Editor’s Note: Whenever I visit Rancho La Puerta, the award-winning destination spa outside of Tecate, this is the first treatment I book. It’s a true herbal body wrap in every sense of the word. You are wrapped, really cocooned, in hot linens that have been steeped in traditional, indigenous herbs, such as sage and lavender, and then covered with blankets. You sweat it out for 30 minutes, while the therapist stays with you, applying cool compresses to your forehead.
The purpose of herbal wraps is to detoxify, as well as to relax your muscles. An added benefit is that they leave your skin decidedly softer. At one time in spa history, herbal wraps were a core treatment found on nearly every spa menu. Today, it’s hard to find a true herbal wrap at North American spas, and body wraps that you can find have taken on a whole new meaning. But that’s another story for another time. I asked Deborah Szekely, founder of the Golden Door and co-founder of Rancho La Puerta, to share her thoughts on the herbal wrap. Here’s what she had to say.
On the Herbal Wrap
First of all, it’s not my herbal wrap! Look, I was 18, and knew nothing about this. I was exposed to a lot of health nuts over the years. It’s the Edmond Szekely Herbal Wrap [her late husband, 15 years older than she, often referred to as “the Professor,” a Hungarian philologist, philosopher, psychologist, and natural living experimenter. They opened the Ranch in 1940.]
It’s the Professor’s, who based so much of his teaching on ancient knowledge. The herbal wrap was inspired by Father Kneipp’s water cure [Father Sebastian Kneipp, a Bavarian priest, was one of the founders of the naturopathic medicine movement]. The Professor added the herbs. It’s not a particular herb at the Ranch. We have tons of sage and lavender, and we’ve used eucalyptus very successfully. The scent helps you relax your muscles more.
At the Ranch we had an herbal wrap room before we had indoor toilets. The first bathhouse with running water went into the herbal wrap building. We didn’t have much money, but we bought pure linen from Poland, because if you used muslin it would fall apart. We bought by the bulk from Poland and steeped the sheets in boiling water with herbs. Then we’d strain out the herbs, and be left with this blackish-brown water, sort of bubbling away with the linens. We had to use insulated gloves like firemen use to take them out. You get good at wringing them. Then we’d lay them on the bed and wrap people like a mummy for twenty to thirty minutes.
At the Ranch we had an herbal wrap room before we had indoor toilets. The first bathhouse with running water went into the herbal wrap building. We didn’t have much money, but we bought pure linen from Poland, because if you used muslin it would fall apart. We bought by the bulk from Poland and steeped the sheets in boiling water with herbs.
It’s very relaxing and very hard to stay awake! For those who may be claustrophobic, we always ask if you want your arms wrapped in or out. Then we apply fragrant cold washcloths. The herbal wrap is wonderful for arthritis, bursitis, pulled muscles, rotator cuff issues. What it does is decreases the inflammation, and it works! It also helps to purify the skin. The Ranch and the Door still offer them.
When people used to smoke in the old days, the linens would stink! The wrap would literally draw smoke out of the pores. We had linens for smokers and nonsmokers.
On Adding Massage
We didn’t start massage until the Golden Door in 1958 or 1959. We hired a Russian lady who had trained at Elizabeth Arden for 20 years; she was their trainer, and she stayed with us for 20 years. We had standard deep tissue massage. We had no money and guests were paying $9 a day! We had no running water or electricity! It takes a while…we had propane stoves.
On Exercise & Meditation
In those days guests would gather at a large flat rock to start the hike about seven or eight minutes above, people went there to greet the sun in the morning. Lunch was taken in silence. My husband talked a great deal about the spiritual life, the unseen, the unknown was there…and he lectured on Buddha and Moses and Jesus. I was responsible for seeing that guests got fed and had clean linens. Our first 30 cabins were crates.
From Crates to Cabins
We used to go shopping every month at the PX [post exchange]. We had a military camp 16 miles from us. The English ladies would want to get their hair and nails done, and we’d do a little bit of shopping. This was the last cavalry camp for the US Army. The people were wonderful, there were servants, all Italian prisoners of war…it was a very low security camp. They were wonderful cooks and they didn’t like American food. We’d go every month and have a wonderful different Italian meal…who was cooking, which tent…these ladies from England…everyone was very considerate.
One day when we went there, everyone was gossiping about these 30 crates that came on flatbed trains…in middle of the war had been rushed from some city in the east. I thought it was a joke—gossip, communication to outside world was important.
I looked at these boxes and I saw doors and windows. One of them is still at the Ranch. These boxes gave us housing…our third year we had housing…then we started moving…we had little kerosene heaters, a pitcher with water, wash basin, and chamber pots. We had nothing. The war came and there we were…we had ingenuity!
I asked to see the officer of the day and told him I’d like to buy the containers, and he said he’d first have to declare war surplus and post notice in the post office. I bid $111.11, my lucky number at the time—and I waited and I prayed…that was a high number. Anyhow, I got it! And only after I got it—this is one of the special gifts God gave us—did I realize that the officer had posted the notice on the back of the post office door so when the door was open, nobody saw it! I don’t think anyone else would want to bid on them, but I got them because he put the war surplus notice on the post office door, which made sense, but it was summer—and the door was always open.
We got them to the Ranch one by one, and we made them into little cabins. We had volunteer staff who cut doors and windows, that was a big deal. We had cabins and were now operating year round. We fed our guests for $17.50 a week, my husband lectured, we kept them busy all day. We learned along the way…we were flying by the seat of our pants! By the time I started the Golden Door, I knew what worked, what didn’t.
A Change of Course
We didn’t plan on staying when the war ended, we were going to return to England. My husband…this whole thing he created…the herbal wraps were an inexpensive therapy, and we charged for it. We also did colonics, but my husband became opposed to it because it affects the healthy flora and makes you constipated.
We tried mud baths and we wrote about that. My husband thought the mud should have movement, so he created a thing with a round bottom. You went in and the mud came up…it was on a round wheel. We brought ocean water from the ocean about 16 miles away because we wanted to have the mud in ocean water. It was a theory we were trying out. Everything you read about, we tried…biofeedback…we had a smoking cessation based on biofeedback before anyone knew about it.
You know, really truly my husband was a leader. I’m not kidding, I was just a kid! I studied a lot, learned a lot. Without him nobody would have come to the Ranch, and without me nobody would have stayed! That’s the reality. Rancholapuerta.com
Mary Bemis is Founder & Editorial Director of InsidersGuidetoSpas.com. She is a pioneering spa journalist, most recently honored as one of the "Top 30 Influential Voices Transforming Wellness." She is an inaugural recipient of Folio's Top Women in Media Award, and was honored by ISPA with its distinguished ISPA Dedicated Contributor Award. In 1997, she launched American Spa magazine, and in 2007, Mary co-founded Organic Spa magazine. A pioneer in the sustainable spa and beauty worlds, Mary is co-curator of Cosmoprof North America's Discover Green Pavilion. She is a Global Wellness Day Advisor, and a co-founder of the Washington Spa Alliance.
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