Spa: A Comprehensive Introduction

The modern spa era saw spas shift from their ancient medical and spiritual emphasis to today’s corporate model that primarily focuses on beauty, fitness, and wellness. While wellness and relaxation have always been the cornerstones of a spa’s holistic experience, the historical European model had come to emphasize taking the waters and retreating to pastoral and natural setting for weeks and even months at a time. Food was luxurious and abundant, and doctors routinely recommended spas as a way to cleanse and heal the body away from the rigors of everyday urban life.

Spa: A Comprehensive Introduction | Chapter 1.1 | Philosophy of Spa

Philosophy of Spa

Philosophy is often considered a foundation upon which people build their knowledge and belief structures. The Greek word for philosophy translates to “love of wisdom.” It is appropriate then, that this text begins its exploration of spa by delving beyond the business models and types of treatments to take a close look at the wisdom and “why” of spa philosophy encompasses the deeper meaning and sacred significance of spa.

Spa: A Comprehensive Introduction | Chapter 1.2 | Defining Spa

Defining Spa

Most of the world begins its definition of spa with water. Without water, most say, there is no spa. The original spas—mineral springs and hot springs—have been a part of relaxation and healing in many cultures for millennia. Towns with hot springs grew into popular destinations for holiday retreats.

Spa: A Comprehensive Introduction | Chapter 1.3 | Variations of Spa

Variations of Spa

There are many approaches to spa throughout the world and each spa provides services according to its own unique vision and mission. As the number of spa locations increased dramatically during the 1990s and into this century, classifications became necessary to categorize the array of spa experiences being offered in the market.

Spa: A Comprehensive Introduction | Chapter 1.4 | Spa-Goers


When spa-goers talk about spa, the language they use includes such words as:

  • Stress-free
  • Get-away
  • Fun
  • Pampering
  • Serene
  • Calming
  • Tranquility
  • Peaceful
  • Nurturing
  • Holistic

These images and associations create exceedingly high expectations among guests for their visits to spas. They expect from spas deep gratification, or something close to it. Their high expectations derive, in part, from the way the word “spa” stands in their minds as a symbolic promise of unusually meaningful and pleasurable life experiences.

Spa: A Comprehensive Introduction | Chapter 1.5 | Interpretation of Spa

Interpretation of Spa

While spa professionals can research those using spas, people will continue to approach the spa world with their own interpretations. Individuals will come to spas with different needs and receive different benefits. Spas will offer a variety of services and build their mission around those needs they can best meet.

Spa: A Comprehensive Introduction | Chapter 1.6 | Business and Philosophy of Spa Working in Harmony

Business and Philosophy of Spa Working in Harmony

While spas are about healing people, they are also businesses that can survive to do good work only if financially stable and operating on a sound business model. Spa professionals have the challenge of ensuring that they operate as a business while staying true to the mission of spa.

Just as spas teach balance to their guests, they themselves must practice balance by keeping the business and philosophy working in harmony. Spas exist to put other people first and care for them. It is a service to humanity that goes beyond profit and spa professionals must enjoy doing it to be successful.

How does a spa go about keeping its “spa-ness” without becoming simply a retail provider of services? It begins with spa professionals. Spa professionals have to believe in and be connected to the spa concept and the spa experience. Business development begins with personal development. They also have to have sincere conversations with their guests and find out what their guests need and desire.

Spa: A Comprehensive Introduction | Chapter 1.7 | Expression and Emotional Responses

Expression and Emotional Responses

One spa professional described the spa experience as a chance to “go in good and come out better.” Guests who go to spas want to do work and accomplish something, but someone else has to do it for them. They go to a spa and connect with the therapist or the technician to receive the service.

Spa: A Comprehensive Introduction | Chapter 1.8 | Value of Spa

Value of Spa

Spas have survived and thrived throughout history because of the value they offer to individuals and society. They have blazed the trail of whole body wellness by caring for the body, mind, and spirit. They have explored methods of healing and relaxation that appeal to the whole person.

Spa: A Comprehensive Introduction | Chapter 2.1 | The Origin of Spa – Water

A History of Spa and Spa Cultures

Much of the content of this chapter was provided by spa historian Jonathan Paul de Vierville, Ph.D., LCSW-ACP, LPC, TRMT, professor of history and humanities, St. Philips College, San Antonio, Texas; director of the Alamo Plaza Spa at the Menger Hotel; and founder of the Hot Wells Institute. The authors gratefully acknowledge his expertise and insight.

While many people may think of spas as a modern development of the Western world, the essentials of spa have their roots in human history as far back as the beginning of time. People have always sought out the places where water springs from the earth in order to experience water’s healing properties and restorative qualities. Other aspects of spa, in particular the human touch of massage and the use of natural ingredients like mud, seaweed, herbs, and plant oils, have also been used in many civilizations over the centuries. By studying the roots of spa cultures and traditions throughout history, spa professionals can better understand and appreciate the richness of the modern spa environment in which they live and work.

This chapter explores the origins of spa and spa practices from antiquity through the middle of the twentieth century, which many spa historians identify as the beginning of the modern, or contemporary, spa era.         

Spa: A Comprehensive Introduction | Chapter 2.2 | The First Civilizations

The First Civilizations

Along with nomadic Stone Age and Bronze Age societies, the earliest civilizations in Mesopotamia, Egypt, India, Crete, and China all used water for religious rituals as well as individual and social healing rites. The earliest written sources of history include accounts of the sick using purification baths in healing waters along with drinking from medicinal fountains. Within ancient springs, wells, and stone bath works, archeologists have found votive tablets and sculptures along with an abundance of artifacts that evidence wide use of the waters for health, regenerative, curative, and therapeutic practices. With all this evidence, scholars have gained an impression of ancient spa cultures and their different types, forms, and methods of purification baths and ritual bathing.

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