This year’s American Spa‘s Women in Wellness Industry Icon Award, “honoring a longtime female spa leader who sees the potential of our industry and has influenced its growth and success” goes to Ruth Stricker, Founder, The Marsh, A Center for Balance and Fitness. Ruth, a longtime friend, continues to inspire. We caught up to talk about her history and the critical values of spa.
You started your destination spa, The Marsh at age 50. What was it about that time in your life that caused you to create it?
It was a continuum of what I had been doing. I was the health education director at the YWCA and at Dartmouth, which is where I ran into Bonnie Prudden (an American fitness pioneer who was responsible for the creation of the President’s Council on Youth Fitness). So I started classes—I had a little place, a little club, and I started with five women. I taught there for years, I had 18 teachers working with me. Then I opened a studio in a tony area of Saint Paul, which was an obvious step for me to take. What I realized as I taught fitness—always with an injection of philosophy, tai chi, way back then—I found that exercising physically opened the soul.
After my class, people would go into another room and talk about their struggles, joys in life—they really opened up. That’s when I decided I needed to surround fitness with the stuff of life, the mind-body stuff. That was just an opening for me as part of my mission or ministry, per se. It was obvious, and then I met my husband Bruce, who heard me speak on mind-body in a church basement, and he said he didn’t care about fitness but wanted to support my philosophy.
That’s how it started. I didn’t have a dime. I had driven by [what would become] The Marsh four times a day for years. I knew it was the place because of the environment. So we moved to a little red house temporarily while we built the building . . . and everyone in the red house said, “I hope we don’t lose what we have . . . ”
What was the spa experience that inspired you to create your own?
Depending on what you call spa, well, we traveled two years before we opened in 1983. I had been very familiar with The Golden Door and the spas of France. We traveled to China a dozen times, and we went to Baden-Baden, to see what healing was in Europe—Montecatini, Evian . . . I found Sebastian Kneipp’s work was really the basis of what a spa was, and I still appreciate his work. I consider the whole Marsh a spa based on his work and the physical-social-spiritual environmental, harmony and order and the biological rhythms of our body. I think he did it well.
I consider the whole Marsh a spa based on Sebastian Kneipp’s work and the physical-social-spiritual environmental, harmony and order and the biological rhythms of our body . . .
I also spent time in the Soviet Union, at the request of their government. I taught these big Russian communists what exercise was all about . . . they took me to Kiev, Moscow, Leningrad . . . At the time, I talked about exercise as an antidote to diabetes and alcoholism, which was huge over there. As a consequence of that, I had young Russian doctors come to The Marsh. When they reported back, they said they took happiness lessons at The Marsh!
In the Caribbean, I found that the culture there is so different, I had been doing tai chi and so forth, and they have a different standard—a full-figured body is fine for them. They’d say, “Oh, Mrs. Dayton, you’re gaining weight, you’re getting fat!” But they weighed 100 pounds more than me! We had a house there for 30 years. I remember one staff member was humming in the room, and she said to me, “I have to hum, I have high-blood pressure!” All the cultures are so different. In Japan, people were more image-conscious. They’re next problem was depression. In Thailand, they had such open hearts . . .
All of my travels added up to doing a combination of European and Asian at The Marsh. When I went to these spas, I found sculptured hedges and music quartets and taking the waters and discovered that fitness wasn’t a part of it—they skied to school, walked to the flower market—exercise was innate in their lifestyle. That was fitness. So spa was spa—taking the waters and being in this beautiful environ—that’s what I did at The Marsh—a liberal arts approach to health.
Another moment I’m proud of was when I had to be seen in front of 6,000 (loud) schoolteachers at a football stadium. I had them all doing tai chi . . . I quieted them all down. The memory still gives me goosebumps.
You’ve gone from mid-age to 80 years of age in the spa world. What are you most proud of at The Marsh, and what are its biggest challenges?
I had this huge opportunity. I had no money; it was my husband Bruce’s money. I always felt that responsibility goes along with opportunity. The Marsh is exactly where things should be now. I’m proud of the philosophy that we opened with 30 years ago, it’s still right there. It’s a center, also a part of the community. Life changing things happen there. I’m not reveling in “I did the Marsh,” but I do hear daily what people are doing for themselves there. My challenge right now is what to do with it to keep it independent and maintain the culture. I’m proud to have a place where one feels tranquility and energy simultaneously. They can both happen in the same place. That was one of my directives to the architects before we started—walking into an estuary for happiness . . . reaching out for others—creating a balance between self-care and reaching out to others. One of my favorite people, Allan Luks, the author of The Healing Power of Doing Good, believes that reaching out to others gives us more of a high.
I always felt that responsibility goes along with opportunity.
What spa practices do you think have actually helped you, and continue to help you live a good life?
I’ve had back surgery, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis—I’m not supposed to be alive, and I’m here. I’ve taught every tough class there is through the years, and now I’m doing more warm water. I have a pool in my home, which has saved my life. Tai chi, walking in the woods with my dog . . . I meditate, I call that mental rehearsal. I also do myofacial and lymphatic drainage.
In the spa and wellness world, what’s worth doing and what’s a waste of time?
Know your specialty and do it well no matter what it is, even if it’s fluff and buff. I always caution about what we’re [the spa industry] bragging about and claiming. I call it the discipline rather than the process. I see and hear a lot about very efficient people in a spa behind a counter who are not necessarily approachable or warm, and the point is to listen and feel where your guest is coming from.
Spa and all integrative health things have a danger of flirting with allelopathic. “I had acupuncture, and it didn’t work,” or “I had aromatherapy, and it didn’t work.” All those things . . . I’m sad that the constriction for so many spa professionals is dollars and numbers, but that’s the goal put before them. The key is to have people feel good when they leave the spa. Self-image is everything. If they have good self-image they will take care of themselves, and that goes to our government and the healthcare situation we have in our country. I think we should figure out where people are in their lives when they come to us. Spas are best positioned than any [industry] to give people a chance to sit back and think about their priorities.
Of all the teachers you’ve met, Herb Benson, Jim Lynch—who do you think are the most important pioneers to read? What books should everybody read?
All of Martin Seligman books are great. Norman Cousins’ book, Head First: The Biology of Hope and the Healing Power of the Human Spirit. Jon Kabat-Zinn is good. There are so many.
I just looked, I put out five books today with you in mind: Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being by Martin Seligman; Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life, by Dacher Keltner; Barbara Frederickson’s Love 2.0: Creating Happiness and Health in Moments of Connection; Daniel Levitin’s book The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload; and a far-out one, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande.
I want to emphasize my opportunity. I was able to create The Marsh without compromising anything. I doubled the size of the building five years after we built it. We have a larger spa with holistic physical therapy within. It’s the integrative approach that’s so nice for us. So, all of these different things in the same building is our product—and that isn’t feasible for most places.
Editor’s Note: Ruth Stricker passed away on April 14, 2020, surrounded by her friends and family. A true spa advocate, she will be tremendously missed.