July 8, 2009
Tikkun Gives a Jewish Treatment to the Korean Spa
[VIDEO REPORT BELOW]
Tikkun Holistic Spa is probably one of the few Korean spas in the Los Angeles area where the receptionist greets clients without a Korean accent. Founder Niki Schwarz wanted to make sure non-Koreans who walk through the door (after taking an elevator to the basement) encounter no struggle in their quest for the perfect day of rest.
Jews especially. They’ve struggled enough. And sometimes their ritual day of rest, Shabbat, may not suffice to rejuvenate their performance of Judaism’s greatest mitzvah: tikkun olam, repairing the world.
Tikkun, which opened in May on the grounds of a former Burke Williams Spa in Santa Monica, approaches massages, body scrubs and detoxification treatments like they’re sacred commandments. According to Schwarz, a Korean American who converted to Judaism, Jews and non-Jews alike cannot heal the world if they don’t heal themselves.
“It’s about kabbalah,” she said, referring to the name for Jewish mysticism, which means “receiving” in Hebrew. “You’re here to receive and to receive for yourself, so hopefully you can go out and give. And there’s no way you can go out and give if you don’t receive.”
The concept of tikkun olam inspired her when she set out to study Judaism, first at The Kabbalah Centre (before Madonna made it the sanctuary of the trendy) and later at the American Jewish University. Schwarz believes it’s the people charged with tikkun olam who may need spas the most.
“I think the Jewish people — their histories of always being attacked, always having to give, always having to sacrifice — I really believe the Jewish people have a hard time receiving,” Schwarz said.
Born Soonmi Han in Seoul, Korea (Soonmi means “pure beauty” in Korean, and Han signifies yichus, or lineage, from the Chinese Han dynasty), Schwarz immigrated to America with her Christian Korean family at age 5. Although she long felt Jewish in her heart, she formally converted upon meeting her beshert (destined one), and second Jewish husband, Charles Schwarz, who runs Tikkun Holistic Medical Center in Torrance, the umbrella organization that includes the spa.
When they met in 2003, Niki was a real estate agent by profession and a reiki master by hobby. Charles was a nice Jewish doctor (orthopedic surgeon, to be exact) looking to buy a condo. At their first meeting, she touched him — literally — sampling for him reiki, the Japanese practice of healing by transferring “life force energy” through the hands. About two weeks later, they finalized the deal for his condo (where they currently live with their children, ages 2 and 4), a process Charles purposefully delayed so he could continue to see her, and not just for reiki.
“From the day we met we spent so much time together it was unbelievable,” said Charles, the son of Holocaust survivors. “We were talking about spiritual things; not religious, but about how you think about life and what life is about.”
As members of Sinai Temple, both believe it’s their responsibility as “Chosen People” to heal others, and with the signing of their ketubah came not just a second marriage for each but also the marriage of Eastern and Western healing traditions. Together they constructed the Tikkun Holistic Medical Center and Spa, envisioning a one-stop shop for the holistic diagnosis, treatment and prevention of illness using conventional and natural approaches.
“I came to the conclusion over my years of practice that there’s not just one way,” Charles said. “The Western philosophy is kind of very scientific. I don’t go totally away from that because I have that training, but my concern has been to combine the best of all that has been offered.”
The center in Torrance employs a naturopathic doctor, an acupuncturist and a nutritionist, and refers clients to the spa for massages and beauty treatments — doctor’s orders. As a marathon runner, Charles would get massages on occasion, but Niki introduced him to the wonders of Korean spas by taking him to one on their first date.
She had always dreamed of creating a wellness center, and her personal tikkun olam involved repairing what bothered her about Korean spas in Koreatown.
“Korean spas are my favorite spas in the world, but there are so many things I disliked about Korean spas. Like when you’re getting a massage, the Korean ladies will talk to each other. They give out keys and they call out ‘No. 2, No 2’ and people are trying to rest,” Niki said.
Spas are a Korean pastime, first developed as public bathhouses. The traditional Korean spa is equipped with heated, herb-infused pools; heated rooms coated in mineral stones; saunas and steam rooms; wet massage stations for Korean massages and body scrubs; and a long washing basin where Koreans can bond by exfoliating one another. (For tourists in Korea, Niki recommends ditching a hotel and staying at a spa. She says that some are built as multiplexes, open 24/7.)
More like a boutique Korean spa, Tikkun is distinguished by its American-style customer service (“Hello” and “Have a great day!”); certified therapists handpicked as “healers”; a modern, aesthetic design constructed with input from feng shui masters; the use of organic products; a surround-sound system showering Zen music in every clean corner; and private stations for Korean scrubs provided by bona fide Korean therapists.
A narrow corridor is lined with three mineral rooms (Chinese jade, Korean hwangto [yellow clay] and Himalayan salt) that are heated using advanced far-infrared technology. In lieu of a cold plunge used to cool off between dips, Tikkun has installed an air-conditioned “ice room” — thermostat set at 62 degrees — a tepid alternative.
Unlike its Koreatown counterparts, the heated mineral rooms are coed, for better or worse. Tikkun is ideal for couples. After a massage in the couples’ suite (which is like a spa within a spa), they can turn on the heat by detoxifying together in the dim light, but individuals may prefer a mechitzah (separation) to schvitz (sweat) and meditate in the nude. Niki seems to have preserved modesty with religious intention, having imported from Korea cotton short and top sets that resemble potato sacks.
Tikkun doesn’t offer any particular Jewish treatment — if one even exists — unless the aromatic green tea pool in the women’s locker area counts as a mikveh (ritual bath). The spa operates on a universalistic approach to healing, offering the gamut from Swedish to Chinese jade-stone massages. To add Israel to the mix, Schwarz is looking to import Dead Sea products.
Then there’s Tikkun massage therapist Wesley Sen, a Hawaiian native ordained by Polynesian royalty in the healing art of lomilomi. He begins each ancient Polynesian massage treatment with a prayer in Hawaiian invoking the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob — a tradition he traces back to the lost tribes of Israel who are believed to have settled in Polynesia by way of the South Pacific.
“The theme of tikkun olam is so important because without the foundation there is no true healing,” said Sen, a Christian lover of Israel who feels blessed to work in a Jewish-owned spa.
It’s hard not to feel a shift in mood and energy after spending the day at Tikkun, and those who don’t buy into the mystical explanations can turn to Dr. Charles Schwarz for the scientific ones.
“Most massages are good for lymphatic drainage, help with circulation and stimulate chemicals in your body to help you relax,” he said. “All that puts you back in balance.”
Far-infrared heat is a healthier alternative to saunas for inducing sweating, a common form of detoxification, he said. He added that the Himalayan salt room generates the kind of negatively charged atmosphere (i.e., replete with negative ions) found at a natural getaway, like the beach or mountains.
“The contact of the body with the outside world is basically through skin and lungs, so those negative ions will make your skin better, help with your respiratory problems and will also act as an antibiotic and help your lungs stay healthy,” he said.
All it takes to “receive” at Tikkun is anywhere from $65 for a half-hour Swedish massage to $295 for the 2 1/2-hour “Jade Spa Journey,” standard prices for a spa of this caliber. And for anyone who leaves the spa wanting more, the beach down the street is free.
Tikkun Holistic Spa is located at 1460 Fourth St., Santa Monica. For more information, call (310) 319-1111 or visit www.tikkunspa.com.