Entering Mandarin Oriental, an 18th-century Milanese palazzo, where a graphic black and white marble bar gleams on one side and a glass fire pit beckons guests towards the elevators, it's clear this is a world created with great care. The Spa, on the floor below, is a feng shui-inspired haven in the heart of the city, complete with an indoor lap pool, fitness centre and beauty salon. There is no sound of traffic, no bustle – just the tinkle of falling water from a tranquil fountain amid the calm decoration of light wood, mottled copper and grey stone.
Upon arrival, my shoes are exchanged for slippers and red tea is served along with a tamarind and incense-perfumed towel. I am then handed a questionnaire enquiring about my current state of being. It has columns divided into yin and yang (inspired by traditional Chinese medicine and aromatherapy, this is a spa that provides more than the average massage that is often all too common in Italy) and poses questions such as if you suffer from headaches, dry eyes, stomach aches, or anxiety. The answers in the columns determine if there is too much yin or too much yang, revealing which kind of energy blocks exist in the body. Your treatment will then be tailored accordingly.
Take a relaxing dip in the lap pool in the tranquil ambience of The Spa at Mandarin Oriental, Milan
Before the main treatment, relaxation begins in the changing room, where a few minutes in the steam bath and cedar sauna has the effect of loosening the muscles and releasing toxins, which are subsequently eliminated by an icy rinse. Coloured lights illuminate each shower, changing softly from hue to hue, becoming your own personal James Turrell installation – a 'Ganzfeld' space, if you will, to relax the mind.
Steamed, showered and robed, I wait on a velvet ottoman for my therapist. Having barely met a deadline for an article today, my neck is stiff, my wrists are tight and my brain is racing. Then along comes Mariagrazia Di Pasquale, an expert in reiki, whose fresh face looks to have never known a moment of stress, and who is here to transport me to a more harmonious frame of mind.
From the curved, wood-lined hallway, we enter a room where the five key elements of feng shui or Chinese medicine – metal, wood, water, earth and fire – are represented in the surroundings, as they are throughout The Spa. I am served lemongrass tea, and my feet are washed, ceremonially, with peppercorns and salt, while Mariagrazia goes over the diagnosis from my questionnaire. I have too much yang, a state associated with the element of wood. To me, it sounds like an exciting horoscope reading – intellectuals and leaders, she tells me, are usually wood. Apparently, they feel stress in their head and hold tension in their neck and shoulders, as well as – surprisingly – their liver.
The Spa is a feng shui-inspired haven
With its liver-centrism and focus on meridians and rebalancing chi, my coming therapy is my long-overdue introduction to acupressure. It is all part of the Awaken treatment – one of five Mandarin Oriental signature spa therapies (the others being Bloom, Flourish, Release and Reflect), based on balancing the five elements of Chinese medicine. Delivered in one hour and 50 minutes, the massage combines acupressure and Eastern meridian massage with European techniques and bespoke aromatherapy oils. Like all of The Spa's treatments, it is designed to remove anything blocking the free flow of energy in the body, in order to restore its natural equilibrium.
'The massage will recalibrate your body, physically and emotionally,' Mariagrazia assures me. I'm still agonising over my article and my growing to-do list, but it sounds good. And as I lay down on the spa bed, inhaling my custom-blended Aromatherapy Associates essential oils of mandarin (to relax the muscles) and lavender (to awaken the senses), I urge myself to unwind and enjoy.
Chimes sound and our time begins. Mariagrazia works in a circle, from left to right, top to bottom, applying deep pressure to key points, to the meridians along the body that correspond to the liver, squeezing between my toes and behind my knees, mapping out points across my skull, and kneading my muscles into relaxation. 'Breathe deeply,' she whispers, as she leans in to apply an almost punitive pressure to my shoulder blades. I find it hard to switch off, but Mariagrazia is pulling and kneading me towards relaxation.
As Mariagrazia works her magic, she recognises that my thoughts are still stuck in a stressful loop, so she winds my arms around into submission until they lose their tense grip. With the mandarin and lavender scent, the dim lights, and Mariagrazia patiently massaging and applying her careful pressure, something is shifting in me. My breathing and my heartbeat slow.
The Spa's luxurious reception area
The chimes sound again, too quickly it seems, and the treatment ends. And as I'm led to a rattan recliner I feel in a blissed-out state and have an unfamiliar looseness all over. I also feel a strange affinity with Mariagrazia. She's read my questionnaire – she knows I get headaches and have trouble sleeping. She knows I checked off 'positive outlook' and, a few lines later, 'prone to sadness'. She understands me. She has healed me.
However, she's not done with me yet. Pressing each of her middle fingers firmly into her thumbs, she shows me a trick to rid my body of the anxiety that's sure to come with the next deadline, before leaving me to 'float' a while longer, sipping tea – and thinking of nothing.