Lying in the dimly lit treatment room, I could feel the knots in my back gradually giving way. So far, so good. Yet here at the Johnstown Estate near Dublin, even though unseen forces kneaded my muscles, there was no therapist in the room.
If there’s one thing we’ve all needed since 2020, it’s a good massage. Yet, as our collective shoulders knotted in Covid anxiety, spas have had to adapt their very tactile services, responding to the physical without actually being physical. “No touch” treatments have been one of the fastest growing trends in 2021, according to the Global Wellness Institute (GWI).
THE SCI-FI SPA
Miami’s Carillon Wellness Resort offers touchless wellness experiences, from electric cryotherapy to vibro-acoustic electromagnetic therapy; Image courtesy: MIAMI’S CARILLON WELLNESS RESORT
Salt caves and thalassotherapy have been around for a long time of course, as have those massage chairs that pound your tailbone. Yet accelerating innovation and the need to sterilize puts a new sci-fi spin on the question, and GWI’s December 2021 report suggests the future of wellness could be much more self-sustaining.
Some spas have gone all-in-one; at the Carillon Wellness Resort in Miami, the Touchless Wellness Experiences Suite is a spaceship offering everything from electric cryotherapy to vibro-acoustic electromagnetic therapy. Others have begun to integrate new options into existing programs; Last year, Four Seasons Hotels introduced Hyperice Touchless Compression and Percussion treatments to several spas in the United States and the Middle East.
Belle Cell Clinic is a biohacking and wellness club based in Mayfair, London; Image courtesy of BELLECELL CLINIC, LONDON
The high-tech Mayfair Bellecell clinic is partnering with select London hotels this year to expand their spa menus to include biohacking: changing your physiology through science, data and stimuli. That could mean intravenous nutrition or wearable health trackers. “The body does the work” goes the mantra, and it can be directed by machines without the need for human touch.
I lasted five claustrophobic minutes in Bellecell’s hyperbaric chamber, which is designed to increase oxygen and cell vitality, but the Zero Gravity massage chair was more successful, hissing and sighing as my muscles clenched. I had physical massages with less personal attention and really felt refreshed. Meanwhile, at the Johnstown Estate, an 18th-century heap in County Meath, they’re “letting the body do the work” in a more traditional setting. Set in 120 acres of parkland, the hotel offers all the fine dining and afternoon teas you would expect from a fine Georgian establishment. But it is also a future-oriented leisure complex.
Since 2021, the spa has been a flagship for Gharieni, a major player in next-generation spa technology, and offers its innovative beds as well as scrubs and facials.
For spa manager Dara Mullooly, it’s about changing mentalities. “People aren’t very aware of contactless treatments yet,” she says. “But when people try them, they love them.”
“Are you looking forward to your treatment? the therapist asked as he ushered me into the MLX i3Dome. Honestly, I didn’t know. Infrared is an increasingly trendy option in hot tubs and DIY infrared sauna blankets have become popular during lockdown. The purported benefits include reduced muscle tension and improved metabolism.
THINGS HEAT UP
As I warmed up, the therapist disappeared from the room, returning briefly to add a plasma and light therapy helmet? A white Handmaid’s Tale style beanie believed to stimulate collagen production. I’d like to say that the red LED light and whistles set the clock back 20 years, but maybe it takes a few more times. However, the dome gave me the impression of having had a sauna from the inside: a soft and restorative sweat without exhaustion. However, if instant gratification is your thing, you might prefer a body scrub.
Therapeutic heat is also important in the quartz sand bath, a portable beach that can be molded around you, its mechanics kneading you like a slow mole stroke as the heat creates a feeling of well-being on the beach. I could see it becoming addictive.
As with supermarket self-service checkouts and airport check-ins, the rise of machines also requires scaling. A high-tech extension of those lo-fi ice fountains and “shower experiences” (or, as I like to call them, showers), they deliver more wellness experiences to more people without more labor.
No one is suggesting machine-led therapies will replace traditional massage just yet, but combining the two can yield “greater benefits and faster results,” Mullooly says. In Johnstown, you can combine the MLX i3Dome with body wraps, or the quartz sand bed with a poultice massage.
I reflected on this on the Welnamis bed, which uses rhythm and vibration technology designed to help people with PTSD slow down their mental activity. As I mentally traveled in the dark, I decided that touch is still the premium experience for bodily beings. Innovative treatments can bridge the gap between this and a continued desire for caution.
It’s true that machines don’t care if you enjoyed your treatment, but the future is in technology and there’s a lot to recommend. I slept ten hours the night after the Welnamis. Luckily, we still need a human to press the “on” button, though…for now.