What is herbal poultice spa therapy?
Who can’t help but love these sweet little bundles of heated herbs that are pressed and pounded on your body to soothe and relieve muscle tightness? Since its beginnings in ancient India, the herbal poultice has travelled a long way. Today, you can enjoy various interpretations of this therapeutic treatment throughout Asia. Whether it’s in a temple or five-star spa, the gorgeous steaming poultice is something to be experienced.
Taking the heat
Healing with heat is not new. Most cultures use some form of heat in their traditional rituals, ceremonies and healing practices. In Australia, for example, Aboriginal smudge stick rituals involve burning bundles of specific herbs to cleanse a person, place or object of negative energies.
In ancient China, hot rocks were wrapped in bark and pressed on the body to relieve stress and muscular pain. In traditional Korea, warmed basalt rocks containing heat-retaining silica were wrapped in cotton fabric and placed on specific points of the body to eliminate blockages and reduce stress.
Then there’s crystal therapy, practised in Tibetan and Ayurvedic rituals, where heated crystals are placed on chakra points (energy centres of the body) to stimulate circulation. There are also the traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) practices of cupping and moxibustion to treat a variety of ailments via heat therapy. In massage, even the warmth of a therapist’s hands involves using heat to heal.
Turning up the heat further, the northern Europeans are well known for their love of the weekly sauna, while Native Americans celebrated the sweat lodge in ceremonial style, and the steam room is integral to the Turkish hamam (bath) culture.
But it’s the little herbal poultice, given as a stand-alone treatment or part of a massage, that is fast becoming a staple on spa menus today. The sensation of this heat therapy being pressed on your skin not only works to heal the body but can also induce immense calm.
Steaming it up
The herbal poultice is made by wrapping specific local herbs, flowers and plant extracts in natural cloth like a “dumpling” and heating it in a steamer for around 10 to 15 minutes or until the desired temperature is reached. The steaming process softens the compress and the aroma intensifies as the essential oils in the contents are released.
The therapist then takes the hot compress and presses it gently on various parts of the body. Movements contrast between a gentle touch, press and lift to vigorous pounding. The speed varies from slow and rhythmic to rapid. Sometimes two compresses are used alternately (the one temporarily not in use is put back in the steamer to maintain a consistent heat). It’s reported each session should not exceed more than 15 to 20 minutes and can be taken up to twice a day, preferably morning and evening.
Releasing toxins and tension
Like many of the healing treatments to be experienced across South-East Asia, the herbal poultice is believed to have its origins in the 5000-year-old Indian system of Ayurvedic medicine. Passed down through generations of travelling pilgrims and early traders, the poultice has travelled from India to Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, the Maldives and beyond.
According to Dr Thampi of Sereno Spa at Park Hyatt Goa Resort & Spa in India, the traditional Ayurvedic herbal poultice is classified under “swedana” (heating and sweating treatments) and is an integral part of traditional Ayurvedic treatment. Depending on the requirements and condition of the client, he says, the poultice is made with various herbal powders such as horse gram, rasna, nirgund, garlic, castor and dried ginger as well as the leaves of these herbal plants.
“Another ingredient that may be used is a special kind of rice called njavara, blended with milk and treated with herbs such as bala root powder,” Dr Thampi says, adding that according to the ancient Vedic texts, sometimes even animal meat was used in specific circumstances.
“Any heat treatment is usually considered a detoxifying therapy and is often given together with an oil massage to induce the heat and sweat that help eliminate toxins,” Dr Thampi explains, adding that deep penetrating treatments also help to release excess tension and muscular spasms.
The herbal poultice suggests that simplicity is best. A very easy treatment to create, these sweet little pouches have many health benefits: computer-induced tension, tight shoulders, lower back pain and neck pain are some of the complaints that can be treated with a little bit of poultice, as the benefits include reduced muscle contraction, relief of aching joints and increased blood circulation and energy. Reportedly, the poultice also helps stretch the connective tissues in the body.
When it’s given at the end of a massage, such as a traditional Thai massage, you’re bound to feel truly soothed, for then your body is already feeling relaxed, so the heat and herbs do wonders to deepen the experience. It’s a powerful way to mend the body and mind.
Spas around the globe have been positively influenced by the Ayurvedic herbal poultice. A lovely multicultural version is the Herbal Harmony poultice on the menu at CHI Spa Village at Shangri-La’s Mactan Island Resort & Spa in Cebu, The Philippines. A linen pouch of different herbs including lemongrass, turmeric, sandalwood, pandan leaf, lotus flowers, ylang-ylang, camphor and aloe vera is heated. During the treatment, the pouch is gently pressed and rolled on the body to primarily soothe tired muscles, increase circulation and bring fresh oxygen to the body.
The Laotian version of the poultice created by Ytsara, called Mohom — Indigo Healing Art, can be experienced at the new spa at La Residence Phou Vao in Luang Prabang, Laos. This one-and-a-half-hour experience incorporates the ancient healing art of Hmong shamans to help treat muscular aches and pains.
According to Ytsara, local herbs and plants were traditionally wrapped in indigo-coloured fabric and boiled in a clay pot filled with water and indigo plant. Indigo is said to be the spiritual colour of Eastern medicine and to enhance the detoxification process.
In the Ytsara interpretation, the local herb yaanang and lemongrass, cinnamon, Borneo camphor, plai and ginger are used in the treatment. The steaming compress is thoroughly pounded over the body before a deep-tissue massage is given using the palms, thumbs and elbows to loosen muscles and stimulate blood circulation. The treatment is especially beneficial after playing sport or doing hard physical work.
The herbal poultice is very much a part of traditional Malay culture. The Malay system of medicine was influenced by early traders from India, Arabia, Indonesia and China, so it seems fitting their herbal poultice is called campur-campur, meaning “a blend of varieties”.
According to Chik Lai Ping, Spa Division Manager of the Spa Village at Pangkor Laut Resort, Malaysia, the original Malay herbal poultice was often created using indigenous plants like lemongrass and pandan leaves and dates back to the 13th century to the early Malay kingdom of Langkasuka.
“At the Spa Village we’ve revived many of the ancient village recipes and re-created them in our spa environments, with one of the most popular being the campur-campur,” Lai Ping says. Here, the poultice is given with a Thai massage. After your body has been stretched and pulled into bliss, the therapist presses the steaming pouch filled with fragrant lemongrass and pandan leaves on various parts of your body, including the upper back, neck, shoulders and face.
According to Lai Ping, some of the long-term health benefits of campur-campur include increased blood circulation and lymphatic drainage, reduced joint pain and loosened tension in the muscles. And heating the herbs means they can more easily penetrate the skin, encouraging softening of the muscles and skin and an aromatherapeutic effect on the nervous system.
A great place to experience the herbal poultice is Wat Pho — the Temple of the Reclining Buddha — in Bangkok. In the past, this was the temple where monks were trained in Ayurvedic medicine and massage. They were the only people allowed to practise treatments and prescribe medicines for the people. Today, for an affordable few dollars, you can have a traditional Thai massage inside the temple walls. The massage has the option of a few minutes pounding with the herbal poultice. There is also a massage training school here and you’ll find that some of the best therapists in Thailand have trained at Wat Pho.
According to Florence Jaffre of Ytsara, the Thai version of the herbal poultice, known as the lukprakob, was originally used to treat wounded soldiers during Thailand’s Ayutthaya Period from the 14th to 18th centuries.
“It’s essentially a heat therapy deriving from Ayurveda,” she says. “The herbal poultice is applied along the sen lines, or energy lines, of the body, and according to Thai traditional medicine there are 10 sen lines in the body.” She lists some of the benefits as helping to stretch out the connective tissues, relieve aching joints and reduce muscle contraction.
Ytsara has created poultices for specific parts of the body such as the face, eyes and cranial area. Jaffre explains that in Thailand each poultice is heated through steaming or microwaving (in the modern version) and applied hot on the body and face. “The main ingredients include lemongrass, ginger, plai and camphor — all known for their stimulating effects,” she says. “For the eye area, we use bergamot, Java apple leaf, roselle, patchouli and geranium.
“The eye poultice helps to reduce bags and dark circles around the eyes and to stimulate blood circulation to this delicate area and rejuvenate it,” Jaffre explains. The cranial poultice, which is applied to the face, neck and shoulder area, provides a wonderful route for releasing muscle tension and stress. Ytsara’s Calming Poultice uses ingredients known for their soothing effects, such as vetiver and jasmine flowers.
In the Maldives, they too have their own interpretation of the poultice, which has evolved over hundreds of years of trading with nearby countries such as Sri Lanka, India and China.
At Per Aquum Resorts & Spas, managed by Australian couple Jane and Tom Quinn, they fill the poultices with sand collected from the surrounding atolls. “The sand poultices are made from fresh, white Maldivian sand from the sea, which is high in minerals like magnesium and potassium that feed our nerve endings,” Jane says. “Then the poultice is steamed in seawater to enhance the healing properties, with the sea crystals helping to lower body temperature.” She says the combination of heat and minerals applied all over the body has an all-over relaxing effect.
Many of the herbs used are imported from Thailand, including plai for easing muscle tension, camphor for skin vitality and refreshment, kaffir lime for ridding the skin of toxins, and turmeric to soothe and moisturise.
“Each poultice is steamed to help release the active ingredients and to allow for better absorption of them,” Jane says. “This treatment complements the traditional Maldivian sand massage where people were scrubbed and massaged at the water’s edge using sand — an excellent natural exfoliant.”
The Maldives is not the only place where heated sand is used for the poultice treatment. For example, at The Ritz-Carlton Resort & Spa in Jimbaran, Bali, the tradition of using elements from the surrounding environment to heal continues. Here, the Hot Sand and Herbal Steam Massage combines therapeutic acupressure, shiatsu and deep-tissue massage with the application of small pouches filled with hot sand on the chakra points to further energise and stimulate circulation.
An Australian version?
In Australia, the revival of heat therapy can be experienced at various spas, but as yet there is no Aussie version of the steaming poultice. Hot stone therapy and crystal therapy, reported to increase circulation and improve blood flow, are fast becoming popular. Perhaps in the not-too-distant future we’ll also see herbal pouches filled with local plants like lemon myrtle and tea-tree.
Where to experience the steaming poultice
- India: Sereno Spa, Park Hyatt Goa Resort & Spa http://goa.park.hyatt.com
- Indonesia (Bali): The Ritz-Carlton Resort & Spa, Jimbaran www.ritzcarlton.com
- Laos: Spa at La Residence Phou Vao, Luang Prabang www.ytsara.com
- Malaysia: Spa Village, Pangkor Laut Resort www.pangkorlaut.com
- The Maldives: Per Aquum Resorts & Spas www.peraquum.com
- The Philippines: CHI Spa, Shangri-La’s Mactan Island Resort & Spa, Cebu www.shangri-la.com
- Thailand: Wat Pho temple, Bangkok www.watpho.com
- Various locations: Six Senses Spas, www.sixsenses.com
Judy Chapman is the author of three books on spas and wellbeing and the former Editor-in-Chief of Spa Asia magazine. For the past five years she has been exploring the spas of the world with pilgrims through the onsens of Japan, the Himalayas and Ayurveda spas across India and Sri Lanka. Her upcoming book, Ultimate Spa, is about the origins of Asian spa treatments.