Touch is the very first sense to be activated: even in utero the growing baby feels the touch of the warm fluid around them which moves as the mother moves. For babies, touch is vital to help them bond and grow. Children touch all the time, they hug, they cuddle, they hold hands. Touch becomes less and less used as we grow up except between close family. Yet touch slows the heart rate, reduces the stress hormone cortisol, and can reduce pain.*
Massage uses touch to remind us how to relax and unwind. The Spy Spies have regular massages: it’s part of the job description. We never get blasé about them (we are too busy taking mental notes for the GSG review). But you do get used to the whole concept of massage as being good for your physical and mental health.
Even for those of us who spend our lives reviewing spas, the four-handed massage is still an exceptional treat. And the Oriental Harmony four-handed massage (1 hr 50 minutes, £385) at the Mandarin Oriental proved to be not only exceptionally good for my body, it also blew the cobwebs out of my mind.
The Spa at the Mandarin Oriental is a quiet and secret escape from the hustle and bustle of London. Stepping though the doors into the gentle lighting and quiet hush is a good start to relaxing.
My two therapists Monika and Eva began my treatment with a foot washing ceremony using warm water - with pearls in it, no less. Then came the sensory test. I was tempted to opt for the first oil which had citrus notes to it. Citrus is one of those scents that almost immediately makes me feel happy. But Monika persuaded me to try the Mandarin Oriental Flourish body oil which contains coriander, cardamom, lemon and lemongrass. I was so glad she did. The top notes of lemon and lemongrass came through strongly, but the coriander and cardamom grounded the aroma and felt warming.
Before the massage there was a full body scrub using Quintessence Body scrub infused with frankincense essential oil. Not too much, but just enough to warm the muscles as the scrub was applied by all four hands of the therapists.
After a shower, the massage proper began. With most four-handed massages the aim is to keep the therapist hands working in harmony on both sides of the body. This massage began like that, but very quickly each therapist took a different route over the muscles of my body. Eva and Monica moved around me in a dance, always keeping one hand in contact with my skin but moving smoothly to each section of the body.
They were amazingly perceptive, working hard on my knotted-up shoulders, and yet carefully on my tender lower back. Eva stretched and pulled my left leg while Monica stretched and pulled my right arm and then they swopped sides. One therapist held my arm above my head while the other massaged firmly from my hip to my shoulder. By now my mind was almost completely relaxed, which you would expect in any good massage. But this cross-body work did something to my left and right brain function. I found myself switching off my worries and concerns and just drifting away. I couldn’t even remember what I was supposed to be worried about.
Monika began the head massage while Eva worked on my feet. This double dose of detailed input was amazing. Monica found the tender tense spots in my neck and the back of my head and gently but firmly encouraged them to loosen up. Eva worked carefully on each toe and each of the bones and muscles in my feet. By now I was so relaxed that felt that I had drunk a couple of glasses of very good champagne.
I did not want this treatment to end, even at nearly 2 hours!
Post a long treatment, you can feel very sleepy; I was relaxed but not completely floppy. After a rest and a glass of water I felt ready to dress and head off for a meeting. My skin felt smooth and smelt wonderful. My head was clear, and my energy had returned.
I have had this four-handed massage in the US, in Mauritius, in Austria and several times in the UK. The Oriental Harmony four-handed massage at the Mandarin Oriental proved to be a treatment that shone out above all the others. I can’t wait to go back!
*J Holist Nurs. 2009 Jun;27(2):85-92. doi: 10.1177/0898010108327213. Epub 2009 Mar 19.
Ditzen, B. et al. (2007) Effects of different kinds of couple interaction on cortisol and heart rate responses to stress in women. Psychoneuroendocrinology 32, 565–574.
Morrison, I. (2016) Keep calm and cuddle on: social touch as a stress buffer. Adaptive Human Behavior and Physiology, 1–19.
16th October 2019
Warm treatment beds; fragrant steam rooms; therapists who listen to what you say; unexpected treats such as back massages that start with hot towels on your feet.
Small towels; crowded changing rooms; black mould in the showers; therapists who sniff; anyone who doesn't take my lavender allergy seriously - until I'm actually sick on them!
Behind the scenes