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Janet Fullwood: Spa is your 'om' away from home

FREESTONE, Sonoma County -- Everything I'd read and heard about Osmosis -- and it was all good -- included a breathless claim: "It's the only place in America with a Japanese enzyme bath!"

So my first question for Michael Stusser, who created this "om" of an oasis in the postage-stamp town of Freestone 20 years ago, was, "Why is it the only one?"

His answer was long, but it boiled down to this: high maintenance.

"Anybody can throw a few drops of scented oil in a tub and call it a spa treatment," he said. "But making an enzyme bath is like making wine and cheese; each batch has to be closely overseen, and each is different."

Friends who had come to Osmosis inevitably wore mysterious smiles while describing the enzyme bath experience. "It's different," they always said. "It's really different."

I love walking into a spa, any spa. It's the smells that get me. There always seems to be an aromatherapy candle burning, calming music playing and lots of pricey merchandise to finger while waiting for your appointment. An added element at Osmosis was a dispenser of enzyme-laced herbal tea, of which I was directed to drink a small cup. It tasted ... well, different.

When my name was called, a kimono-clad attendant led me to to a small room with sliding glass shoji doors opening onto an exquisite Japanese garden. The ordered compositions and the sight of all that green in the dead of winter surprised and delighted me. The attendant, Carrie, brought herbal tea in a shapely, raku-fired pot set atop a red lacquer tray and poured it into a cup half-filled with white crystals.

"Enzymes," she said.

I sipped slowly while admiring the garden and browsing a booklet explaining the experience to come.

"Comfortably immersed in this bioactive substance, you may become joyfully warm and may perspire pleasantly," it said.

I was ready to take the plunge.

It turned out to be more of a leap.

After changing into a yukata, or Japanese bathrobe, I was led to the "bath," which resembled a hot tub filled with moist, finely milled cedar sawdust and rice bran. A molded impression had been carved into the middle of the pile. I dropped the robe and crawled in. Carrie shoveled the substance over my body, covering me up to my chin. It was a bit like being buried in sand on a beach, although a compost pile is more like it. Providing the heat were enzymes from 60 kinds of organically grown plants that had been chopped, mixed and fermented in cedar barrels, then extracted by reverse osmosis (thus the name of the spa). It smelled earthy and sweet.

It was also warm as a womb and getting warmer by the second. Wiggling a hand or foot created an instant hot spot. I closed my eyes and tried to still my mind and body, go with the flow, submit to the feeling.

After five minutes, Carrie came in and put a cold cloth over my eyes, poured water on my head and held a straw to my lips. Five minutes later, she did it again.

Somewhere around that 10-minute mark, interesting things began to happen. I lost awareness of where I was and became acutely aware of my heartbeat. It wasn't just in my chest anymore; my body was pulsating, hard, from the top of my scalp to the bottom of my spine, as though the organic material surrounding me had turned to Jell-O.

The 20-minute treatment was followed by a brushing-off session, then a shower. The caked-on sawdust washed off easily.

Back in the robe, I padded behind Carrie to a dimly lit room and lay down on a futon. She wrapped me in a blanket and handed me headphones. For the next half hour, I listened to "metamusic," a style of nonverbal composition intended, in Carrie's words, "to balance the listeners' hemispheres." It contained nature sounds - crickets, rain, a waterfall - and soft melodies that floated off and back and off again.

All I know is that again I fell into a deep, meditative state.

Next on the agenda was a massage. I'd requested Thai, a vigorous treatment performed with the receiver fully clothed on a mat on the floor, with the therapist applying pressure to specific points along energy lines. It involves extensive stretching linked to yoga, leaving the receiver feeling limber, relaxed and energized. I arose feeling like a million bucks and padded off to the aromatherapy facial room.

By then I was so noodly I don't remember much except the warm compresses over my eyes and heavenly smell of the potions being painted on my face.

All I can say is that when I finally poured myself out of the building and retreated to the meditation garden, I was glowing inside and out.

Now I'm the one with the mysterious smile.

Travel wise: Osmosis

What: Osmosis combines the quietude of a Japanese garden with enzyme baths, massage and other spa treatments.

Treatments: A cedar enzyme bath with tea service and blanket wrap is $75 weekdays, $80 on weekends. Treatments for couples are $10 per person less.

The Rejuvenation Package adds a 75-minute massage ($155 weekdays, $175 weekends), while the Ultimate Experience also includes a facial ($235/$245).

Specials: Through Feb. 24, a Celebrate Togetherness package for couples is $265. A midweek deal with the Inn at Occidental, $399, combines Rejuvenation treatments for two with lodging.

Information: www.osmosis.com or (707) 823-8231

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