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[whitespace] Man With Needles Photograph by Anthony Pidgeon


I of the Needle

Seeking bliss, I was massaged for hours. I stretched my limbs with yoga. I floated in an isolation tank. It was torture.

By Dann McDorman

I'm coming off my trial period as a New Age convert and I can't believe the things I've done. I've chatted amiably as a stranger rubbed hot oil onto my buttocks. I've allowed a novice to insert needles into my flesh. I've been jerked out of meditation by a prayer bell. I've floated naked in 800 pounds of dissolved salt. As Keanu might say, "Whoa."

The way this ordeal began is that I've always thought there are certain things about California that an outsider (even one who's lived here several years) should steadfastly refuse to accept. I'm talking pineapple on pizza. Sentences beginning with "Dude." And most especially, anything that even remotely smacks of New Age healing or "holistic" therapies.

But recently I started to wonder if I was being intolerant or close-minded. I wondered if I wasn't giving these dreamy holistic types a fair shake. I wondered, in short, if I was being a jerk.

So I decided to spend some time living life as a New Age believer. I hit the road to find the best and the brightest alternative healing that the Bay Area has to offer, visiting two spas, a yoga studio, a sensory deprivation tank and (most frighteningly) an acupuncturist-in-training. In every case, I was coming at the experience completely fresh, starry-eyed, a New Age virgin. I attempted to be as receptive as possible to new ideas, new ways of thinking. I tried to put my Bullshit Meter on low. I did my best to accept that maybe--just maybe--there's more to life than what you can glean from an X-ray machine or an EKG. The results, quite honestly, freaked me out. Dude.

Hey, hey, I'm a Monkey

MY FIRST FORAY into the brave new (for me) world of New Age health is a yoga class at Tim Thompson's Monkey Yoga Shala in Oakland. Tim is a longhaired guy with the thin, taut musculature of a young Chuck Norris. Before class begins I introduce myself, warning him that I'm a total newbie.

"Then we'll start you off like all newbies," Tim says. "Do some pull-ups. As many as you can." He indicates a bar dismayingly high overhead, maybe 8 feet off the floor. This doesn't seem right. I want to explain to Tim that, no, there seems to be some mistake; I'm here for the relaxed breathing, the slight stretching and the faux exercise, the saying of "Om."

"Come on," Tim grins. He already has the air of a drill instructor about him. I jump up and manage five measly reps by myself, and maybe another 20 when Tim places his hands under my feet for support. He nods approval and I release my grip. My chest is heaving; my biceps are trembling like the spindly legs of a newborn colt. Is this yoga or basic training?

For the next hour and 45 minutes, I endure some of the most exhilarating, gut-wrenching, hernia-inducing exercises I've ever been exposed to. I had yoga all wrong: this is a workout. It's hard. It hurts. Except for the man next to me who's about 6 feet 4 inches and 220 pounds, I'm easily the least flexible person in class. When Tim says, "Elevate your feet and hold them steady in the air," mine are the ones that hit the mat first. When Tim says, "Find two classmates and have them pull you apart in an inverted crab," my eyes nearly pop out from the strain. When Tim says, "Twist your palms and slide them through your legs and behind your back" in a way certain to snap my elbows like twigs, I look around in disbelief. Tim notices immediately.

"Dann," he says, not unkindly, "if you can't do it, don't." Good advice.

My large neighbor seems to nearly pass out and has to leave the room for some air. The woman on my other side farts, once. I pretend not to notice. It gets so steamy in the room that my glasses start to fog up. At some point, Tim asks us to put our hands together in prayer fashion and we say "Om," followed by a bunch more words that I don't understand, ending with "Om" again. I begin to feel part of the class, like I belong. There's a solidarity in doing this. Making a noise together, deep and impressive. Om. I think of the part in Close Encounters where thousands of Hindus intone the sounds--messages--from space. I think of a line from DeLillo (Mao II): "The future belongs to crowds." There's something comforting and worrisome in this, hearing your voice swallowed by others. Om.

The latter part of the class is the warm-down, the less arduous stretching, the closed eyes and the deep breathing. This is the point when we're all at our most vulnerable, most open to suggestion. This is when the New Age stuff kicks in.

"Now you see how pleasant death is," Tim tells us as we lie on our mats, breathing. "Life is full of pain, the pain you're feeling now. Death is rest."

And: "Pull from your root chakra. The base of everything, all your energy."

And: "If you feel weak, exhausted, that's OK. Only when you're weak do you begin to gain strength."

It still sounds like bullshit to me, but I'm so tired I don't mind the chakra talk at all. When I emerge into the cool night air, I'm feeling good, refreshed, exhausted. The edges of the evening are crisp and distinct. At the supermarket, I buy five bananas, three plums, three peaches and a full-size Gatorade. That night, I sleep like a baby.

Soft, Oily, Loose

THE NEXT ADVENTURE is at the Claremont Resort & Spa, a gleaming white chateau rising out of the Berkeley hills like the site of an Agatha Christie murder. It's consistently voted one of the best urban spas in the country. Clint Eastwood, Al Pacino and Bette Midler are among the celebs who drop by for scrubs and massages and other such treatments. I'm scheduled for something called the "Rebalancer." I'm not sure what it is, but it seems to involve the phrase "essential oils." And herbs. Can't forget the herbs. "Herbs and essential oils."

As I drive up I see important-seeming, incredibly well-tanned men in casual suits hop out of luxury cars and toss their keys to the valet. Up on the balcony, couples in matching white sweaters link their arms around each other's waists and gaze contentedly at the sunset like it's a private screening. All around me, I sense, are the Beautiful People. If they're not naturally beautiful, then money has made them so. That's what money is for. To take the plain and make it beautiful.

The receptionist at the spa desk asks me to fill out an introductory survey, sort of like the thing bad dating services use to find you a compatible mate. PHYSICAL FRAME. I confidently tick off medium, well proportioned. MIND. Definitely intelligent, sharp, focused. ELIMINATION ... excuse me? That's right, ELIMINATION. Dry, hard, constipation? No, I wouldn't say that, precisely ... thick, oily, heavy, slow? Er, not that either. I can't believe I'm debating this. I can't believe I'm going to hand over this confession to a stranger. I eventually mark soft, oily, loose, based on that morning. Just what the hell do they need that information for? What, exactly, is the Rebalancer?

The men's and women's lockers are split up, like in a high school gym. This is a relief. I was worried that it might be a unisex facility, naked people with bodies much better than mine walking around unashamed, arms swinging freely, at peace with their chakras and essential oils. Juan Carlos, the attendant, guides me to my locker.

"I leave my clothes here?"

"Yes."

"All my clothes?"

Juan Carlos shrugs. "That's up to you."

I pop open my locker. There's an FAQ list taped to the door. WHAT DO I WEAR DURING MY MASSAGE? it asks. Aha! "Whatever makes you most comfortable," it says. "Most guests prefer to wear nothing, however some guests are more comfortable wearing underwear."

I decide I'm definitely Some Guests. I keep my boxers on and don a white terrycloth robe, just like you see in movies. I'm led to a small room with a massage table and introduced to Christiane, my massage therapist. "Oh, you'll have to take them off," Christiane says reprovingly when I mention the boxers. "This gets messy." Messy? Messy how? I remember the survey. Soft, oily, loose?

I slip naked under a sheet. Christiane starts me off with a minifacial. Moist pads are placed over my eyes and then hot oil is dripped over my forehead, onto what Christiane explains is my third eye. This continues for 10 minutes. Drip, drip, drip. I don't know if Chinese water torture is real or an orientalist myth, but this is what I imagine it would be like. Drip, drip. Light instrumental music plays in the background. Then Christiane rubs a few different kinds of creams over my face and massages my pressure points ("Marma points," she calls them). Finally she packs hot towels around my head and wipes the goop off.

So much for the face. Now for the body. And this is where I get a little nervous.

Let me be totally honest here. What's the primary fear of every able-bodied, non-Viagra male who has a nude massage? The tent pole, of course. The unexpected readiness. State of alert at Def-con5, sir. We await your orders.

I entertain various scenarios in my head. Would I ignore it? Would I crack a joke? Would that make it better or worse? Ignore it, I decide, definitely ignore it. Oh god. Could I really ignore it? That would be so embarrassing. Would I jump up and leave? Is that done? Surely it's happened before. She's a professional. She can handle it. She's probably got some stock joke. An icebreaker to put my mind (and whatever else) at ease. It'll be OK. Really.

Of course, by the time I've reached a conclusion about how to act in the event of an emergency, Christiane has already started. To my relief, the object in question behaves itself quite well. This part of the Rebalancer consists of rubbing a gritty brown paste all over my arms, legs and torso. Christiane allows it to dry, then she scrapes it off with a kind of brillo pad. Finally, she massages hot oil deep into my skin.

While she's doing this, Christiane and I talk about the spa, my job, the six years she spent in India. It feels a bit like chatting with your barber or hairstylist. Christiane is very careful to explain everything she's doing. Turns out that the Rebalancer is part of an ancient Indian healing tradition called Ayurveda, and that none other than Mr. Deepak Chopra--the irritating infomercial guru and bestselling author--is its main proponent here in America. In Ayurveda, everybody falls into one of three doshas, or mind-body types. That's why Christiane needed to know that I was soft, oily and loose: It helped her figure out my dosha (pitta, just FYI) and what kind of treatment I needed.

After an hour and a half, Christiane and I are finished. I'm a sticky, supremely relaxed mess. Christiane advises me to go sit in the steam room for a while, to allow the remaining oil to penetrate and unclog my pores. Then she smiles, pours me some herbal tea and exits quietly. I feel like I should leave a tip, but my wallet is in the locker with the rest of my clothes. I agonize about this for days.

As I drive away from the Claremont, leaving behind the Beautiful People and their essential oils, I try to honestly assess the Rebalancer. Do I feel better? Sure. Was Christiane good? Incredible. Would I have gone if it wasn't free? (It normally costs $135.) Not a chance.

Everybody Must Get Stoned

'YOU'RE A GOOD breather," Becky says, running her hands across my inner thigh. Gulp. "I've had plenty of practice," I want to say, but don't, because it seems too smart-aleck, too Woody Allen. So I just nod weakly and opt instead for a Beavis-like "Yeah. Huh-huh."

I'm lying on my back in Palo Alto's Watercourse Way, a spa stop in my long, strange trip through California dreamland. Once again, I'm nude, and once again, I'm totally uncomfortable about it. (Clearly, I have some issues.) My masseuse this time around is named Becky. With my consent, she's preparing to drop hot, hot stones onto my bare flesh.

Becky practices hot stone massage, part of something called "LaStone Therapy." Basically, LaStone involves alternately hot and cold stones rubbed all over your body. How hot? 140 degrees Fahrenheit, about halfway between normal body temperature and the boiling point of water. How cold? Just above freezing. Yikes.

I show up early at Watercourse Way and sign a form indicating, among other things, that I understand all massages are nonsexual in nature. Then I sit down in the hall to wait. After a few minutes of eavesdropping on the conversation of the two women next to me, both of them cancer patients who visit the spa each morning before chemotherapy, Becky invites me into the "stone room" and we get down to business. The session begins like a normal massage: I strip and Becky turns on the music, Enya or Yanni or somebody off one of those Pure Moods albums you can buy on TV. She then squirts oil into her palm (a sound which, after these two spa visits, I'll probably fetishize the rest of my life) and rubs it vigorously all over my body. Now we're ready to rock 'n' roll, so to speak.

The hot stones are smooth, charcoal-gray pieces of basalt; Becky keeps them simmering in a doohickey that resembles a portable electric roaster. The cold stones are white pieces of marble, kept in an ordinary picnic cooler filled with ice water. Becky begins hot, with large, flat stones placed underneath me along my spine. Yeeeeeaaaooo! "Is that OK?" she asks.

"Sure," I answer, totally lying. But as Becky places more stones on my chest, I realize that after the initial touch--when the skin cries out bloody murder--you begin not to feel it. Becky seems to use the stones mostly as massage aids, deeply kneading into my muscles. I close my eyes and get into it; the hardness and heat of the stones seem to work especially well with the larger-group muscles like the thigh and pectorals. Then comes the part I've been dreading.

"I'm about to start with the cold stones," Becky warns me.

"OK."

"It helps if you breathe."

"OK."

The marble touches my shoulder, cold--so fucking cold--that I begin to giggle uncontrollably. "That's a common reaction," Becky informs me. "Like when you're a kid and you first turn on the hose." Breathe, Dann, breathe, I tell myself as the icy stone continues down my body. Remember what Mr. Miyagi told the Karate Kid: in through the nose, out through the mouth. Breathe. "You're doing fine," Becky says. Then she flips me like a burger and goes to work on the other side.

At the end of the session, Becky lights some sage (LaStone supposedly takes its inspiration from some Native American rituals) and leaves me to get dressed. I'm feeling super-good; all my muscles are noodly and relaxed. Maybe it's the sage, but I'm also feeling light-headed and weirdly discombobulated: I'm wondering if it's safe for me to drive home.

Clearly, something about stone massage hits the spot.

Physiologically, my best guess about why it works is that the warm stones make the blood rush up to the surface, in order to ventilate the excess heat, and that the cold stones make the blood rush away from the skin, in order to protect the organs. All this rushing up and down and up and down probably gets you a little high. Spiritually, I haven't the foggiest idea why or if it works. Mary Hannigan, the visionary or nut-job (depending on your belief system) who invented LaStone back in 1993, writes that "you will experience a connection to Body, Mind, and Soul," and that it "brings you to a sensation of wholeness cradled and nurtured by Mother Earth." Well, I don't know about all that. LaStone seems basically like a better and more elaborate version of old-fashioned massage. Is it worth the $145? For someone on a journalist's salary, no way. But if your stock portfolio is still (miraculously) robust, go for it.

Altered Statement

'ARE YOU FAMILIAR with altered states?" Lynette asks me, by way of introducing me to sensory deprivation.

"Nope." Not the natural kind, anyway.

"Then you're in for a wild ride."

Lynette runs the Flotation Center out of a nondescript apartment hidden away in San Francisco's Castro district. The Center contains two sensory deprivation tanks, each filled with 10 inches of water in which 800 pounds of Epsom salt have been dissolved. The salt raises the density of the water so that a human body can float perfectly even on the surface. This virtually eliminates your sensation of gravity--the water is pushing you up as much as the earth is pulling you down.

"You're like the piece of fruit in the jello mold," explains Lynette. The water is kept at skin temperature (approximately 93 degrees), so your sense of touch is minimized, and there's no light or sound, so your eyes and ears have nothing to latch on to either. The idea behind sensory deprivation is that in the absence of other stimulus, your mind has the freedom to expand and think outside its normal channels. In short doses, like here at the Flotation Center, this leads to enhanced creativity and relaxation. But if endured for days or weeks, sensory deprivation can produce severe emotional trauma or even madness (the KGB purportedly used it to extract information from spies and dissidents).

I'm here because it sounds cool, and because of that Simpsons episode where Homer and Lisa go into sensory deprivation tanks.

"I've got it on tape," Lynette grins.

After a brief orientation, she shows me into the room containing my tank, which looks like a leftover prop from a '60s or '70s sci-fi flick--think Logan's Run or the early scenes of 2001. I strip naked, insert my earplugs and clamber in, letting the trapdoor shut behind me. Instant and total darkness. I wave my hand in front of my face. Nada. I lay back and begin floating like a medieval compass, a needle on water. If someone blindfolded you, packed your ears with gauze and threw you in the middle of the Dead Sea, it would feel a little like this.

I suddenly become intensely aware of my breathing. "It can sound like there's a lion in there with you," Lynette had said. In the absence of all other sound, my breathing expands, elbows everything else in my consciousness out of the way. I am bronchial. I am Darth Vader. My lungs are the engine of the universe.

Occasionally I float into one of the walls. The slightest flicker of my toe or pinky is enough to send me drifting away. It's impossible to track your movements inside the tank; you'll think you're down where your feet were but then your head will bump into the wall above you.

Time passes. I'm so starved for stimulus that I make little baby-gaga noises to myself, just to hear the sound. I hum "The Sultans of Swing," by Dire Straits. I giggle. I splash. I say things like "Cock-a-doodle-doo!" According to Lynette, some people have wildly creative and intelligent ideas when they're in the tank. Some don't.

I wish I had a pen and paper, I think. Although the paper would get wet. And I'd need one of those pens that astronauts use that write upside down. Although it's dark, so I wouldn't be able to see. I could attach a little light to the pen. But then I wouldn't be sensory deprived. If I was really good I could write with an Etch-a-Sketch. Like that kid who did a portrait of Michael Jordan using an Etch-a-Sketch. He got on TV. I wish I was on TV.

About this time I realize that my testicles are floating. Not floating like they might in a bath, but really floating, bobbing up and down like a cork. I experiment by lowering my buttocks; my testicles stay right where they are, like buoys from a sunken ship. To say this feels peculiar would be an understatement.

Eventually I settle down. I stop thinking about time, about my testicles, about much of anything, in fact. I'm simply There. In a sensory deprivation tank, you gradually slip into something called a theta state, which is that gray void between sleeping and waking, the 30 seconds after a nap when you don't know where you are. Lynette told me that many people experience auditory and visual hallucinations when they're in theta state, but I don't get any. Maybe it's like pot--it doesn't always work the first time.

I'm in the tank for just over an hour. When Lynette knocks on the tank, I get out and shower off the salt, a big goofy grin plastered across my face. I feel alert, re-energized, ridiculously hungry. When I get back to the office, comments are made.

"Looking good!"

"You should do this all the time."

I nod thoughtfully.

The Needles and the Damage Done

THE GRAND FINALE in my increasingly weird trip through the New Age universe is the one that I've considered all along to be the Big Kahuna, the granddaddy of all alternative therapies, the one that really put things on the map: acupuncture. And this presents a problem. Seeing as how acupuncture is considered real medicine and all, covered by real insurance companies, I'm worried that an acupuncturist might not appreciate me showing up mostly just to "see what it's like." It would be akin to scheduling a prostate exam simply because you enjoy how it feels.

I fret about this for a few days, until the solution leaps out at me from the Yellow Pages: "Free Acupuncture Session by Our Supervised Student Interns." Eureka! Inside a minute I'm dialing the number for Berkeley's Meiji College of Oriental Medicine and setting up an appointment. Only later do I begin to worry about the fact that I'll be attended by, well, a student. Someone who just needs a warm body to practice on. You always hear horror stories about some cheapskate who went to a barber college to get a free haircut and ended up with a raunchy 'do. But hair grows back. If someone fucks up sticking needles into your head, what then? What then?!?

The first thing that surprises me about the Meiji clinic is how clinical it actually is. Pink and yellow patient records line the walls. People with lab coats and clipboards bustle to and fro. I might as well be at Kaiser. It's as if in their efforts to gain acceptance from the mainstream, the Meiji folks have become the very thing to which they're supposed to provide an alternative.

This suspicion is bolstered when I'm given several liability forms and a medical history questionnaire. I'm instructed to check off any health problems that I have now--or that I've ever had. I mark "Back Pain," a recurring condition which I attribute to horrific posture and sleeping on what is possibly the world's worst mattress. My pen hovers briefly over "Alcoholic" (this is not an ailment I'm certain I want cured) before marking "Acne/Skin Problems" (hey, I was a teenager too, once).

The next thing that surprises me about Meiji is Bobby, my acupuncturist. With broad shoulders and a fierce crewcut, he seems more like a guy who just barely missed the cut for the Oklahoma State football team than a third-year resident in an accredited acupuncture program. Bobby is so damn dependable-looking that when he says things like "Your chi is stagnating" and "Your kidney energy is out of balance," I find myself nodding gravely and wondering what I can do to beef up my chi. He begins by asking about various health factors that might relate to my back pain.

"Memory?"

"No complaints."

"Appetite?"

"Fine."

"Stool?"

Good grief. What is it about these people that they're all so fascinated with my stool? I desperately want to answer "Soft, oily, loose," but I can't quite bring myself to do it. Poor Bobby just wouldn't understand.

When our Q&A session is over, it's time to get on with the treatment, with what Bobby calls "the needling." I take off my shirt and pants and slip into a robe (again, very much like in a hospital). Only when I'm lying facedown on the table, heart aflutter, do I ask the question that I've been wanting--and dreading--to ask ever since I cooked up this hare-brained idea.

"Does it hurt?"

Bobby eyes me coolly, as if trying to appraise whether I'd bolt out of the room if he gave me the wrong answer.

"Yeah," he says finally. "But don't worry, it's tolerable."

The acupuncture needles are relatively small, maybe an inch and a half. They're individually wrapped for sanitation reasons. Bobby takes one out to show it to me.

"It's almost as thin as a hair," he says, flicking it with his finger so it bends. (A rapier is thin, too, I think; that doesn't make it any less deadly.) With a deft flick of the wrist, Bobby inserts the first needle into the meaty part of my hand between thumb and forefinger. It doesn't hurt at all until he pushes it in further, but even then it's just a deep, dull, achy kind of pain.

"OK, it's in," Bobby breathes.

I raise my head, eyes widening at this fucking needle, for Christ's sake, jutting out of my hand. "Oh boy." I quickly lower my head. Better not to see.

Bobby inserts a total of 10 needles in my body: two in each hand, two in my back, one behind each knee, and one on top of each foot. After insertion, Bobby manipulates each needle back and forth in order to start pooling the energy. He tells me to relax. He tells me to focus on my breathing. Then he leaves the room for 20 minutes to allow the needles to do their thing.

I don't feel anything except in my hands and forearms, which are going crazy. There's a weird sensation of thickness in the tissue, of warmth, of energy moving up and down my arm. Also intense tingling. Odd, heavy pressures at points distant from the needles.

The traditional Chinese explanation of acupuncture is that disease and pain are caused by blockages in the flow of chi (energy) around the body. By inserting needles into the body at specific points, the acupuncturist is able to unclog the body's channels (or meridians) and increase the flow of chi, thereby restoring you to perfect health.

I have my own theory. I think acupuncture is a function of the body's natural response to invasion by a foreign object. The body senses the needle, says the biological equivalent of "What the fuck?" and launches an army of antibodies or endorphins or whatever to repulse the invader. The mass production of this stuff, I believe, is good for what ails ya. Of course, some would argue this idea is essentially just as superstitious as the traditional Chinese explanation. I don't disagree. If you burrow down far enough, everything becomes a matter of faith, whether you're talking gluons or gravity or God.

When I'm finished, Bobby gives me a hearty handshake and a bag of herbal powder to make into a tea. I leave Meiji somewhat shaken, a bit freaked out by my hands, which still feel utterly disconnected from me. As I drive home, my hands on the steering wheel take on the character of a word that's been stared at too long--they don't mean anything. Listen boyo, I tell myself, you're out of your element. Stick to what you can handle. To the things that fit within your narrow and skewed view of How Things Work. Just suck down a beer or three, and from now on, leave the New Age stuff to the natives.

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From the March 1-7, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.




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