Cures for the winter blues

A hot stone massage at Project Zen Massage.

Winter brings with it two forces of nature that can dampen the moods of even the sunniest of Californians. One hurdle is the lack of sun that gives many people Season Affective Disorder; the other is the sheer discomfort of leaving the house on these chilly days, discouraging social engagements and our will to hit the gym.

The Scandinavians have built a culture around this time of the year that supports leaving work earlier and investing more time in self-care — it’s called hygge. The closest translation to hygge in English is coziness — although the actual concept of hygge is the tradition of relishing in comfort, warmth, and connection with fireside rituals. While we can’t convince corporate America to change its work expectations, we can pursue some radical self-care.

With Finnish spas an enduring fixture in top-tier spas and Swedish massages topping the spa service menus around the world, we decided to take a cue from these pioneers of winter comfort and attempt to get toasty with some of the city’s international spa offerings to combat the winter blues. From time-honored Asian remedies to NASA-vetted technology, these treatments healed our tired shoulders, warmed our bones and spirits, and ousted our winter woes.


The soothing application of warm herbal compresses is a Thai healing technique that has been used for centuries to aid in the relief of muscle aches and fatigue. Project Zen Massage pairs this traditional practice with popular massages, including Thai, Swedish, or deep tissue. The two-hour Herbal Rejuvenation Thai package initially seemed intimidating given the interactive floor mat-based nature of a Thai massage, but it proved comforting and therapeutic. The sufficient window of time allowed for comprehensive attention to every part of the body. Slower pressure point techniques gradually worked up to partner-assisted twisting and stretching, providing a caring, human component that is nurturing in the chilly winter (Project Zen Massage, 325 Bay Street, 415-500-4777,


A local staple named for the color of the Golden Gate Bridge, International Orange Spa has helped locals beat the chills with the classics like the hot stone massage for over a decade. The heated, basalt river rocks radiate a gentle heat, permeating a warmth — and dare we say, a tranquil energy — deep into the muscle tissue. The stones are deliberately placed along points on the spine that focus on the body’s chakras, or spiritual energy centers according to Indian teachings. During the massage, the modest stones’ presence gave the illusion of an extra set of hands gently applying pressure and lulling the muscles into a relaxed state. A final hot towel and oil application from the beloved San Francisco luxury botanical line In Fiore sealed in moisture and kept our skin supple for days — just the shield we needed to fight the polar vortex’s bluster (International Orange, 2044 Fillmore Street, 2nd Floor, 415-563-5000,


We found additional relief for our creaky winter aches at the Detox Divas, a hidden gem in the Medical Arts Building. With over two decades of massage experience, founder Jo Gentry has created a soothing massage therapy based on the methods of a Chinese technique called gua sha, paired with the healing benefits of infrared sauna. During Gentry’s guassage, she gently strokes the skin with a ceramic tool at a 45-degree angle to stimulate the lymphatic system and circulation, thereby reducing muscle tension. The guassage was followed by a 30-minute detox session in the cedar wood infrared sauna, made from ceramic and carbon, which allows for concentrated heat absorption in the body. The divine treatment melted our neck and shoulder aches and renewed our souls (Detox Divas, 2000 Van Ness Avenue, Suite 502, 415-839-5500,


SenSpa’s lead specialists work year-round to create customized treatments with the needs of San Francisco residents in mind. This season’s Winter Blues Departure was designed to awaken the body using visual tranquility, skin rejuvenation, and light therapy. After an invigorating lavender salt scrub, we were slathered in rich herbal oils and swathed in heated blankets. We’ll admit: We almost fell asleep in this cozy cocoon. The refreshing catnap was followed by Celluma LED light therapy, a technology developed by NASA, used to accelerate tissue healing for astronauts who are more susceptible to injury and illness during long-term space flights. The beauty industry has embraced this type of phototherapy for its ability to active collagen, fight acne bacteria, and boost moods. The treatment left us feeling renewed as we lounged in by the fire in the tropically themed sanctuary worthy of a true Nordic higgle (SenSpa, 1161 Gorgas Avenue, 415-441-1777,

Send to a Friend Print
Valerie Demicheva is a branding strategist and culture journalist. Her work can be seen in the San Francisco Chronicle, WWD, and SF Weekly. Follow her beauty adventures on Instagram: @vanitymonger.