Unwind with Tradition
Hot stone massages may be a fixture on the spa circuit, but only Riverstone Spa's stone treatment in Winnipeg is inspired by the traditional Aboriginal Sweat Lodge.
Sacred stones and sweat lodges have a long tradition in Manitoba First Nations history. Whiteshell Provincial Park, set amidst the picturesque lakes, boreal forest and knobby granite ridges of the Canadian Shield, is home to rare, centuries-old "rocks on rocks" figures known as the Bannock Point Petroforms. Created by the Anishinabe people, these fascinating, mysterious petroforms were laid out on flat rock shelves in the shapes of turtles, snakes, Thunderbirds, humans or what appear to be abstract geometric patterns.
Known as a sacred place of teaching and healing, the petroforms continue to play an important role in contemporary Anishinabe culture. One way in which they are still used is the Sweat Lodge Ceremony. This ancient purification and grounding ceremony of the body and spirit has long been practiced by First Nations people.
Inside the Sweat Lodge, made of thick lengths of canvas shaped around a dome, the atmosphere is warm, wet and dark. Womb-like you might say, which is fitting, as the idea of the ceremony is to feel born anew. Stones are part of the tradition, aligned near the entrance and used as part of the ceremony. Heated in a fire pit outside the Sweat Lodge, they are placed on the body—relaxation with healing.
At Winnipeg's Riverstone The Spa at The Forks, a pebble path along a gurgling stream leads clients to a truly unique treatment inspired by the Sweat Lodge. Their signature treatment—a 90-minute Indigenous Hot Stone massage—is one that even seasoned spa-goers say is unlike anything they've had before.
One of Winnipeg's pre-eminent spas, Riverstone is located at the Inn at the Forks, a five star boutique hotel designed with glass and Manitoba Tyndall Stone. The Forks, Winnipeg's number one tourist destination, is both a national historic site and activity-filled city hot spot. It owes its name to its location—The Forks forms the junction of the Red and Assiniboine rivers in downtown Winnipeg and was a trading place for First Nations people tracing back as far as 6000 years ago.
When Riverstone's director Janice Colatruglio opened the spa, she saw a unique opportunity to pay tribute to the unique surroundings and create a treatment inspired by the rituals and teachings of the Sweat Lodge. Colatruglio knew she couldn't compromise on authenticity with the Indigenous Hot Stone massage, which is conducted in accordance with a traditional sweat and treated with the highest respect.
Colatruglio and the spa's head massage therapist developed it under the guidance of a tribal elder from the Circle of Life Thunderbird House—a First Nations cultural centre in Winnipeg designed by well known Aboriginal architect Douglas Cardinal.
"The elder approved every step. If there was something he didn't like, we didn't include it," says Stephen Melnick, Riverstone's current head massage therapist and one of the few people authorized to do the treatment. "We did the treatment on him, and only after he was satisfied with everything did he endorse it."
Riverstone Spa is a 5300 square foot lesson in calming luxury. The decor's modern elements are done in earthy tones and water walls lend a comforting trickling sound. In winter, fireplaces and heated floors warm the weather weary. There are 10 treatment rooms, all outfitted with state of the art heated and contoured massage beds, but only one is designated for the Indigenous Stone Massage.
"Before we start the treatment, we explain all of the symbolic and practical elements," said Melnick, who grew up in Winnipeg and remembers going to the Thunderbird House as a teenager to experience a Sweat Lodge Ceremony. His reverence for the tradition, as much as his expertise at massage, contributes to this memorable treatment.
One of the first things you are likely to notice when you enter the treatment room is a star blanket covering the massage table. In Aboriginal culture, the star is a highly important sign—the symbol of the unity of east, west, north and south. The blanket on Riverstone's massage table was a gift from the tribal elder who helped devise the treatment.
As with most spa treatments, background music plays in the dark, warm room, but this isn't the standard spa soundtrack of water rippling over rocks. Colatruglio chose the Aboriginal-inspired album "Contact from the Underworld of Redboy" by Robbie Robertson, former member of The Band and a Canadian of Mohawk descent. The 1998 album is composed of Robertson's interpretation of Native American music and chants integrated with soft modern rock. The soft rhythms of the pow wow drums are the first element in the treatment's mellowing out process.
Sheathes of fragrant sweetgrass hang on the walls. Melnick explains: "First Nations teaching says that sweetgrass can raise a heavy heart, dispel negative thoughts and give strength to a dispirited person."
The olfactory sense is also treated to an intoxicating mix of pine, cedar and sage tea brewing. Guests are offered a glass before the treatment begins.
"Cedar is used for purification and to attract positive energy, and for balance," Melnick explains. "Sage is very soothing to the nerves. It's good for stomach troubles. It also said to offer strength, wisdom and clarity of purpose."
The sage used at Riverstone comes from the hotel's herb garden. "Sage grows everywhere in Manitoba," says Melnick. "We tried different sage but the white mounds growing out our back door was the best we found." They also experimented with pine from various places around the province until they found one with the best flavour.
An integral part of the ancient ceremony is the smudge—curls of smoke from a small wooden bowl filled with burning sage and sweat grass are fanned over the client's body and throughout the room with an eagle feather. The smudge is an ancient practice of ridding body and soul, and the room, of negative energy. The feather is a symbol of strength, and the one used in the treatment came from Thunderbird House. Spa director Colatruglio received the feather and offered bound tobacco in return, in keeping with tradition. She was deemed Keeper of the Feather.
When smudging, Melnick begins in the east "because that's where the sun rises and that gives us strength." Melnick notes that staff smudge the room every night before closing to clear it of negativity.
After the smudge, the client is asked to light a sage candle. "We want the guest to be involved as much as possible in treatment. We ask them to light it and then snuff it out at the end of the treatment. The candle signifies the beginning and the end of the treatment."
But it's the moment the smooth, hot stones stroke your skin that brings a sensation unmatched by a simple massage treatment. Riverstone uses traditional basalt, a black volcanic rock that absorbs and retains heat, and has been smoothed from years of river current rushing over them. A first set of stones are laid on various points of the body, starting with the sacral, the energy centre and along both sides of the spine, and along the chakra points, in a nod to eastern philosophy. Then comes the massage with more stones. Heat from the stones loosens the muscles, allowing the therapist to work the deeper muscle layers. And, of course, the heat allows the natural oils used to penetrate the skin faster. At this point you feel like you are floating on a weightless dreamscape. It's an incredible feeling of relaxation and calm.
The treatment ends with the wafting of a traditional rain stick, while clients wash their hands in a bowl of cedar and sage to further release any negativity, then snuff out the candle.
The Indigenous Stone Massage receives rave reviews. One client told Melnick they felt "more emotional release with this treatment than in any other." Another told him that after the treatment he went to his room and napped for six hours straight. "He said he never felt so relaxed, and so healed. Other guests say that nothing in the spa world sparks their imagination like this treatment," Melnick said. "And of course it gives more than a bit of local flare."
The balancing of relaxation and healing with heat. Does anything sound more heavenly?
Plan your Manitoba Getaway:
- Riverstone The Spa at The Forks: www.riverstonespa.ca
- Bannock Point Petroforms: www.gov.mb.ca/conservation/parks/popular_parks
- Circle of Life Thunderbird House: www.thunderbirdhouse.com
- The Forks Market: http: www.theforks.com
- The Forks National Historic Site: www.pc.gc.ca/eng/lhn-nhs/mb/forks/index.aspx