Temple of the body

Shed your skin and your inhibitions at Olympus Women's Health Club, where cleanliness is next to godliness.

EBR: We were goddesses-in-the-rough, willing to withstand whatever obstacles and elements were cast before us (car trouble, rain-slicked roads) by angry gods and jealous coworkers. Ours was the quest for eternal beauty, peace of mind, and, it goes without saying, the skin of the just-born. We followed the oracles, past the Tacoma Dome to the mighty Way of Tacoma, where the city of Lakewood stands amid car dealerships and Korean restaurants. Two red beacons and a left turn later, we stood before the palace itself: Olympus Women's Health Club. An innocuous structure, but once within its doors we quickly became keepers of its liquid knowledge, the secrets women share in hushed tones over Cosmopolitans. What we found has changed us, for we have experienced the watery rites, the shedding of epidermises, and the bliss of uninhibited nudity. And like Venuses on the half shell, we emerged shiny, calm, and without malice for the dead car battery that awaited us in the parking lot.

We began our odyssey on a Wednesday morning. The four-year-old, Korean-run club had just opened for the day, and my companion and I were taken around the facility's every corner. Warm tiles met our bare feet and opened doors revealed a locker room, the hydrotherapy pool room, the massage/mud wrap waiting room, and several infrared-heated "earth-energy" rooms lined with salt, mud, and stone. But for the padding of careful steps, the jingle of locker keys, and the rush of cascading water, a templelike silence pervaded.

For a mere $15 entry fee, supplicants at Olympus have unlimited use of the hydrotherapy pools and heated rooms. Which is a substantial amount of activity, we soon realized. With body scrubs scheduled for less than an hour after our arrival, we'd be hard-pressed to strip, shower, don the ritual pink-and-white-striped cotton shower caps, and take full advantage of the various pools and steam/sauna rooms. Not being particularly adept at nudity, I changed when my companion went to the rest room. When she returned, I was safely wrapped in a towel. At the point of no return, we entered the pool room. All heads turned, as if in amazement that I had a towel around my body.

Several women soaked in the four pools (ranging in temperature from 60 to 104 degrees); no one looked as if she'd been yanked off a runway somewhere, no one was perfect, and no one cared about the last time I went running or ate a Big Mac. Hey, we're all goddesses-in-training; nothing to be ashamed of, right? We put our towels in cubbies marked with our locker numbers and made the painful, three-yard walk to the nearest pools, 90-100 degrees and both narrow enough for solo soaking. Numb with embarrassment, I strode to the ladder and pulled myself in quickly. Not bad. I scampered across the room, to the pool with the inviting waterfall.

Damn, that's cold! I had thought this would be the warmer, more frolicksome option. Nope, that'd be the 60-degree one, so we passed the mugwort well (a trough filled with herbal water that you can pour over your body for supposed circulatory and skin-softening benefits) en route to 104 degrees of lapping, whirling, churning water. At this point, we were two of perhaps six or seven pink caps sticking up from different pools. We talked about work, water, and made obligatory exclamations of how great we felt. I began to ruminate on the inconvenience of clothing—the hassle of daily wardrobe selection, the unending loads of laundry in my future.

BJC: From the amniotic pools, we headed into the herbal steam sauna preparatory to our body scrub. Enveloped in fragrant steam (Mugwort? Cedar? It was like being suspended in a cloud above a giant cup of tea), I instantaneously began to perspire vigorously. My companion was approximately four feet from me and I could barely make her out. "Is it OK if I don't stay in here?" I asked the steam. I didn't want to flaunt some important Olympian protocol, but what some call sweating out toxins, I call fainting.

We emerge to be ushered into the Temple of Scrub. A sign on the wall lists the names of the "Excellent Scrubbers" and ours come forth to claim us; they're dressed in hip black bicycling-style shorts and black tank tops. The room is tiled and many-fauceted; with cushy-topped, waist-high tables, it's like an operating room for the near-terminally unclean.

Each of us is placed like an odalisque atop one of the table/altars, and the scrubbing commences. One might expect a gentle, scented buffing, a sort of "wash me and take me to the sultan" kind of thing, but this is serious scouring. My Excellent Scrubber has a mitt covered with the kind of surface you might use to clean your pots, and she pins down my various limbs and has at me like I'm a very dirty pan indeed. It's brisk, not to say rough; I feel pleasantly like a piece of furniture that's being refinished, or like a child being subjected to mom's affectionate but dead-serious washcloth. I sneak a look around and realize we're being scrubbed with regular yellow Dial soap. My ankles seem to be meriting special attention. A massage after this would certainly seem redundant.

The energetic washing ceases momentarily and my eyes open to see my scrubber pouring an enormous bowl of water over me. Everything is the perfect temperature, air, water, table, and I am getting new skin, a fact that is made truly apparent a few moments later when my scrubber calls my attention to the disgusting little rolls of dead skin she is abrading off my arm.

Is it possible to scrub off a tan? If so, it is happening to me, and it feels like luxury incarnate. That evening, someone will actually touch my skin and, with no knowledge of my Olympus sojourn, say, "You seem softer. Are you softer?"

EBR: It's dark, quiet, and I can't move a muscle. After that dermal workout, I am a prisoner of my own vanities, trapped in the swaddling clothes of an Egyptian king or an Inuit baby. I am having a mud wrap. A friendly masseuse slathered a layer of warm mud all over me, and, to add to my bewilderment of being so suddenly dirty and naked after becoming so clean and naked, she wrapped me in what I can only guess is an industrial-size roll of Saran Wrap, then again in a canvas body-straitjacket that hooked shut, then several thick, wool blankets, and left me alone, with only my head exposed. As she closed the door to the half-dark room filled with a repetitive New Age soundtrack, she said, "I hope you're not claustrophobic!"

Help me. Somebody. I can't move anything. I am a woolly mammoth, a body bag, a mummy. The clock, which I can read upside down on the wall above me, says that I have to be like this for another 25 minutes. I listen to the ticking second hand and I think I am hyperventilating. The blankets are all the way up to my neck; I am drowning in wool. Heat. Thick, scratchy heat. Help me.

Ah, to be unpeeled like fruit leather. I catch stares when I enter the pool room to rinse the green mud off. The shame of nakedness, of dirt. It doesn't get much more organic than this. Women sit in a row on tiny plastic stools, washing their hair and scrubbing each other's backs. The room has become crowded. I return to the masseuse, who drapes blankets over me and commences foot reflexology, the art of locating and manipulating pressure points that correspond with major organs. It hurts like razors, piercing darts of pain from my ankle to my toes. My kidneys and liver must be on the verge of shutting down. I wince when my feet cramp uncontrollably, and wince even more when the spaces between my foot bones feel like they're going to crack under the pressure. But I am glad to be covered, and I'm actually looking forward to clothing.

BJC: To finish off my spa-ing, I had selected a paraffin feet treatment, mostly because I couldn't imagine what it might entail. Come to find out it's the warmest, loveliest thing for those of us whose feet are intractably freezing at all times. Lotion is massaged into my happy feet, and at one point the foot-paraffin woman hits a nerve in something like a Dr. Spock neck hold: I slump involuntarily in my chair, totally, weirdly relaxed. Each paw is then dipped three ritualistic times in just-below-too-hot molten wax, then swathed in plastic and stuck into what seem to be special potholders for the feet. I am left to contemplate my feet's new good fortune for a bit, then foot-woman comes back and easily peels the wax coat off. Voila—bathed, steamed, scrubbed, wrapped, dipped, I am a new woman. Hear me roar.

I pad around a room with a heated marble floor on my new feet, reading about the different heated rooms, which according to the articles posted on the wall represent the apex of some arcane science of total well-being. Skepticism seems the only appropriate response, but then lying around in a warm room can't be bad for you, can it?

My companion appears and we head into Olympus' restaurant, a Spartan room where delicious pot stickers and a barbecued pork dish that is wonderfully close to being a plate of bacon in yummy sauce are presented to us. But the best thing is four or five little dishes of savory, pretty salads, spicy with vinegar and each with a special taste and texture. We try to share politely until we just confess our favorites (luckily not the same) and have at it.

We emerge so relaxed that we don't even care that our car's battery is dead; we just slump like happy, well-pampered goddesses in its warm interior and wait for AAA. Sure, we'll be late, but who cares? We may not have the sense to turn our headlights off, but we are clean and new and ready to float back up I-5 into the real world. *

Olympus Women's Health Club is located at 8615 S Tacoma Wy, Lakewood, 253-588-3355. Mon-Thu 9am-10pm, Fri-Sat 9am-2pm. Closed Sun. www.olympusspa.com

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