Besides slimming down and toning up, there's a subtle bonus to spa-going. Today's vacation spas do for the work-weary what sensitivity groups accomplished for the '60s devotees: provide a path to one's potential. Intensified workouts coupled with pampering lead to a rarefied clarity of mind that's even more of a plus than a firmer, thinner body.
"The encounter groups of 20 years ago were more emotionall directed, but had many of the same restorative and retreat qualities that make spas attractive," notes Washington psychologist Anne Collins. "But spas go a step further: They give you all the body stuff. The common thread is taking stock of oneself. It's not just the physical part -- people seek a spa when they feel out of control, or stressed, or feel they deserve a treat. There's a hungering for self-nurturing, and for self-care that a spa satisfies."
The numbers prove it. "In 1983 there were about 60 active spas Now it's closer to 100 to 120," says Judy Colbert, co-author of "The Spa Guide North American, Caribbean, and Cruise Ship Spas for Every Man and Woman's Budget."
"People are looking for a place to get true rejuvenation," say Chris Partridge, owner of the recently opened Vista Clara spa in Galisteo, N.M., near Santa Fe. "After a martini-by-the-poolside or cruise vacation, you come back exhausted and overweight. From Vista Clara you come back losing about 5 to 10 pounds of weight along with 100 pounds of stress."
Why? Exercise combined with nurturing treatments can creat almost magical new outlooks. "When you start to work the body, it changes your emotions," says Anne Marie Bennstrom, owner-director of Ashram, a stoical, work-'em-hard, 11-guest California spa often likened to "a boot camp without food." But many bless the Ashram for changing their lives. The rigorous eight- to 10-mile hikes and hours of aerobics classes along with massage and support make the difference.
"People love to stretch their limits, to go beyond their powers and their frame of reference," Dr. Bennstrom says. "When you do that you also crack the emotional barriers. You become accessible to who you really are, and open yourself up on an emotional level. It's not unusual that people go home and leave their partners in marriage or business, or find better ways to be together."
Not all spas are the same. Here is some advice from JudColbert and others on finding the right one:
*Decide the setting you want, whether it's beach, bluegrass hillor mountains.
*Be realistic about your budget. For a week, spas range from a camping lodge, bring-your-own-linen-and-towels experience for about $500 at the Wooden Door in Lake Geneva, Wis., to more than $4,000 for full pampering and workouts in the plush Doral Saturnia in Miami, Fla.
*Consider whether you'll feel more comfortable at a spa-only facility, or at a spa that is part of a larger resort where non-spa vacationers eat, drink and are merry.
*Decide whether you want a spa that cares for 11 or 60-plus people at once.
*Consider group dynamics. Do you want the camaraderie and support that comes with a small program in which spa-goers start and end the week together?
*Ask about the diet. If the 1,000-1,200 calories-a-day program will starve you, find out whether the spa permits you more food.
*Find out how rigorous the program is. Can you opt out of the morning hike to sleep in, or add a massage instead of an aerobics class, or are you pushed to participate?
*Be savvy about costs. Don't just compare base prices, but look at how many massages, herbal wraps and meals each plan includes.
*Ask whether facilities include tennis, golf and swimming, if these are important to you.
Once spa-goers are matched with the appropriate resort, they ++ may experience what Mr. Partridge calls a stay at the 14-guest Vista Clara: "a quiet revolution of consciousness." He says, "I was on a four-mile hike with what we call a 'debutante' in the slowest group. Almost right away she was exhausted. She wanted to go back, but she wasn't really tired. She was struggling with her own barrier of quitting."
Mr. Partridge coaxed her, and the guest turned into a doer, catching up with the advanced group two miles away. 'Her sense of accomplishment was great. She couldn't stop talking about it all week," Mr. Partridge says.
Such new awareness is not just for women. Frequently, with al the gentle touching of massage, mud baths and herbal wraps, men learn to relax and to accept caring. Offer Nissenbaum, general manager at Doral Saturnia, a plush Miami spa, where the female-to-male ratio is about 60-40, relates this story of a typical initially reluctant man:
"The only reason he came was to please his wife. He wasn't going to try anything. He brought a stack of books to read. It was like pulling teeth, but after the second day I convinced him to try a facial. Afterward, he said it was relaxing, the best experience he ever had. He went on to do more facials and other treatments. Now he stays here for a week three times a year."