Deeply rooted in ancient healing techniques, hot stone massage is now a popular option in spas across the world. Believed to keep your skin youthful and glowing, it smoothes away wrinkles and induces deep rest and relaxation. And all it involves is a simple procedure that produces exceptional results

It is a black, smooth, shiny stone, rather like a flat pebble--the kind that you might find commonly littered along the sandy bottoms of river beds. And yet, it is volcanic rock, capable of withstanding high temperatures. The spa industry worldwide believes that this humble stone, when heated and applied to various areas of the body and the face, has the power to keep youth and vitality alive and to heal chronic hurt and pain.

More than 2,000 years ago the Chinese were the first to experiment with the healing effects of hot stones. Historians record the use of heated stones by this civilization as a means of improving digestive function and enhancing overall metabolism. Other cultures too practiced laying the stones in patterns across the body and wearing these close to the heart as talismans for health and protection. It was believed that the stone had intrinsic properties of the soil—properties that lent it great healing potential. When heated, its curative qualities were said to penetrate deep into the skin to relieve complex diseases. Stones were said to encapsulate the life force, or chi, that had the power to restore and rejuvenate.

The use of hot stones for therapeutic purposes is recorded in the folk-healing practices of Brazil, America, Africa, Europe, Egypt and in our own country. Native folk healers used hot stones to diminish the discomfort of menstruation, and cold stones to stem bleeding after labour. In some cultures, it was believed that holding stones during labour added to one's strength and endurance. The Romans too used the basic principles of stone therapy in their exquisite saunas, combining hot immersion baths with the cooling effects of marble and chilled pools.

Therapeutic and relaxing

If you request a hot stone massage at a spa, the therapist first applies an oil of choice over your body. “ The therapist should select an oil that is very light and suitable for all skin types, allowing the stones to glide easily,” says Tomi Wertheim, a certified instructor in stone therapy running 'Desert Stone People', a stone-sourcing and supply company based in Tucson, Arizona, US.

Hot stones are then placed along the key acupressure points. This enhances relaxation while allowing one to become accustomed to the feel of the stones on the skin. While the penetrating warmth from the hot stone slowly releases, easing the accumulated tension, the therapist proceeds with the massage, using a pair of stones (one in each hand). The focus is first on the facial skin and then the neck, back and legs. The stones glide over the skin in slow, steady strokes with light, even pressure. Keeping the rhythm steady, the speed is then increased and the stones are moved in a circular motion. This boosts blood flow as the heat of the stone penetrates further into the muscles of the face, neck and spine. The massage is rounded off with the application of chilled stones. The cold stones, applied last, seal the pores, revitalizing and tightening the skin.

Improves circulation, provides relief

"Working with hot stones on the face and body provides a deeper penetration of any skin-care products you may use later (including lotions and creams), more extensive relaxation of the muscles, and improves circulation,” says massage therapist Patricia Mayrhofer, a specialist in stone therapy and the founder of Nature's Stone's Inc., a stone massage seminar-and-product company, based in Bucks Head, Pennsylvania, USA.

For these reasons, therapists believe that hot-stone massage can delay wrinkle formation, keeping one's skin youthful and fresh. "This treatment not only significantly reduces stress and tension, but the stone facial massage also offers some relief to people suffering from sinus, migraines and headaches," says Robbie Smerchinski, Spa Director of Mackie Naturals Salon & Spa based in British Columbia, Canada. "Being a migraine sufferer myself, I found the stones very therapeutic. The warm stones are relaxing and the cold stones help to shunt out toxins from the surface of the skin, helping to ease acne."

In the hot seat

The stones used in the massage are first heated to a temperature of 110-120 F. Before application, they are then placed in water and allowed to cool to a temperature that provides heat and yet is comfortable. To avoid burns, the therapist should check the stones' heat by testing them on her own inner wrist before placing them on your skin; most therapist never place the stones directly on the skin, preferring to place them instead on a thin towel draped over your body. Be sure to communicate with your therapist, letting them know the temperature that suits you best.

Rocky choices

The most commonly used stones in hot-stone massage are basalt, a finely grained, thick stone with a black, brown or reddish tinge. There are many kinds of basalt, which is basically igneous rock formed by volcanic and sedimentary action. Basalt can naturally withstand high temperatures and cools off fast. Sometimes marble, jade, amethyst, Petoskey stones (fossilized coral) and other exotic stones are also employed.

According to Sonia Alexandra, president of THStone, a stone massage training-and-supply company, stone facial massage's growing popularity is, at least in part, a backlash against the increase in invasive medical and esthetic procedures—alphahydroxy peels, botox, laser treatments and the like—offered at spas over the past decade. She says that consumers' knowledge of, and desire for, natural health care is such that non-ininvasive techniques are increasingly sought out.

"There has to be a place for holistic treatments, and this is why stone massage is really catching on," Alexandra says. There's no denying however that stone therapy certainly has the potential to rock your world!