The Spirit in the Spa

By Jeremy McCarthy / September 12, 2011

The International Spa Association defines spas as places that “encourage the renewal of mind, body, and spirit,” The emphasis on mind, body, and spirit is ubiquitous in the spa industry and can be found in marketing collateral, advertisements, and spa menus for thousands of spas. This holistic approach to treating a person across all three of these domains is what makes the world of spa so appealing and effective as a place for rest and healing.

 But what is the “spirit” part of this triad? And how do spas impact people’s spiritual well-being? These are not easy questions to answer since spirit could be defined in many ways and may be perceived differently from spa to spa or from individual to individual. But there is something about the spiritual side of the world of spa that speaks to people, and keeps them coming back for more.

 For some, spirit can be defined as the emotional side of well-being. It is common to hear of people experiencing an emotional release while at the spa, sometimes even bursting into tears on the treatment table, perhaps moved by the nurturing touch of the therapist. Guests who have this experience feel a soothing of the spirit, and they leave the spa at peace, emotionally, with fewer troubles, less anxiety, and more happiness.

 For others, the spirit in the spa may be more about energy. Several traditional spa treatments from a variety of cultures are designed to promote the healthy flow of energy in the body. This life force or energy has different names, such as “ki” in Japanese reiki, “chi” in Chinese energy exercises such as chi gung or tai chi, or “prana” (which is also related to the breath) in Sanskrit yoga traditions. The Latin word spiritus means breath, so it is not surprising that breath is an important component of these energy modalities, which promote healing and rejuvenation, literally revitalizing the spirit.

 Some spas are even so bold as to suggest that the spirit part of the spa triad refers to the soul. It is not uncommon to see spas promoting their “soul-soothing” treatments or using “mind, body, and soul” as a substitute for mind, body, and spirit. While it may feel like a stretch to imagine that spas can play a role in our spiritual salvation, it is not entirely out of the question when you consider the space and time provided at spas for personal reflection.

 Kenneth Pargament, an expert on the psychology of spirituality and religion, defined spirituality as “the search for the sacred.” In his definition, the term “search” indicates that “spirituality is a process” and is unique to each individual. The term “sacred” represents the substance of our spiritual journey and could include concepts of God or “transcendent reality.” Like beauty, transcendence is in the eye of the beholder, so people can find sanctity in many areas of their life including their work, their relationships, their private time, or their community. Within the context of this definition, it is easier to see the spiritual side of the spa.

 For some, the human body is sacred, and the rituals performed in the spa are designed to honor that sanctity by improving health, healing, and physical relaxation. For people who hold their relationships with others as sacred, the spa provides a place where they can come together and deepen their connections. And perhaps the most important sacred concept in the spa is the importance of time for one’s self. By giving people time to slow down, be separated from technology, and sit in silence, spas give them a chance to reflect on the values that are most important to them.

 If you recognize the importance of mind, body, and spirit for your own well-being, then think about how you can apply some of these spiritual principles from the world of spa to your own life:

 1. Identify the activities and experiences that uplift you emotionally. Look for ways to increase pleasure and positive emotion in your life.

 2. Spend more time with the people, places, and activities that energize and revitalize you. Keep your distance from those people and things that are a drain on your energy.  

 3. Spend some time thinking about what is sacred to you. Reflecting on personal values can help you to set meaningful goals and to cherish the best moments of your life.  

There really is no one correct definition for our spiritual side, and no one right way to develop it. The power of the concept of mind, body, and spirit is in recognizing that humans are complex creatures and our well-being comes from many domains, not all of which are completely understood. Your own spiritual quest for well-being can begin with a simple question: What’s sacred to you?



Jeremy McCarthy

Jeremy McCarthy

Group Director of Spa at Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group
Jeremy McCarthy is the Group Director of Spa for Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group leading their internationally acclaimed luxury spa division featuring 44 world-class spa projects open or under development worldwide. He has over 20 years of experience operating luxury spas in resort and hotel properties worldwide and is the author of The Psychology of Spas & Wellbeing. You can find more of his writing on his blog at
Jeremy McCarthy

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