The tranquility garden.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY ETHAN KAMINSKY, COURTESY OF AGUA CALIENTE CULTURAL PLAZA
“How are you feeling?” a soft voice asks in the darkness. The words wash over my body like a warm wave. Cherished, calm, uplifted, refreshed. I attempt an answer, but I’m unsure if she hears me with my face pressed downward into the sheets; I don’t bother to lift my neck.
Half asleep on an inversion table in a private room at the newly opened Spa at Séc-he in Palm Springs, I’m midway through the 90-minute Quartz and Poultice treatment, which incorporates poultices of varying size (essentially, tightly bound balls of quartz sand that are wrapped in linen, heated, and used in place of hands for compression and kneading). Under me, beneath the bottom sheet, a layer of warmed quartz and amber grains contours to my form, as if I’ve snuggled into a desert dune that’s been baking in the sun all day.
Maybe it’s the cucumber vodka I sipped an hour or so ago by the pool or the welcome break from a busy workweek. Maybe it’s the fact that this facility was built on ancient tribal land by the Agua Caliente people to commemorate a deep heritage — the 73,000-square-foot spa is only one part of the Agua Caliente Cultural Plaza, set to open in full sometime this fall — and consequently, I’m hyperaware that I’m decompressing on sacred ground. But in this moment, I feel that I finally understand why they call it massage therapy. I feel healed.
We’re in the midst of a wellness boom. There has been a surge in (and normalization of) talk therapy since the onset of the pandemic. In 2021, the American Psychological Association documented a 10 to 12 percent rise in demand for mental health treatment, as well as an increase in the availability of mental health–related mobile apps, estimating the number at the time to be in the realm of 15,000. While studies on the psychological benefits of spa days are few in comparison to psychotherapy, research points to their ability to not only alleviate pain and promote relaxation but also, according to the Mayo Clinic, positively impact depression, anxiety, stress, and energy levels — and even lessen the effects of dementia.
Pair a massage or similar spa treatment with other modalities, like soaking in the mineral-rich waters of a hot spring or halotherapy (salt rooms, known to clear sinuses and relieve respiratory issues), and the boon to physical, mental, and emotional well-being swells.
Accordingly, the spa industry as a whole is trending toward longer day-spa experiences that extend well beyond a single treatment, says Daniel Spencer, director of spa at The Spa at Séc-he and its sister facility, Sunstone Spa in Rancho Mirage. At Séc-he, you’re invited (nay, encouraged) to arrive early and take advantage of a labyrinth of offerings: salt rooms, steam rooms and saunas, grounding rooms, acoustic therapy rooms, a state-of-the-art fitness center, and of course, the mineral waters after which the spa was named. Séc-he means “the sound of boiling water” in Cahuilla and is the formal name of the ancient hot spring that feeds 22 private baths and a coed outdoor pool with slightly sulfuric water warmed 8,000 feet below the earth’s surface. Cahuilla legend speaks of Tu-to-meet, a leader who struck his staff into the ground and twisted it until water sprang forth, tapping a hot spring that would never dry up and always be there for those who need healing and rejuvenation.
Spencer continues to evolve offerings and bring in new treatments and amenities to expand the opportunities for renewal. He reaches for native ingredients like desert sage to adapt and localize ideas sourced from international spa conventions. His goal: to educate patrons about the health benefits they’re experiencing.
“When you add in those hot springs and convert it into a whole-day experience, that’s when the real transformation takes place,” Spencer says. “People walk out with their eyes opened. Say someone’s been stuck on Claritin or Zyrtec, and they take that every day during the allergy season. They can learn a bit about salt therapy and say, ‘Well, I can do salt treatments instead and not have to feel dried up or groggy all the time taking an allergy medicine,’ or whatever the issue might be. Transformation is taking place because it’s good education, and they’re walking away with something new.”
Experiencing that transformation firsthand led to his own interest in the spa industry. Having battled scoliosis as a child, Spencer had a major corrective surgery at age 15. On a trip to Hawaii, his mother signed him up for a body scrub and massage. “That was probably a little less than four years after my surgery,” he recalls. “I felt a constant pressure in my back; going somewhere and then having all that gone was just so eye-opening.” Seeking out massage and, later, hot springs helped him kick the pain meds that doctors prescribed. The resulting passion for total wellness — mind, body, and spirit — is evident in Spencer’s three decades of service in the spa industry and his desire to bring innovative offerings to residents and visitors of the Coachella Valley.
Thoughtful amenities, like the salt rooms, inspire a sense of calm.
Spencer advises carving out at least three to four hours for a visit to The Spa at Séc-he, and even then, you won’t have time to do it all. Day passes and monthly memberships are available to enjoy the facilities without booking a treatment. They’re expensive, sure, but perhaps not so when you consider the therapeutic value.
With the table brought back to level, I feel my masseuse rest something on the small of my back. It’s a singing bowl. She places another near the base of the table at my feet and rings them both in unison, sending sound vibrations radiating through the grains that cover the table, along with every cell of my being. Their song lingers in the space for what feels like forever. As I exhale into the eventual silence, she rings them again.
Have I been transformed? It sure feels like it, in the moment. Enough to start planning my return trip and strategizing how to best maximize my time at the facility for optimal relaxation. Enough to ask questions about the value of massage as a form of therapy. Enough to consider buying a grounding mat for my office (sold in the spa’s gift shop).
Then again, I went into this experience believing that self-care is vital for longevity and a happy life — I suppose you’ll just have to book your own spa day to see for yourself.