Spa Treatments Are Going Virtual

Virtual reality is the hottest new way to relax

Illustration: Jon Han

The first time Ralonda Dittmar went to Esqapes Immersive Relaxation, a new virtual reality spa, she was so relaxed exploring a beautiful garden, so captivated by the vivid imagery of rippling water and swaying branches, she thought that her 30-minute experience lasted for hours.

Dittmar, 48, had been stressed with work and constant travel, and needed some time for herself. So she drove to a nondescript office building in Los Angeles, chose her virtual world, and settled into a state-of-the-art massage chair for a full-body massage. The experience led her through a series of deep breathing exercises, and then left her to explore the “Asian palace garden” above a babbling brook. (She also fell into the best sleep she’d had in a long time.) “It really is an escape,” Dittmar says. “It was a mini-vacation.”

Esqapes, which opened in July 2019, is part of a new trend in wellness: virtual reality as a tool for deeper relaxation. There’s also Relax VR, which sells spas special virtual reality (VR) headsets preloaded with calming landscapes and guided meditations. Mindful Touch, from the Barcelona-based Natura Bisse, offers personalized VR spa experiences that encourage “thoughtful awareness.” Sure, it’s a play for tech-obsessed millennials, but is it more than just a gimmick? Can virtual reality actually help foster deeper mental wellness?

Credit: Esqapes

The virtual reality spa experience functions like a choose your own adventure. At Esqapes, customers have the choice of 11 different “experiences,” ranging from a beach on the Mediterranean to a cozy cabin with a crackling fire to a tropical retreat on the edge of a koi pond. As clients settle into a massage chair and put on the virtual reality headset, they’re led through deep breathing exercises. The world they’ve chosen appears lifelike in front of them. Birds fly past, palm trees sway gently in the wind, water ripples. A heat lamp is triggered in the tropical environments, simulating the warmth of the sun, and electric fans mimic a cool breeze. Each scenario also has specific scents — lavender, eucalyptus, cardamom — that an aromatherapy diffuser puffs out into the room. All the while, the chair gives them a full-body massage.

It’s all designed to make the client forget they’re in an office park in West Los Angeles and truly relax. “Your focus, hopefully, is on the environment and just kind of releasing and letting go,” says the company’s founder, Micah Jackson, a former game producer at Disney who has worked in virtual reality for the past three years.

Each session lasts for 30 minutes, and costs $45. Jackson says he designed the experience to be a more affordable and accessible way to fit relaxation into the day. Unlike a traditional massage, clients can stay in their clothes, and don’t need to shower to get any oils out of their hair. “It’s something that they can go to on a lunch hour, or before they go to pick up their kids,” he says, “and really feel like they’re getting away, clearing their head, refreshing.”

Plus, he says, virtual reality allows for deeper relaxation versus a traditional massage. “When you’re in the VR world, your mind isn’t thinking about whatever it is you might think about when you’re getting a regular massage,” Jackson explains. You explore the butterflies floating past or watch the pink glow of the sunset on a sandy beach rather than thinking up a to-do list for later. “It gives your mind something else to focus on.”

“The most important thing in this approach is to create the sense of being there. The user really has the feeling that they are at this beautiful beach, and the emotion is much more intense.”

Complete immersion is also the goal at the San Francisco-based Relax VR, which sells its virtual reality programs to existing spas. The company, which launched in 2016, uses special headsets that lead clients through guided meditations and breathing exercises while they explore fields of flowers, calm beaches, or even the dance of the northern lights. Most spas combine the experience with another treatment, like a foot massage, though some offer it as a stand-alone service.

The company’s founder, Sourabh Jain, has a background in yoga and meditation. When he tried a VR experience where he was underwater on an abandoned ship on the ocean floor, he realized the potential for relaxation. “After a few seconds, a huge blue whale swam past me out of nowhere and I immediately froze, awestruck,” he says. “The immersiveness of that experience convinced me of the power of VR, and I immediately began thinking about how I could use its power in my work with helping people relax.”

Credit: Esqapes

Ivan Alsina Jurnet, Relax VR’s chief scientific officer, argues that virtual reality is a far better tool for relaxation than one’s imagination. “The most important thing in this approach is to create the sense of being there,” says Jurnet, a psychologist and researcher who has studied virtual reality and mental health for nearly two decades. “The user really has the feeling that they are at this beautiful beach, and the emotion is much more intense.”

Part of the company’s marketing pitch to spas, which also includes differentiating from the competition and minimizing payroll costs, is that digital-obsessed millennials will love the new technology. After all, the generation that snaps up the latest iPhone and wholeheartedly embraces self-care seems like the perfect target for the latest wellness trend.

The last few years have seen wellness products burst onto the scene — and then fade just as quickly. (Remember nap pods?) But Jurnet insists that VR isn’t a gimmick. He points to a growing body of research linking virtual reality to anxiety and stress reduction, as well as deeper relaxation. Earlier this year, researchers at Harvard and the University of Southern California reviewed existing studies on virtual reality and mental wellness in the journal Mental Health and Family Medicine. Their findings suggested that “in many cases, VR has been effective in improving various attributes of mental wellness in a variety of samples.” The quality of the technology (that is, how realistic the virtual world actually is) played a role in its effectiveness, the researchers wrote. They also noted that more studies are needed.

Relax VR has conducted several small pilot studies of its technology. One such study, done in partnership with a university in Spain, found that the company’s technology significantly reduced the levels of anxiety and negative emotions in people who used it. Jurnet says the study shows that virtual reality paired with guided meditation is a promising approach to stress management. However, the study only looked at 30 people. Other studies are similarly tiny. An unpublished study of just 62 people, from a university in Argentina, found that Relax VR’s program significantly increased pain tolerance among people who watched it while immersing their hands in ice water. The studies are too small to make definitive links between virtual reality and better health, but Jurnet says the company is currently in the process of conducting larger studies.

Credit: Esqapes

Dr. Judson Brewer, the director of research and innovation at Brown University’s Mindfulness Center, says that while he supports anything that helps people calm down, without better data, he’s skeptical of the technology’s potential for real results. For virtual reality to be an effective tool for mental well-being, he says, it needs to be more than just a salve for what’s causing the stress and anxiety in the first place. “If you just put a Band-Aid on something without cleaning up the wound,” he says, “it’s going to get infected, and it will get worse.”

He also adds that spending too much time away from reality — daydreaming, surfing the internet, watching YouTube videos — is detrimental to overall well-being. And while virtual reality can seem extremely lifelike, it still isn’t real. “There’s been pretty good studies showing that people, the more they’re daydreaming, the less happy they are as compared to just paying attention to what’s actually happening.”

More research is needed on virtual reality in the spa setting specifically, and whether that’s really possible on a larger scale. But for Dittmar, at least, the effects of Esqapes extend far beyond the 30-minute experience, helping her learn to de-stress on her own. “Those times when I am going, going, going, I go back to that memory, that visual screen, and I just start doing a breathing exercise,” she says. “I carry some of the things that I experienced and saw and learned into what I do now.”

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