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Redefining Indigenous

Richard Williams February 2007 issue of Skin Inc. magazine

For quite some time, Asia has looked to the United States and Europe for statistics, research and development. Although the information is useful, it does not always translate well into Asian culture, and therefore much of the information is redundant. In the past few years, Asia has become the new paradigm in day spa concept, design, services and treatments, particularly to the Western spa model. How has this happened?

It has happened with the recognition of ancient wisdom in regard to indigenous products, ingredients, services and treatments. For example, between traditional Chinese medicine and ayurveda, there already are more than 5,000 years of continuous practice, and these two modalities have been integrated into Western wellness centers and spas from Frankfurt to Los Angeles.

Sawasdee Krup/Ka, the prayerlike greeting and respectful bow of the Thai culture, represents a simple and yet prolific greeting, infused in an ancient culture that says many things: welcome, you are welcome in my home and you are welcome in my country. It also says hello, nice to see you again and how are you? Other meanings include I respect you, it is my pleasure to see you, it is my pleasure to serve you and it is my pleasure to acknowledge you. It also gives honor to everyone, from the common folk to the socially elite. This simple greeting is but one example of many of the cultural idiosyncrasies of Asia that create an experience to a spa-goer and evokes a moment in time. A moment when one had time to stop, to bow, to show respect to someone—this is the essence of what you might want instilled in your spa environment, that of a moment when time stands still. Asian spas weave a tapestry of indigenous services and treatments, rituals and rites into what is best described as an “experience,” with the aim to surpass one’s expectations as a client.

Indigenous translations

There are many examples in Asia of indigenous wellness modalities that the
spa community has translated and utilized into daily services, often signature treatments and packages that include services such as traditional Chinese medicine—herbal medicines translated into ingredients used in spa services; Tuina; acupressure; reflexology; acupuncture; moxibustion; guasa (bamboo cupping); and thermal waters.

In Japan, there is Zen shiatsu; onsen culture; green tea or sake baths; and hot thermal sand. Green tea has become quite a health phenomenon, with huge breakthroughs even in the medical profession with anti-cancer research and also in anti-aging. The main polyphenols—catechins—found in green tea are powerful antioxidants and help boost skin cell rejuvenation. Another legacy from Japan is that of recognizing the great benefits of seaweeds in body therapies, in the diet, for hair and also for general health and vitality.

Laos is known for its herbal steam treatments and indigenous herbs such as holy basil and camphor bark. The country also implements cupping treatments similar to that of the Chinese Ba Qaa.

The Tibetan people also have traditional medicines derived from indigenous plants. Lum is a traditional bath therapy that is becoming popularized in the spa environment. An example would be Shangri-La’s CHI spas that offer Tibetan bathing rituals.

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is based on the five elements: earth, fire, water, air and metal, whereas ayurveda is based on the three doshas, which are Vata, Pitta and Kapha, and relate to the body type or morphology. It is a tradition steeped in philosophy and meditation. Herbs, oils, pills and tinctures are used internally and externally to balance mind, body and spirit. Ayurvedic treatments and services have become extremely popular in spas globally, and some of the favorites include shirodhara, or the pouring of warm medicated oil over the third eye to calm the mind, cure insomnia and even impotence. Abhyanga uses special oils in a full body massage that rejuvenates, increases circulation and is said to reduce fine lines and wrinkles and leave the skin glowing. There also are a number of specific ayurvedic treatments that are used to eliminate toxins from the body and assist with weight loss and detoxification.

Thai massage is almost a given in many spas, not only in Asia. Think of Thai massage as a type of facilitated yoga. The stretching is wonderful, and the oils never disappoint. Naturally there are many indigenous herbs and spices from Thailand. Thai therapists prepare pouches of varying sizes with dried orange peel, camphor, kaffir lime, lemongrass and prai, to name a few of the ingredients, and these are used to treat the body for muscular skeletal ailments and circulatory disorders. Also, natural mineral salts are a wonderful resource found in Asia from the pink crystal salts of the Himalayas to the sea salts of Bali. These salts are commonplace in spas, finding their way into anything from scrubs to hydrotherapy soaks.

In Polynesia—meaning the islands in the Pacific Ocean—spas have their own indigenous products and services. The most common are from Hawaii, such as the long gentle strokes of a lomi lomi massage or the healing energy that draws on the aloha spirit of Huna healing. The islands of Fiji, Samoa, Tonga and the Cook group all have their own body therapies and healing indigenous herbs. The Maori of
New Zealand draw from the native bush, grasses, barks and berries to cure fever or reduce infections. So many of these islands are volcanically active and therefore have natural thermal springs which have varying mineral qualities and wonderful healing muds. Again, the Asian spa can tap into this tourism market as it has become more and more prevalent for visitors to seek a “cultural” experience and not just seek out some sunshine and a nice beach.

The region of Nusuntara runs all the way from Myanmar to the Malay Peninsula, and from Indonesia to the Philippines, yet is another vast area that has a multitude of magnificent treatments and indigenous ingredients. One can experience the imaginative integrative massage from Peranakan Silat (regional martial arts); incorporating the movements into a body massage ,or try Pijit Javanese indigenous massage that has been passed on for generations and is so entrenched in the Javanese daily ritual that it is a way of life.

Embracing indigenous

Jamu has become very popular, and in Asia has become as common as Swedish massage on many a spa menu. There is enchantment involved with Asian treatments not only for their rituals and beliefs, but also from the historical aspect. Here is something that involves wonderful natural resources, recipes, medicines and massage that has been passed on from generation to generation, often produced and manufactured locally, providing employment for people in the villages and passed down from old family recipes and knowledge.

Urut and Jamu often merge in regard to the types of ingredients and treatments. The Malay methodologies focus on specific benefits from their massage therapies, namely for post-pregnancy, assisting the mother’s body to readjust and heal through the massage and also from herbal wraps, soups and elixirs much like the Chinese style. There also are treatments specifically for men, for virility and vitality, and general treatments for slimming and detoxification.

Susan Jane-Beers, author of Jamu: The Ancient Indonesian Art of Herbal Healing (Periplus Editions, 2001), says that with the current global fascination with all things alternative and Eastern, everyone may well hear more about Jamu as the Western world continues to borrow from Eastern knowledge.

For spa businesses in Asia, it has become very apparent that creating an identity that espouses the indigenous values of the country and offers services that utilize the local, natural ingredients, and also by managing brands that can be tailored specifically toward one’s theme and philosophy, is highly attractive to the market one wishes to attract, often because of the international clientele who seek unique experiences and memorable treatments.

Embracing indigenous products and services does come at a price, and there are a few issues that should not be left ignored. For instance if your target market is from the West, there are certain standards and expectations one must meet. The standard of service must at least meet expectation, hopefully delivering something more memorable, and go beyond the expectation of a client. In Thailand, for instance, it is well-known that the service standard will be very high, particularly the warmth and care delivered. Communicating in English or in a foreign language often is the challenge, and a good business must offer support in regard to education and training.

Having indigenous products, especially those that can be ingested, also can cause concern if there is no authentification. A U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval may not be found here. But this is something that slowly is changing as tests and research are formalized and certification and warranty develop.

Service standards

Expatriate and Western clientele may not be accustomed to certain styles of body therapies. This means certain flexibility is needed in the spa environment as well as sensitivity to clients’ needs. Not every guest enjoys the pummelling and the stretching, and in your spa it may be that the therapists have no formal qualification. More spa educational institutions are opening throughout the region, and with the help of more formal universities in the West such as Stanford in California, Asia will see the bar being raised higher as spa therapists and management manpower graduate with international qualifications. This also means that indigenous services are appearing in spas with solid standard operating procedures, and in training institutions with governmental support.

Local and regional spa associations are actively working toward better standards of service, education and professionalism in their own chapters. Therefore, it would be most favorable to affiliate with an association and work together toward giving indigenous wellness programs and services more kudos to help raise the standard, and by doing so, maintain service delivery and client retention.

It’s always great to experience new cultures, each with its own cuisine, lifestyle, rituals and belief systems. What also is advantageous, particularly to destination resort spas, is that nature plays such an integral part of everyday life and spas may epitomize this with their ambiance and the indigenous products and services. Again, these originate from the local plants and natural resources. Using water features, natural environments, outdoor settings and organic materials such as local wood, stone, thatching, plants and flowers, spas can create a very special sanctuary in which to instill health and wellness to those who visit.

With products that also may be retail-based, ingredients easily can be sourced locally so there are no concerns regarding scarcity, plus clients are able to take away a small part of their experience with them—be it a natural loofah, an herbal bath infusion or a massage oil blend.

Embrace the culture of your country and provide a unique experience for your clients. Well-trained, informed staff—from therapists to receptionists to the food and beverage staff—all equate to the clients’ overall experience and the likely potential to revisit. Many people think that overseas visitors are one-time stays to destination resorts, but as people in Asia know, this is simply not true and the majority of guests will return having had an amazing spa experience, on top of a great holiday.

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Guidelines for Embracing Indigenous Wellness

1. Integrate these modalities and methodologies into your spa by utilizing the natural resources at hand—be they plant, flower, product, mineral, service or treatment.

2. Embrace the cultural rituals and beliefs, and adapt them to your own spa identity and philosophy.

3. Do your research and find out all about these indigenous services and treatments. Weigh up the potential concerns with the great benefits they impart. Talk with people. Learn these skills so that you yourself may pass on the knowledge, or at the very least be well-informed enough that in a supervisory capacity you are able to facilitate adequate and credible training.

4. Affiliate yourself with educational institutions and spa associations, as well as with government bodies, where there may be support for education and training.

5. Be the leader by providing informed validation for these products and services, with evidence of plans for improvement in education and with recognition in centers of learning.

6. Your asset will be in the strength of your knowledge regarding your products and services, and obviously this means for your staff, too. The only way to do this is with constant training on client protocols and treatments, updates on products and thorough training on all product knowledge, particularly the benefits of a treatment, its efficacy and its delivery. Also be knowledgeable on ingredients.

Asian spas weave a tapestry of indigenous services and treatments, rituals and rites into what is best described as “experience.”

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