Friday, August 04, 2006



In your quest to find the ultimate in holistic, natural beauty, you'll find that the more you learn about the rituals of non-Western cultures, the more you get a real sense of the unwavering respect that the rest of the world has not only for nature's awesome rejuvenating power and tremendous beauty benefits, but for its innate life force and infinite healing wisdom.

In The Lady, the Chef, and the Courtesan (HarperCollins), the author, Marisol, describes the sensual and "cult-like" reverence for beauty known as la belleza instilled and nurtured in South American women from an early age, which she attributes in part to the continent's stunning natural splendor.

A hunger to explore the rejuvenating rituals of exotic cultures is what led 17-year spa consultant and trainer Alison Gibbs to Hong Kong, Thailand and Indonesia. She wanted to work with local healers to find out their traditional techniques.

Perhaps the most decadent rejuvenating beauty ritual she discovered was the "lulur" ritual that princesses in central Java receive for 40 days prior to marriage. It involves a special herbal scrub, massage and exotic flower bath.

Queen of Flowers

"The flower bath inspires the spirit and soothes the eyes," says Gibbs. The botanical ingredients used in the lulur, and their reason for use, says Gibbs, include turmeri (nourishing), rice (exfoliating), fenugreek (lymphatic clearing), gingerroot (circulation), jasmine (uplifting, aphrodisiac), Cernpaka (a flower prized and offered up in religious ceremonies) and ylangylang — the "queen of flowers" said to stimulate lymph flow, reduce swelling and act as an aphrodisiac.

Prior to the bath, yogurt is massaged on to remove the lulur scrub and "activate" the skin. "Yogurt is nutritious for the skin, adding enzymes and oil and working as a natural moisturizer," says Gibbs. A milk bath (mandi su su) is sometimes substituted for the yogurt. Gibbs adds that warming the body internally during the process with herbal drinks, such as ginger water, is also important.

After 8 years in Asia, Gibbs returned home to her native England, where she now shares her highly sought-after knowledge of authentic Indonesian beauty therapies with some of the most exclusive spas in the world. "Most Indonesian rituals acknowledge beauty from within and the importance of inner health," she says.

Henna's Cool

Another example of an inside-out approach using the medicinal plants native to a region are the beauty practices in India. Pratima Raichur, an Ayurvedic practitioner and author of Absolute Beauty (HarperCollins) cites the use of henna externally and the herb brahmi taken internally as two of the most relied-on Ayurvedic regimens for maintaining health and beauty in India's hot climate.

Says Raichur, "It is well known throughout the world that henna beautifies when applied on hair or on the body, but henna painting also takes away excess heat from the body and calms hives and rashes and balances hyperacidity. During summer, we paint our extremities, including the bottoms of the feet and hands, to avoid overheating." Indeed, the Arabian philosopher and physician Avicenna (908-1038) determined that henna was effective in treating inflammations and burns, Raichur notes.

As for brahmi, which is taken internally, Raichur says it rejuvenates brain cells and improves elasticity in the skin.

World of Beauty

In Europe, as well as ancient Egypt and Greece, chamomile was revered and used both internally and externally. The nobility put crushed camomile petals in their baths. As an internal remedy for digestive ails, it's among the top 10 prescribed medicines in Germany.

South Pacific Islanders have their virgin coconut oil, Mediterraneans their olive oil and Native Americans their mineral springs and mud baths.

I could take another 20 trips around the world and keep turning up one natural miracle after the next, all identified long ago by ancient cultures and yet only recently verified to be therapeutic by modern scientific methods.

Return to Nature

So it's no fluke that most of the historically revered rejuvenating substances above have today been proven to have the very benefits for which they been used for thousands of years.

Although we live in a land of plenty, the typical modern American may only rarely experience purely natural therapies using fresh botanicals. Instead, too many have to settle for infusing themselves with synthetic products that merely mimic nature. It makes one wonder if our quest to be "one-up" on nature and produce more and more high-tech "beauty" products are really advances at all — and toward what?

We can only hope that the new American beauty will be the best of all worlds.