregnancy Massage, and Body Mechanics for Bodyworkers.  If you have questions regarding upcoming trainings, please contact Raizelah at raizelah@osmosis.com

The Right Cut – A Master Pruner’s Journey

japanese garden master pruner

By Abby Bard

Sonoma Discoveries Magazine

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.

The following link has a brief video demonstrating “Aesthetic Pruning of Maples” on YouTube. A more extensive tutorial on that subject is available for purchase from GardenTribe.com.
You can contact Michael Alliger by email at twigchaser@earthlink.net. Learn more about the APA by visiting their website AestheticPrunersAssociation.org.

Altar Dedication for Steve Stücky

Norman Fisher, meditation, San Francisco Zen Center, Zen, Every Day Zen, Gardening at the Dragon’s Gate, Wendy Johnson, Buddhism, Japanese Garden, Day Spa, Retreat center, Northern California Spa, Freestone, Sonoma County, Wine country, Steve Stucky

Norman Fischer Leads Ceremony at Osmosis

by Michael Stusser

October 6th was a perfect fall day in Freestone. Thirty people gathered in our meditation garden to honor Steve Stucky, a remarkable landscape artist and Zen priest who helped develop the natural beauty of Osmosis. Steve served as abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center where he promoted gratitude in daily life. He passed in 2013, yet his legacy is alive as our gardens mature. 

Steve understood that Osmosis would become a meditative environment where guests would feel the benefits of silent contemplation. He spoke clearly at our garden dedication ceremony in 2003,

Norman Fisher, meditation, San Francisco Zen Center, Zen, Every Day Zen, Gardening at the Dragon’s Gate, Wendy Johnson, Buddhism, Japanese Garden, Day Spa, Retreat center, Northern California Spa, Freestone, Sonoma County, Wine country, Steve Stucky

Norman Fischer, Wendy Johnson and Michael Stusser at Steve Stücky Altar Dedication

“Very few people in our nation’s healing professions understand the importance of place and of the natural world in healing. The primary reason our work here is so meaningful…is the fact that this garden is a place of healing the body, soothing and calming the mind, and spiritual nourishment—a truly sacred space that recognizes the whole person and may serve many people over many years. I believe that we Americans, in our busy acquisitiveness, need to drink deeply from resources within the natural world to develop an indigenous culture of wisdom.”

Norman Fisher, meditation, San Francisco Zen Center, Zen, Every Day Zen, Gardening at the Dragon’s Gate, Wendy Johnson, Buddhism, Japanese Garden, Day Spa, Retreat center, Northern California Spa, Freestone, Sonoma County, Wine country, Steve Stucky

Steve Stücky Laying Out the Osmosis Meditation Garden, 2001

I feel certain no one on the planet was better qualified and more able to translate the vision for the Osmosis gardens into reality. Steve wanted to create special environments that would evoke the calming healing quality of our True Nature. It was deeply moving and satisfying to have a companion on the journey that understood these intentions and was able to help actualize them. No words can begin to express my gratitude to Steve.

 

Norman Fisher, meditation, San Francisco Zen Center, Zen, Every Day Zen, Gardening at the Dragon’s Gate, Wendy Johnson, Buddhism, Japanese Garden, Day Spa, Retreat center, Northern California Spa, Freestone, Sonoma County, Wine country, Steve Stucky

New Altar at Osmosis

As our celebrated meditation garden was being built, Steve suggested that we incorporate an altar to a allow guests to offer incense. An offering of incense is considered a simple act of generosity within the Zen tradition. Unlit incense represents the potential for enlightenment. Once lit, its ephemeral smoke mirrors the transitory nature of life. Incense purifies the atmosphere and may inspire us to develop a pure mind. Its fragrance spreads far and wide, just as a good deed benefits many.

Our October 6th ceremony included many of Steve’s lifelong friends and fellow practitioners who unveiled an altar dedicated to him.  It is inscribed with his favorite Zen saying,

Norman Fisher, meditation, San Francisco Zen Center, Zen, Every Day Zen, Gardening at the Dragon’s Gate, Wendy Johnson, Steve Stucky, Buddhism, Japanese Garden, Day Spa, Retreat center, Northern California Spa, Freestone, Sonoma County, Wine country

Steve Stücky with Osmosis Gardeners Michael Alliger and Louis Fameli, 2009

“To what shall I liken this world?

Moonlight reflected in dewdrops

Flung from a crane’s bill”

– Dogen Zenji

Condé Nast Traveler Travelogue

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Here is a podcast that is obsessive when it comes to all things travel – where to go, where to stay, where to eat, what to wear and how to play.  Wherever they go, they love to share it.

We are honored to be featured about 24 minutes into their podcast in Where to Travel this Fall. You can listen to their podcast here.