I’m sitting in the chillingly air-conditioned SaunaBar, a semi-New Age spa concept in L.A., checking off boxes on an intake form as to why I’ve elected to have a lymphatic massage. I opt for “stress relief,” “detoxification” and “increased bone density.” The latter I’m particularly interested in as I broke my right leg pretty badly a couple of years ago and equate the severity of the injury with how weak my bone was. (SaunaBar’s lymphatic massage promise: “[To] reduce the appearance of cellulite, slim down by eliminating water retention and enhance detoxification.”)
Aesthetically, SaunaBar is a cross between the 1999 Disney Channel original movie Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century and a cozy grandma-style cafe gift shop in its assortment of creams, vitamins and other beauty and wellness products — with a dash of tanning-salon vibes thrown in. Given this unexpected trifecta, I feel very much at home as I read about hydrogen-infused water and food-sensitivity programs while waiting for SaunaBar founder Joseph Harounian.
Most captivatingly, I watch a fiftysomething woman stand on a jiggling platform as she holds on to its handles. The platform isn’t springy or anything like that. Nor is it rocking like a roller coaster, wave machine or even a Stairmaster. Its vibrations are faint, and the lady standing on its scale-like structure is calm, though pulsating a bit while staring at herself in the mirror. This is a procedure called “whole body vibration” that supposedly burns calories without any major exertion or fatigue.
Harounian is a petite man with glowing skin who opened SaunaBar more than a decade ago as a spa and weight loss center. In terms of his own personal regimen, he receives at least three lymphatic compression massages a week, following them up with time in one of SaunaBar’s sauna pods, which are lined with jade stones and contain pouches large enough to hold a human. The “compression” aspect of the lymphatic massage means that instead of a human massage therapist administering the bodywork, SaunaBar clients like myself lay on a massage table and get strapped into a multi-piece compression suit. Think of it like having compression socks all over your body.
“The lymphatic system is comprised of tissues and organs — vessels, ducts, lymph nodes, the spleen, the thymus, the adenoids and the tonsils — that help to store, produce and carry white blood cells also known as lymphocytes,” MEL’s resident holistic esthetician Andrea Amez explains to me before my trip to SaunaBar. “In other words, our lymphatic system is integral to helping our bodies fight bacteria and infection. It’s our body’s filtration system, plain and simple. If the lymph or white blood cells don’t flow freely, the waste and toxins build up, causing a severely weakened immune system and health complications.”
Basically, if your lymphs aren’t working properly and this liquid fails to filtrate properly, it congeals until it becomes thick, creamy and gross. This means toxic cells, which could potentially include cancer cells, get stuck in your body because it doesn’t have a pump to loosen that stuff up. Amez says bloating, dry skin, acne breakouts, fatigue, water retention, chronic colds and sore throats and cellulite are all possible signs of lymphatic congestion. Same for stiffness, brain fog, “sluggish bowel function” and shoulder pain.
Hence, a lymphatic massage. It essentially forces all that nasty shit from your lymphs, and in theory at least, cuts off at the pass all that bloating, dry skin, acne breakouts, fatigue, water retention, chronic colds and sore thoats, cellulite, stiffness, brain fog, shoulder pain and sluggish bowel funciton — and anything else anyone ever has said blockage in your lymphs is to blame for.
According to Harounian, lymphatic massage is nothing new, but that interest in the procedure, which is SaunaBar’s most popular offering save for the actual saunas, has grown considerably due to the prevalence of influencers, especially those in the wellness space, talking about massaging and draining their lymphatic systems (#LymphaticDrainage). (There are also, he offers, more low-tech ways jar loose the crap in your lymphs — from those foam rollers at the gym, to dry body brushes, to trampolines.)
Instagram is definitely what brought me to SaunaBar. I wanted to treat my lymphs because after a few years without any biology classes, I’d completely forgotten what my lymphs even did. All I knew is that many women are opting for lymphatic massages — both for their bodies and faces — as part of their beauty routine.
Wearing socks, pants and a loose T-shirt per SaunaBar’s instructions, Harounian encourages me to lay strapped into my compression garments and massage table for the full 35-minute session recommended for first-timers (retail price — roughly $70). “It may feel a little claustrophobic at first,” my attendant warns me once in the room.
“Great,” I gulp.
The room’s lavender aromatherapy relaxes me a bit as the pulsating massage begins. I feel like I’m strapped into one giant blood-pressure sleeve, but instead of crushing my entire body at once, it treats me body part by body part — from my ankles, to my feet and lower legs, to my thighs, hips and stomach. (The upper body isn’t part of the standard procedure.) At first, the intense compression bothers me, but it’s never exactly painful. My thighs hurt the most, which makes sense given that they’re thicker than the other parts of my leg. I feel the most relief in my sacrum area, the lowest part of my spine, and hips, where most people — but especially those of us with uteruses — carry a lot of stress.
Going in, I was aware I was a little depressed and agitated. Mostly because I’d abandoned meditating for a couple months, and aside from some peaceful ocean swims, I’d also avoided spending quiet time with myself to simply release and surrender to the circumstances of my life. In short, I was all yang and no yin, which was harming my mood. But as I lay strapped into this weird, velcro-lined compression space suit, I feel physically restricted in the most soothing way — kinda like being tucked into bed as a child or tied to a bedpost as a consenting adult. I’m not claiming a single lymphatic massage will transform my mental health in the long run, but it definitely does in the moment (which is all we should worry about if we’re really living in the present, right?)
Aside from relaxation, my favorite part of the treatment is that the remaining scar tissue from my broken leg now appears to be considerably less prominent. It went from a mountain on my shin to a hardly perceivable hill. (That’s probably why it’s highly recommended for those who have undergone plastic surgery, particularly liposuction and tummy tucks; conversely, those with lymphatic disorders, such as lymphedema, are recommended to receive such massages in hopes of avoiding surgery on the lymph nodes.)
“Look at you, you’re glowing,” Harounian says after my treatment.
I appreciate the sentiment as much as the treatment. Admittedly, though, it’s hard to tell if he’s right or not — though the compression massage did increase my circulation, so I guess I could look noticeably rejuvenated compared to when I arrived. Either way, again, I’m just trying to stay in the moment. And at the moment, I’m very interested in unclogging my lymphs much more frequently.