Laughter, tears and floating in the air: Ahmed Zambarakji experiences an intimate, boundary-breaking body treatment
Intimacy of any nature - physical or emotional - is strictly verboten at fancy spas. As such, I have come to expect little more from my bi-weekly massage than a bit of whale music and some relatively robotic muscle kneading. While pleasant, this allows the therapist and I to remain as connected as two hurried passers-by on the Jubilee line at rush hour. She will keep her distance while I, of tight piriformis and pinching SI joint, must simply wear a pair of paper manties and shut the hell up.
This has always struck me as strange, given that effective bodywork depends on a meaningful interaction between client and therapist. Londoners aren’t exactly known for their ability to bond with others and the finer establishments in the city, ever wary of ‘professional boundaries’, do little to disrupt their miserable solitude. This memo appears to have escaped the attention of Louka Leppard, the founder of Tulayoga and the man with whom I’ve been trying to secure an appointment for the best part of a year.
Within minutes of meeting the elusive character, I am lying face down on a futon, the fleshy area covering my aforementioned piriformis covered with little more than a white sheet. I’m not entirely sure what to expect. There is little in the way of preamble before I realise that his touch is somehow different. There is a meditative quality to it; I feel a subtle vibration in his palms, a pulsing warmth. This was not someone who was about to wrestle lactic acid out of my tight muscles, but a person offering… nurturing?
The marathon of a treatment begins with rhythmic rocking motions that gradually lull me into a state of surrender. Within minutes, only half of me is left in the room. I feel his hands sweep along the underside of my body, his fingers in my ears, in my hair. He pushes energy out from my sacral area, chases it up my spine and literally pulls it out of the top of my head. No nook, no cranny is left uncharted. This goes on for two whole hours and, while intensely intimate, there is nothing remotely inappropriate or unsafe about this encounter. It is deeply sensuous – as in sensorial – rather than sexual.
While the perpetual rhythmic strokes might look highly choreographed to an observer, I get the sense that this entire body ballet is far from scripted. Rather than follow meridians (which, at first, is what I suspect he’s doing) or mixing and matching a set of predetermined techniques, Leppard tells me (later, in post-treatment bliss out) that he was merely walking the ‘landscape’ of my body. I have no idea what he’s on about. Clearly, he has a keen understanding of the natural contours of muscle and fascia, their innate rhythm and pliability... but there’s something highly spontaneous about this interaction. “From where I see it,” he says, “effective massage cannot be a repetitive process of preconceived movements. Massage is a meditation, an art.”
Back in Tula trance, Leppard contorts into different positions on and around the futon, so that he can access muscles and joints from different angles. I sneak a glance and the guy is absolutely enthralled. He is having a right old time as he hums along to the melancholic Bon Iver-y tunes that waft from the stereo. He also seems to have a strong kinesthetic of what my body might be holding on a psycho-emotional level too, and as he touches an area where I’m armoured, silent tears appear as if from nowhere.
Conversely, moments of deep relaxation are punctuated with the odd giggle. A whole plethora of inexplicable and involuntary stuff comes up, none of it too overwhelming. Yes, the whole session might have blown apart any semblance of a boundary, but in its place was the kind of communion that is pivotal to emotional and physical release.
Then comes the grand finale, around 30 minutes of Tulayoga, a unique mix of acroyoga and massage to which we’ve been building up. This element of the session sees Leppard suspend all six foot two of me (now fully clothed) in mid-air, upside down, on the soles of his feet. The act sounds daunting but, when you’re the one floating through space, the positions become strangely effortless - natural even.
In my semi-comatose state, I’m able to move in and out of flying asanas without too much resistance. Many of the poses create the feeling of being cocooned in the womb or weightless as in a floatation tank. The difference is that gravity is at work, stretching out my muscles and opening up my body. The entire length of my spine is decompressed during the inversions, each vertebrae naturally falling back into its right position. The thighs and psoas are elongated, allowing for greater mobility (in fact, I notice an overstrained QL regains flexibility by morning, no small feat given how tricky this muscle is to treat). Blood flushes through my body, flooding every inch with a fresh supply of energy.
While this kind of work isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea, it’s worth noting that those who do decide to track down Leppard will need to have mastered the art of surrender. Not just because this guy is balancing your entire body weight on his feet, but because he’s holding you at that point when you’re at your most vulnerable, emotionally speaking. And, in Leppard, you couldn’t hope for a more trustworthy pair of hands. Or feet.
Treatments are a mixture of floor-based bodywork with oil (Tulamassage) followed by floating in the air (Tulayoga). A session with Louka Leppard lasts 2.5 hrs and costs £300. Louka also offers retreats on sailboats in the Aegean and trainings in Bali and Berlin. See tulayoga.com for more details.