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In Dunes of Herbs
At the spa, it's squish, squeeze, stretch and soothe
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Clients wear socks in the herbal walks, changing when they move from the first one to the second.
Stress seems to be the health scourge of the nation thus far in the new millennium, so I considered it a suitable excuse for a spa visit. After all, mothers across the country are getting spa packages today, promising health, rejuvenation and what some women call "me time."

The concept of relaxation is a mystery to me. I certainly am adept at doing nothing, but I stress about doing it as I do it. Yet, I slipped right into the mood at Mibok Spa as I plodded through an ankle-high bed of dried beans that have been imbued with and mixed with herbs.

I found myself recalling those boyhood days of slogging through the wide-open Oregon sand dunes: One foot sinks until it finds a hold; the other labors up through the surface. With each step, granules squeeze and ooze between my toes and . . . I'm looking down on the rushing traffic of Interstate 5, from the 19th floor of the Cabrini Medical Tower. Really.

In this spa "dune," I'm wading in a thick layer of more than two dozen Asian herbs and minerals. I pace back and forth on a path about 15 feet long by 3 feet wide. The goal is to immerse the feet in the beans' give-and-take and mysterious powder.

These are baby steps into what Dr. Anna Ragaz calls "an odyssey." She says there is no other spa like this outside of Asia. It is designed to promote health such as reducing blood pressure and building oxygen supply by applying two-centuries-old Asian healing practices.

Trying to connect with the micro-muscles in my feet and legs, soak up Eastern concoctions, keep balance and admire the view on one side of a dermatology office is a little disorienting in several ways. But the more I squish, the more I enjoy it. I begin to walk backward with my eyes closed. Finally, after about 15 minutes, I carefully remove the ankle socks I had to wear and don a new pair so I don't mix the herbs from my first path with the ones in my second path. The second one is shorter, bedded with softer grains and lathered with a different combination of herbs. I change socks because Ragaz says it's important to keep them separate.

The spa takes up about half of the Anna Ragaz Institute for Anti-Aging. A former champion swimmer from the Czech Republic, she became a black belt in traditional martial arts known as Oom Yung Doe. It was through the martial arts, she told me, that she met a grand master who entrusted her with the spa-regimen formula sort of like a secret recipe. It is supposed to relax, stimulate and refresh all at once. The paths are set up to stimulate my feet and legs. I certainly find it a decent workout.

Then I head to a wide-mouthed bowl that sits on a stand, where I paw through more treated beans dusted with yet more herbs. I dig, squeeze and make various swimming motions to get maximum exposure and resistance. I love this. My hands always feel arthritic, thanks to my MS, but I find this massaging soothing.

From there, I put on yet another pair of thin socks, step into a pit of more herbed beans, hang on an herb-treated rope and stretch, twist and sway. This is supposed to engage my upper body, but it is my mind, trying to take all this in, that is most engaged.

Therapist Jennifer Coggan takes me to another room, where we face a full-length mirror. She shows me the rudiments of Moo Doe, a flowing Eastern movement. This is supposed to help clear my body of negative energy and relax me. But I can't relax. I'm too lost, trying to keep up with Coggan's swooping and dipping. I'm horrible, but she never laughs.

From there, I plop into a warm bathtub of water blackened by more herbs and wait for more Eastern magic. After 20 minutes of soaking, I slip on a robe, move to a desolate room and sit on an herbal pillow.

Now it's time to meditate. Coggan shows me pronounced breaths to clear my system and head. As she leaves the room, she reminds me to let my mind go blank. The stillness is powerful, but my mind only goes blank when my boss is talking to me. And my back hurts, so I lean against the wall. My knees are protesting the cross-legged pose, so I recline.

OK, so grace and peace of mind are two more traits I've yet to master.

Ragaz is trying to give Western validation to Eastern health tradition, so she tracks the blood pressure of people before and after they go through the regimen. Her data show good results.

My already-low blood pressure and pulse have both dropped at the end of my spa trip. Then I rush out the door, harried to get to the next appointment, stressed I'll be late. So much for "me time."

Richard Seven is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff reporter. Barry Wong is a magazine staff photographer.

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