IIf you’re like many Pittsburghs, the past three years have been tense.
Widening political divisions and a faltering economy weigh heavily on us all, not to mention the ongoing global pandemic.
While the pandemic has changed our lives, from the way we work to the way we travel, it has also led to some major shifts in the wellness industry. Spa owners and wellness industry leaders report that what people want from their spa experience has changed dramatically, and there is more interest in other forms of self-care, especially those that promise rest, relaxation and stress reduction.
From sound spas and forest baths to flotation tanks and aromatherapy massage, many of us are using more holistic activities and therapies to find new ways to be healthy – though if you want to try a new treatment, a consultation is always a good idea Advise your doctor first.
“In the past three years, it has become more important for people to take care of themselves,” said Jonelle McMahan, who owns Sewickley Spa. “This pandemic has woken up a lot of people.”
Sensory Deprivation Tank
Imagine that you could completely shut down all your senses. No distractions – no TV playing in the background, no podcasts, nothing to see but darkness, nothing to do while your mind wanders.
That’s the experience you’ll find in a sensory deprivation tank, an increasingly popular option for those looking to get away. In Pittsburgh, more than half a dozen floating spas now offer the experience.
As a mother of a toddler, the idea of drifting through the ether sounds like nothing short of heaven and I can’t wait to try it.
There are basically two types of flotation options: traditional pods, shaped like oversized bathtubs with covers, and larger flotation chambers, walled structures with doors that can be closed. Each type of structure contains 10 to 12 inches of warm water and enough Epsom salt (usually at least 1,000 pounds) to keep you buoyant.
For my first float, I landed at McMurray’s True REST Float Spa; it’s part of a franchise that also has locations in Scott and Wexford, and dozens more across the country. Floats start at $89 each, but special introductory and membership prices are also available.
After checking in and watching a short introductory video, I was taken to a private room with a small shower and flotation pod. Following the instructions, I rinsed off and put on the pair of earplugs provided. (Swimsuits are optional.)
Stepping into the pod, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Water is the warmth of body temperature. Immediately I felt a buoyancy lift me up, and then… nothing.
I chose to do a full sensory deprivation experience, closing the lid tightly and disappearing into the dark. I floated for an hour to give my mind a rest. I’m not falling asleep, and I’m not bored (I’m a little worried). When my session is over and the lights slowly start to come on, I step out of the pod feeling as rested as I’ve slept for a solid 8 hours.
Guests have full control over their experience in the pod, and can choose to close the lid completely or open it slightly. There are options for lighting and soothing music, all of which can be controlled from within the pod. I was worried that I would start to panic in this little pod, but the space provided me with enough space to fully spread my arms and legs and move around comfortably.
And very comfortable.
Casey Williams co-owns the Victory Float Lounge, with locations in Lawrenceville and Sewickley, using larger room tanks. He said that while they have many clients who use their tanks as a way to relax, there are many other reasons why people visit their tanks.
“Our whole approach is to make everyone’s win look different,” Williams said. “We don’t approach it with the idea that you have to come in and find your zen. Not always. We have a lot of people who come in with neck pain, back pain, stress and anxiety. A lot of new parents just want some peace and peaceful.”
Laura Early opened Aura Sauna Studio, her Strip District infrared sauna, after visiting a spa in Nashville, Tennessee with her mother. The two fell in love with the service and decided to set up their own studio in Pittsburgh.
“Traditional saunas just heat the air around you. With an infrared sauna, it actually heats you from the core to the outside,” says Early, who has a background in marketing.
According to Early, a 45-minute sauna session helps reduce inflammation and improve circulation; she also says the experience can help with muscle recovery, joint pain and back pain, rebuild collagen in the skin, and act as a “passive Cardio Experience” burns up to 600 calories.
“And, obviously, you get all kinds of other benefits, like emotional healing, stress healing, and better sleep,” she says.
call. Register all of them for me.
Aura Sauna Studio has six private units that can be booked alone or with friends or partners. The temperature in the sauna is around 140 degrees, but guests can adjust the temperature to suit their taste; they can also choose their own music or watch a TV show or movie by scrolling on a tablet provided in the studio. A single session is $45.
himalayan salt cave
The Himalayan Salt Cave at East Liberty’s Peace, Love & Zen Wellness Center, a salt room made from 8 tons of Himalayan sea salt bricks, is a relaxing place for those looking for less sweaty stress relief sessions. Guests can book sessions for $35 in 45-minute increments (usually with others, but private bookings are possible).
“The salt is actually distributed into the air, and you’re actually breathing the salt into your lungs,” says owner Susan Coe. “It’s just a very clean atmosphere.”
A halide in each room grinds up the salt and pushes it into the air during the session.
“Salt therapy was originally intended for all respiratory ailments: asthma, allergies, sinus problems. It’s great for headaches and migraines,” says Coe.
While there have been some studies on the effects of using salt therapy to relieve symptoms of asthma and bronchitis, the results have been medically inconclusive. As with other forms of alternative medicine, it’s always a good idea to talk to your doctor before proceeding if you’re interested in trying it.
“Of course, it provides an atmosphere that promotes a lot of relaxation and stress reduction,” says Coe. “Play our relaxing music specially designed for salt caves, the many subliminal elements in the music help put your body into a more relaxed state.”
Coe said it’s not uncommon for guests to fall asleep in their rooms.
“It’s been really great to come out of the chaos of everyday life,” she said.
In addition to the salt cave, Peace, Love & Zen offers traditional spa services such as massage therapy, sauna, acupuncture and soaking in oxygenated whirlpool tubs with enriched oxygen water.
“It’s especially good for muscle recovery,” she says.
Massages, facials and beauty treatments
Of course, there are always classic spa treatments to help you unwind. Sewickley Spa owner McMahan said her spa has offered many of the same services since it opened in 1997.
“We stick to the fundamentals,” she said. “We’re just really focused on providing the best service we can.”
This includes aromatherapy massage (a Swedish massage that uses essential oils), hydrofacial (a deeply hydrating skin treatment) and cupping (where small heated cups are placed on different parts of the body to create suction and promote blood flow). McMahon said new services — such as quick-drying vegan nail polish that doesn’t use UV lamps and eyelash lifts with permed lashes — are just a small sample of their offerings.
“We’re not keen on chasing fashion,” she said. “We don’t want to focus too much on what we do and what we’re really good at — massages, facials, body wraps, manicures.”
McMahon has also noticed a dramatic change in the way clients use her spa since the pandemic began. More people took time to take care of themselves than she had ever seen before. They also have more flexible schedules.
“Friday and Saturday are our busiest days and the evenings are always popular,” she said. “Now that everyone is working from home, they can sneak away a little bit during the workday and come to us for a facial.”
Sound massage and forest bath
Aspinwall’s Wyatt Mylius embarked on his fitness journey in 2012 after losing a lot of weight. To better adjust to his new body, he started doing yoga; he found a teacher who also used sound therapy, mostly gongs and cymbals.
“I went to a sound session and it was the first time I felt my body in this way,” he said. “It really connected me to my body in a way that I couldn’t explain at all.”
Mylius began experimenting with her own voice practice, investigating the use of music for holistic healing. In 2016, he opened his own sound studio, Rooted in Sound, in Lawrenceville and later moved the studio to its current location in Aspinwall. Each sound session is approximately 45 minutes long and may include additional instruction or assessment, depending on the client’s needs. Prices start at $125 per session.
One of Mylius’ most popular services is sound massage.
“The name is a bit misleading because I’m not massaging them,” says Mylius. “I don’t even touch them with my hands.”
In lieu of a traditional massage, the singing bowls are placed in specific locations around the body and tapped gently, providing vibrations that can be felt.
“It’s more like vibration acupuncture than massage,” says Mylius. “The vast majority of my clients come here because they want some kind of change, they want some kind of transformation in their lives.”
Of course, they all want to relax.
“No matter what, you get to that state of rest, and a sense of relaxation takes over them,” he says. “I mean, when people get off stage, they look five, 10 years younger — just because they let off steam.”
While this is definitely in the eye of the beholder, there’s no denying that the process is relaxing. For clients looking for a change of scenery while pursuing wellness, Mylius also organizes groups outside the studio and holds forest therapy classes on the nearby Rachel Carson Trail, a 45-mile trail that stretches from North Park to Mount Harrison Park.
Beginning in April and until the weather gets too cold, Mylius takes participants out into nature, practicing the art of forest bathing, a series of activities and meditations in an environment surrounded by trees.
“It allows people to enter a state of repose while connecting with their natural environment,” he said. “Meditation is very sensitive, and I have them sing songs and think about what they see. We observe the different shapes and textures of things like leaves, and listen to sounds in the distance.”
Each lesson also involves “forced play,” where participants can play in the creek and interact with nature in ways they don’t usually have the opportunity to do in their daily lives.
“It’s like being in that environment as a kid,” he said. “We wanted to see the forest with the eyes of a child and with curiosity.”
Forest classes at Mylius all end with a leisurely forest walk and a cup of freshly brewed tea from picked ingredients.
“What we do in these walks is so reproducible,” Mylius said. “It helps people slow down so they can spend time in nature on their own.”
Emily Catalano is a writer and founder of Highly Social Media, a social media and influencer marketing agency.
She also runs the website Good Food Pittsburgh.