It’s Not Just a Massage: How Spa Treatments Have Evolved in Pittsburgh

In a changing world, we look for rest, relaxation and a little stress relief to achieve overall wellness. 
Aura Sauna Studio 3


If you’re like a lot of Pittsburghers, the last three years have been intense.

Ever-increasing political divide and a teetering economy have weighed heavily on us all, not to mention a still-ongoing global pandemic.

And while the pandemic has shifted so much about our lives, from the way we work to the way we travel, it has also led to some major pivots in the wellness industry. Spa owners and wellness industry leaders report that there have been big changes in what people are looking to get out of a spa experience and a lot more interest in alternative forms of self-care, particularly ones that promise rest, relaxation and stress-reduction.

From sound spas and forest bathing to float tanks and aromatherapy massages, a lot of us are using more holistic activities and therapies to find new ways to practice wellness — though, if you want to try a new therapy, it’s always a good idea to consult your doctor first.

“It’s been so much more critical for people to take care of themselves these last three years,” says Jonelle McMahan, who owns Sewickley Spa. “The pandemic was a big awakening for a lot of people.”

Sensory Deprivation Tanks



Imagine, for a moment, that you could literally shut down all of your senses. There are no distractions — no television running in the background, no podcasts, nothing to see but darkness, and nothing to do as you float away with your thoughts.

That’s the experience you’ll find in a sensory deprivation tank, an increasingly popular option for those who want to tune out. Here in Pittsburgh, there are now more than half a dozen flotation spas offering the experience.

As the mother of a toddler, the thought of drifting around in the ether sounded nothing short of heavenly, and I was eager to try it.

There are essentially two types of floating options: Traditional pods, which are shaped like oversized bathtubs with a lid, and larger floating chambers, walled-in structures that feature a door you can shut. Each type of structure contains 10 to 12 inches of warm water and enough Epsom salt (typically at least 1,000 pounds) to keep you buoyant.

For my first float, I landed at True REST Float Spa in McMurray; this is part of a franchise with locations also in Scott and Wexford, as well as a few dozen more across the country. Floats start at $89 each, though there are special introductory and membership prices available.

After getting checked in and watching a short introductory video, I was led to a private room with a small shower and the floatation pod. Per the instructions, I rinsed myself off and put in a pair of provided earplugs. (Bathing suits are optional.)

Stepping into the pod, I wasn’t sure what to expect. The water was body-temperature warm. I immediately felt a buoyancy that lifted me up, and then … nothing.

Victory TankI chose to do a full sensory deprivation experience, shutting the lid tightly and disappearing into the darkness. I floated for an hour, allowing my mind to rest. I didn’t fall asleep, and I didn’t get bored (something I was a little concerned about). When my session was over, the lights slowly started to come up, and I stepped out of the pod feeling about as rested as if I’d slept for a solid 8 hours.

Guests have complete control over their experience in the pod and can choose to close the lid entirely or keep it cracked a bit. There are options for lighting and soothing music, all of which can be controlled within the pod. I was worried that I’d start to panic in the small pod, but the space offered enough room for me to fully spread my arms and legs and comfortably move around.

And it was comfortable.

Casey Williams co-owns Victory Float Lounge, with locations in Lawrenceville and Sewickley that use the larger, chamber-style tanks. He says, while they get a lot of clients who use their tanks as a method of relaxation, there are a host of other reasons why people visit their tanks.

“Our whole approach is the idea that everybody’s win looks different,” Williams says. “We don’t approach it with the idea that you have to come in and find your zen. It’s not always that. We get a lot of people who come in with neck pain, back pain, stress and anxiety. A lot of new parents who just want some peace and quiet.”

Infrared Saunas

Aura Sauna Studio 2


Laura Early opened her Strip District infrared sauna, Aura Sauna Studio, after visiting a spa in Nashville, Tennessee with her mother. The duo fell in love with the service and decided to build their own studio in Pittsburgh.

“Traditional saunas just heat the air around you. With an infrared sauna, it actually heats you from the core to the outside,” says Early, who has a background in marketing.

According to Early, a 45-minute session in the sauna can help reduce inflammation and improve circulation; she also says the experience can help with muscle recovery, joint pain and back pain, rebuild the collagen in your skin and burn up to 600 calories as a “passive cardio experience.”

“And, obviously, you get all kinds of other benefits too, like emotional healing, stress healing and better sleep,” she says.

Whew. Sign me up for all of that.

Aura Sauna Studio has six private units that can be booked individually or with a friend or partner. The saunas are heated to about 140 degrees, but guests can adjust the temperature to their tastes; they can also scroll around on a studio-provided tablet to choose their own music or watch television shows or movies. Single sessions are $45.

Himalayan Salt Caves

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For those looking for a less sweat-inducing stress-relief session, East Liberty’s Peace, Love & Zen Wellness Center provides a relaxing retreat in their Himalayan Salt Cave, a salt room made using 8 tons of Himalayan sea salt bricks. Guests can book $35 sessions in 45-minute increments (often with others, though private bookings are available).

“There’s actually salt being dispersed into the air, and you’re actually breathing the salt into your lungs,” says owner Susan Coe. “It’s just a very clean atmosphere.”

A halogenerator in each room grinds up the salt and pushes it into the air when the room is in session.

“The original intention of the salt therapy is for all respiratory ailments: asthma, allergies, sinus problems. And it’s great for relieving headaches and migraines,” says Coe.

While there have been a few studies on the effects of using salt therapy to ease symptoms of asthma and bronchitis, the results haven’t been medically conclusive. As with other forms of alternative therapy, if you’re interested in trying it, it’s always a good idea to talk with your doctor before committing to a session.

“Of course, it provides an atmosphere that promotes a lot of relaxation and de-stressing,” Coe says. “There’s relaxing music playing that we designed specifically for our salt cave, and a lot of subliminal things in the music that help send your body to a more relaxed state.”

Coe says that it’s not uncommon for guests to fall asleep in the room.

“It’s really, really great for just stepping out of the chaos of everyday life,” she says.

In addition to the salt cave, Peace, Love & Zen also offers traditional spa services such as massage therapy, saunas, acupuncture and dips in their oxygenated whirlpool tubs, which have highly oxygenated water.

“That in particular is really good for muscle recovery,” she says.

Massages, Facials and Beauty Care

Mink Treatment Room


Of course, there are always classic spa services to help you unwind. McMahan, the owner of Sewickley Spa, says that her spa has been offering many of the same services since they opened in 1997.

“We stick to the basics,” she says. “We just really focus on executing the best service that we can.”

That includes aromatherapy massages (a Swedish massage using essential oils), hydramemory facials (a deeply hydrating skin treatment) and cupping (where small heated cups are placed in various points across the body to create suction and facilitate blood flow). McMahon says that new services — such as a fast-drying vegan nail polish that eliminates the use of UV lamps and a lash lift service that acts as a perm for your lashes — are only a small part of their offerings.

“We’re not huge into jumping into fads,” she says. “We don’t want to divert too much from what we do, and what we do really well — the massages, the facials, the body wraps, the nail services.”

McMahon has also noticed a big change in the way that clients use her spa since the beginning of the pandemic. More people are taking time to care for themselves than she’s seen before. They also have more flexible schedules.

“Fridays and Saturdays would be our busiest days, and evenings were always hugely popular,” she says. “Now, with everyone working from home, they can sneak away a little bit during weekday hours and come to us and get their facials.”

Sound Massages and Forest Bathing

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Wyatt Mylius of Aspinwall was on his own health journey in 2012 after losing a significant amount of weight. To better connect with his new body, he began doing yoga; he found a teacher who also used sound therapy, primarily with gongs and cymbals.

“I had a session with sound, and it was the first time that I felt my body in that way,” he says. “It really connected me to my body in ways that I just can’t explain at all.”

Mylius began to experiment with his own sound practice, studying ways to use music for holistic therapy. He opened his own sound studio, Rooted in Sound, in 2016 in Lawrenceville, later moving the studio to its current location in Aspinwall. Each sound session is about 45 minutes long and can also include additional coaching or assessments, depending on the client’s needs. Prices start at $125 per session.

One of Mylius’ most popular offerings is a practice called sound massage.

“The name is a little misleading, because I’m not massaging them,” Mylius says. “I don’t touch them with my hands at all.”

Instead of a traditional massage, singing bowls are set at particular points around the body then tapped gently, offering vibrations that can be felt.

“It’s more like vibrational acupuncture, more than a massage,” Mylius says. “The vast majority of my clients are coming because they want some kind of change, they want some kind of shift in their life.”

And of course, they all want to relax.

“No matter what, you’re going to hit that state of rest, and a feeling of relaxation will just come over them,” he says. “I mean, when people get off the table, they look five, 10 years younger — just because they let go of the stress.”

Forest Bathing


While that’s definitely in the eye of the beholder, there’s no denying that the process is relaxing. For clients who want a change of scenery with their pursuit of wellness, Mylius also takes groups outside of the studio and runs forest therapy sessions near the Rachel Carson Trail — which stretches 45 miles from North Park to Harrison Hills Park.

Starting in April and until the weather gets too cold, Mylius leads participants into nature to practice the art of forest bathing, a series of activities and meditations while surrounded by trees.

“It allows people to enter a state of rest while connecting to natural surroundings,” he says. “Meditations are very sensory, and I’m having them sing and think about what they’re seeing. We look at the different shapes and textures of things like leaves and listen to the noises in the distance.”

Each session also involves “forced play,” where participants can play in the creek and interact with nature in a way they don’t typically have the chance to in their everyday life.

“It’s like if you were in that environment as a child,” he says. “We want to look at the forest with a child’s eye and with the eye of curiosity.”

Mylius’ forest sessions all conclude with a leisurely forest walk and a cup of fresh-brewed tea from foraged ingredients.

“What we do on these walks is so repeatable,” says Mylius. “It helps people to slow down so they can take time in nature on their own.”

Emily Catalano is a writer and founder of Highly Social Media, a social media and influencer marketing agency.
She also runs the website Good Food Pittsburgh.

Categories: BeWell, Hot Reads