In a rustic palapa on the edge of a lagoon in Mexico I am about to experience a "goddess" ritual with the therapist Mallina. Wrapped in very hot sheets soaked with detoxifying herbs, I begin to sweat, while my face is pampered and cleansed with freshly picked fruit, flowers and honey. After 10 minutes, the sheets are removed, and my body is vigorously scrubbed with a delicious concoction of rock salt and honey. I wash it off by slipping into the clean, sweet water of the private lagoon, just a step away.
I feel as if I am losing months of negative energy as well as bodily grime as I gently swim through the water. I emerge, smiling, and sit on the wooden steps of the deck to be doused with bucketfuls of warm camomile tea. The change in temperature is the most nourishing feeling, and I feel looked after and cherished. Nothing, however, prepares me for the pinnacle of this treatment, the Lomi Lomi massage, in which Mallina is an expert. This four-handed massage is more like a dance, in which my body is eased and rubbed, cradled and moved in whatever direction Mallina and her fellow therapist feel it needs to be. As I am asked to breathe deeply with each new movement, I feel a great welling up inside me, as if all the worries of my life are about to be released.
Mallina is totally in tune, telling me to keep breathing as I try to hold my breath and encouraging me to use my voice to express and release my anxiety. I make a sound, surprising myself at how difficult that is - and how liberating. The massage progresses until I have tears streaming down my face but I keep breathing and making strange noises until I feel an inner calm - the kind that comes after you've been crying for hours or run a long way. Finally at peace, my body is laid out and covered, and I slip into a restful sleep. When I wake, Mallina sits beside me. We exchange smiles, nothing more, and she leaves me in peace.
Lomi Lomi literally means "taking everything apart from the heart". Otherwise known as Hawaiian Temple Bodywork, this ceremonial massage was originally invented for royalty. It's easy to be sceptical about spa rituals with names such as goddess, but when there is an exceptional treatment such as this at the heart of it, as well as a good therapist, it lives up to its name and is something I don't mind paying good money for.
Mine cost $99 (Dh364) at a simple retreat - a snip for what was involved. At a luxury five-star spa resort nearby, the same treatment, by therapists who were trained by my own, was four times the price. So you don't have to pay huge sums to get fantastic treatments. And by contrast, paying a lot of money won't guarantee it's good. Take time to research therapists and beware of gimmicky, overpriced rituals that don't have a bona fide holistic treatment at their core. As well as Lomi Lomi, core treatments to look for include Shiatsu, Thai massage, Abhyanga (the Ayurvedic four-handed massage) and Do-in (acupressure with massage and physical moves similar to yoga). All of these seek to rebalance the energy in your body and release mental stress as well as stretch you out and ease your muscles.
As such bodywork treatments require specialist expertise and training, smaller spas usually use visiting therapists rather than staff therapists and book them by demand. Book in advance and ask the spa's advice if you need help with your choice. Once inside the treatment room, the best therapists will ask you about any areas that need work beforehand but leave you in peace during the experience. For rituals that involve "waiting time" (during a facial or a wrap, for example) they should give you a scalp, foot or hand massage rather than leave you in a darkened room. If they don't, or if you want a deeper massage, are too hot or too cold or want the music changed or turned off, speak up. You want to emerge feeling like a god or goddess rather than someone who has been duped.
Caroline Sylger Jones is the author of the Body & Soul Escapes series, compendiums of places to retreat and replenish around the world. See www.carolinesylgerjones.co.uk.