I had an ashiatsu massage for the first time the other day, and let me tell you, it was quite an experience.
I was at the spa at the Broadmoor Resort, which is in Colorado Springs, a town that has deep roots as spa town--during the late 1800s, it became a magnet for consumptives, whose treatments included breathing the dry alpine air and bathing in the soda springs at Manitou. My menu of treatment options at this newly-renovated spa were somewhat more exotic: sixteen different types of massage or massage-facial combos, one of which promised to coat me in pulverized pearls, another to scrub me with the seeds of chardonnay grapes, yet another that would include the application of golden algae to leave me shimmering.
I chose something more prosaic to apply to my bare body: my therapist's bare feet.
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Ashiatsu, as the spa menu tells me, comes from the Japanese word "ashi" which means feet, and shiatsu, which means "massage." For the unfamiliar, this is a treatment in which your massage therapist walks on you. Actually, this is a bit of an exaggeration--most of the time, you are being massaged by one of the therapist's feet, while she (or he) stands on the other foot, either on the massage table next to you or on stools positioned near the bed. You know you're in a room prepared for ashiatsu if you spot wooden balance bar-like rods installed in the ceiling. The therapist uses those for balance, and also to take some of their weight off of you to adjust the pressure of the massage.
My massage therapist is Faye, a slight blonde woman. She tells me how it's going to go--that she's only going to walk on me with both feet once, on my lower back, and the rest of the time she'll use only one foot, and use it as she would use her hand. She said that she could adjust the pressure exactly how I'd like it, just as a massage therapist using their hands can do it. I said I generally like a firm massage, but not a crippling one. "That's great, ashi gives you lots of pressure without pain," she says.
So it begins. I lie face down on the massage bed. She washes her feet, and then walks towards me to climb up on the stools. Through the face cradle, I can see her feet. They are not overly big and her toes are painted burgundy, and further decorated with little white daisies.
I lie face down on the massage table to start, and Faye climbs up on the stools that are next to my head and sits down. She uses her feet to massage my back, long strokes. The feeling is like...I keep thinking it's like elephants, although I have no idea what elephant skin actually feels like. "This will be a little cold at first," she says, and indeed, they were. Feet take longer to warm up than hands, the soles having thicker skin than any other part of the body. She does not use her hands at all, but it actually feels just like I am being massaged by a hand. A very large, powerful, and slightly rough-skinned hand. She uses her toes as a masseuse uses her fingers, digging into the tender parts that need digging into.
It is a deep massage. There is a strength and a power that comes from the legs that is lacking in the arms. The leg, after all, houses the body's largest and strongest bone, the femur, the thigh bone. It's a significant part of any human's mass. If you've ever had a deep tissue massage when someone uses their elbows or their whole arm, there's something of a brutality to it, or at least a lack of finesse. But although the leg is powerful, the foot is curved, it has that arch, it has those pads, it is not a slab of unarticulated flesh bearing down on you. At the end, I turn face up and Faye massages my neck--with her hands. They feel impossibly light and feathery.
Faye asked me what I thought afterwards, and I said I was an ashiatsu fan. I meant it. It was the least painful and deepest massage I've ever had--if not the most relaxing because I couldn't contain my curiosity--I kept craning my neck trying to see what exactly was going on.
I learned afterwards that while people tend to love ashiatsu once they try it, it's a tough sell to get someone to try it. For instance, at the Broadmoor, this treatment accounts for roughly 10% of all their massage treatments, and many of those are repeaters. I've been thinking about why this is. I mean, if you can accept the strangeness of the massage transaction--getting naked and letting a stranger rub you with oil--why should the appendage used matter?
Of course, it's obvious that a hand isn't the equivalent of a foot. There are lots of neutral ways that we encounter people's hands--handshakes, attaboy back pats, even brushing a stranger's hand on the subway isn't the most horrific thing. But leaving aside foot fetishes and footsie fantasies, we don't tend to have such positive associations with being touched by stranger's feet. Think about getting kicked, trampled, stepped on. And feet look sort of weird, and they smell, and they're prone to horribleness, fungi, and warts, and corns and other protrudences that are best hidden behind a pair of thick socks and a good layer of shoe leather, certainly not rubbed on our own bare skin.
Also, I think that people get wigged out when we use our feet the way we'd use our hands. While I was receiving the ashiatsu, I kept thinking "is this a hand, or is this a foot? Foot or hand?" Ashiatu therapists--and I mean them no disrespect--use their feet as adeptly as their hands, in this they are rather simian.
Now, it's possible my mind flashed on this because I was in Colorado Springs--a kind of evangelical Christian mecca, the world headquarters of Focus on the Family, and other hotbeds of creationism--but at the first Republican debate, Mike Huckabee, the most prominent anti-evolution politician at the moment said "if anybody wants to believe that they are descendants of a primate, they are certainly welcome to do it."
I'm usually not in favor of massaging Republicans, but if Huckabee doesn't want to believe the overwhelming weight of science about evolution, perhaps an hour of ashiatsu might do the trick?