Since human beings can’t hibernate, every year we’re forced to brave the winter elements. Sometimes that’s fun (skiing down mountains and sipping hot chocolate), sometimes not so much (scraping off the old windshield and driving on ice-covered roads).

Either way, the cold, the wind and the occasional slip on the sidewalk can take a toll on the body. There may be no better way to relax the mind and loosen up the body than a hot-stone massage (except, perhaps, a hot toddy).

Massage therapist Norah Harris, who has been practicing the art of hot-stone massage for six years at Ten Thousand Waves, talks rocks with SFR.

SFR: How did you discover hot-stone massage?
NH: I had a treatment and found that it was so much deeper, that it took me to such a deeper level of relaxation, that I really wanted to learn that and provide that for people.

What types of stones are used?
We use two different types of stones in the treatment at Ten Thousand Waves—which is a little different than some people do. We use hot stones and cool stones. The hot stones are basalt and they come in all different shapes and sizes. We use, give or take, 60 per treatment. The cool we use less, probably between 10 and 20, and they’re marble. We keep them on ice and we alternate them on areas that need extra work. The hot and cold alternating flushes fresh oxygen and nutrients into the tissue. The cool also helps with inflammation.

The alternating hot and cold sounds nice, but you said most people just do the hot?
Some people are a little bit apprehensive when we tell them what the treatment is going to be, but it ends up being really refreshing for them, especially in areas that tend to carry the most stress. I use hot and cool a lot in the traps—in the shoulders and the neck—and generally when I apply the cool, I always tell people that I’m going to, there’s just this sigh of relief because you’ve been bathed in warmth and to add this contrast really adds a depth to the therapeutic part but also the sensory aspect of the treatment.

How does doing a stone massage affect the body
differently than a hands-on massage?
The basic goals are the same: to increase circulation in the tissues. But the hot and cool stone does that much quicker because the tissues are responding not only to the pressure but also to the heat, so there’s an automatic relaxation response to that. You can often work deeper with the stones because you don’t have to spend so much time warming up the tissues manually. The heat of the stones penetrates and relaxes those tissues so you can get to the less superficial tissues much more quickly. Also with the treatment there are layouts so that while the person is having the front of their body worked on, they’re laying on a spinal layout of hot stones and that, because it’s right along the spine, also triggers a relaxation response because of all of the nerve endings coming out of the spine; it prepares the tissues in the back to be worked on when they get turned over.

That sounds like a place to lie all day.
Yeah. It is so comforting. People really like it a lot. And the other thing I find with hot stones, which I would say is better than regular massage, is that if a therapist is working in a specific area doing deep-tissue work, there’s that feeling of getting into the muscle that can kind of hurt. The heat can act as a sensory distraction for that so you don’t have to feel that pain. It’s still getting the effect but, since there’s the heat sensation to focus on, you’re not focused on the tissue burn.

Where did the idea of using stones come from?
The history is a little ambiguous. Stones have been used in cultures for healing, from Japan to Native Americans to Polynesians, but their traditional use has been lost. It was brought to the West by a woman in Arizona in the ’80s, Mary Nelson, who started using hot stones on athletes and people with really dense musculature. She was in the sauna one day after work and saw the stones in the sauna and wondered if she could use them to get into the deep muscles without killing the body. She started to experiment with it and over a few years developed a whole treatment—not just working the muscles but a whole ritual aspect of it, considering the stones as an energetic force as well.

Since it’s such a new practice, is it still developing?
A lot of people have done it on their own or developed their own ways of doing it. In some places more than others, it’s evolving. It’s still the same basic training for people, but it’s been added to over the years. At Ten Thousand Waves, we experiment with more specific deep-tissue stones so we’ve been holding classes as an exploration of the group to figure out how to use the stones as tools more effectively.

Does each therapist have his own style of massage?
I definitely know that I have a certain style. I try to vary that from client to client. My style tends to be more founded in lomi lomi, which is another kind of massage that I do, so I like to focus initially more on the nervous system, doing more long strokes, whereas someone might have more focus on muscular training and they do more compression or something like that. So it’s true, everyone is different in the treatment they give. But because we’re working with so many tools, each therapist has developed their own format. With stones the challenge is to organize 60 stones at once to make it seamless for the client.  

What particular issues is hot stone best for?
Definitely sprains and strains, tightness in the joints, are really good for hot stone, as well as general tension. If someone has a muscle spasm that they can’t get rid of, stones can be so much more penetrating than regular massage. It’s not for pregnant woman, that’s one group we just can’t do the stones on, because the heat tends to be too much for them.

How do the stones affect you as a therapist?
It takes some time to get used to the hot stones. It took me about six months to get really used to it—we keep the stones at about 160 degrees. It can be nice because I save my fingers and joints because I’m using a tool to dig in, but the body mechanics around the table are a bit more challenging. Because you’re holding a stone, the wrist can take a burden that it’s not used to. That’s why I like to alternate between doing different types of massage, to give my body a chance to be in different positions. One good thing about stones is that stones can help buffer taking in people’s energy a little bit. They magnetize that energy and hold onto it. The stones act as a buffer so that I don’t have to take it on so much.

How are the stones prepared?
We need about 20 minutes before our first treatment to get everything read. We use a turkey roaster, basically, that’s filled with water to heat the stones. There’s also the ice and the marble stones as well. We always keep a little bucket standing by with cool water in case the stones get above temperature. And at the Waves, we have a great system for taking care of the stones, where each set is allowed to take a break once a day and every three months we put them out on the Earth to let them recharge their Earth energy. We don’t just use them, we treat them very nicely, and I think it makes a big difference in the quality of the heat that comes out of them and the quality of the work that we do. So we’re not always using the same set, we have three sets in the room at all times and one on the Earth at all times.

Ten Thousand Waves
$149 for a 70-minute Deep Stone Massage
3451 Hyde Park Road