Does Aboriginal Australian Massage Have a Place in Manhattan?

by  Melisse Gelula | Feb 15, 2010
Spa / kzenon/iStock

Massage styles like Shiatsu and Thai are commonly adopted at spas on this side of the world. But the Kodo Massage, offered at the recently renovated Surrey Hotel, on New York’s Upper East Side, comes from Australia and it’s based quite earnestly on Aboriginal healing practices. The massage ($150, 60 minutes) starts with a clearing ritual—my therapist burned leaves and herbs in a small dish to “clear my energy”—and then she offered me three natural massage oils to choose from, each infused with lemon myrtle, blue cypress, or Tasmanian lavender. The point is to choose the one that “intuitively calls to you” because your body (and nose) somehow knows best what it needs.

On the table, the massage varies between pressure point, kneading deep-tissue work, and longer strokes that almost drag the stress out of you. (It’s a great step up from status quo Swedish and more interesting than deep tissue.) Two wooden coolamons, which look like little tiny trowels, are also drawn up the back “to gather energy,” and the treatment ends with some hands-on energy balancing to harmonize your now-calmer mind with your now-relaxed body. The concept might come from Down Under, but you can see how it might be needed more here.

At spas in Australia, I’ve had the Kodo (its name means “melody”) done to the sounds of didgeridoo. But that didn’t happen here. Nor did much of an anthropology lesson, which would make sense considering there’s a pretty interesting story to tell:

The treatment comes from Li’Tya (it means “the earth at flowering time”), a line of skin- and body-care products created in 2000 by Melbourne-resident Gayle Heron, who has studied Australian plants for almost 20 years, and the teachings of Kakkib li’ Dithia, an Aboriginal elder who agreed to show Heron the healing-touch practices that would become the Li’Tya spa treatments. 

In other words, Li’Tya isn’t like your L’Oreal: It abides Aboriginal spiritual tenets (“everything is one,” for example), encourages its massage therapists to learn and practice them, and even has a cultural advisor on its executive team to make sure Aboriginal values are respected as they’re adapted for luxury spas.  

The Surrey’s spa director Cheryl Jacobs says she was inexplicably drawn to Li’Tya, and her guests feel it, too. “People come for a spa tour, and the phone rings a day later: ‘Can I book the Australian massage?’ they ask.” And I can attest, there’s something about this treatment that gives you the more-than-just-a-massage feeling. Only the one here didn’t quite get me to that spiritually awakened state that I’ve had in Oz. At least not yet. 

To be fair, when I visited The Surrey, Li’Tya hadn’t yet sent its top trainers, who are virtual evangelists for the soulfulness of its spa treatments. And massage by the book never reads as well. That just proves to me that the success of a culturally derived treatment (perhaps like Hawaii’s lomi lomi) depends not just on the massage but on the message. 

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