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Where's the Rub?

A masseur once extolled the beauty of massage to me with the kind of phrase that called to mind grade school reports on multiculturalism, with accompanying dioramas. "It's about enjoying cultural differences," he said, by way of explaining why it is that one would intentionally seek out shiatsu in Iceland, New Age woo woo in Santa Fe, or the knee in the back at Bangkok's Wat Po.

"You can't have a friend go to Istanbul and not rave about the hammams," says the New York decorator Carey Maloney, who not long ago visited one of those traditional Turkish bathhouses with his partner, Hermes Mallea.

"First, we checked into this room that was reminiscent of a bus station," says Maloney, "and then we went up to a cubicle where we took off our clothes, put on polka-dotted towels, and stood around until some surly attendant told us to go lie on a slab."

Once on the marble bench, Maloney was left to marinate in his own perspiration until summoned by a 350-pound masseur. "He soaped me, then pointed me to a spigot in the wall and doused me, and then sent me back to the slab again," Maloney explains. There was a certain amount of massage involved, he adds, but "it was more of a karate-chop-type thing." Have I mentioned that the masseur himself was unclothed?It's a matter of thresholds of tolerance, I guess; my own is fairly high, although it stops short of participation in naked martial-arts sessions with former extras from Midnight Express.

In my experiences with Indian massage, I have sometimes left feeling like a lab rat (as when an Ayurvedic doctor in Kerala insisted on blowing turmeric smoke up my nose, administering a raw flower paste to my hair, and applying medicinal goo to the insides of my eyelids) and sometimes been moved toward a state of consciousness one associates with recreational drugs.

At the newly built spa of the Taj Malabar hotel in Cochin, I recently found myself drifting in white-light serenity as a masseur slathered me with medicinal oils. The oils had been prescribed by an Ayurvedic physician, who first analyzed the doshas that apparently constitute my energetic essence, and then noted that I would do well to spend the first 10 minutes after waking meditatingon my priorities. But I already do that. And, let's face it, what one seeks from therapeutic treatment is relaxation and increased well-being, not self-help advice filched from some faded text by Dale Carnegie.

I want to feel better when I leave than when I came in. Is that so odd?I want the sort of treatment that I received last winter in an Austrian resort, where a young attendant told me that he would "make Swedish, with stomach" and spent an hour unraveling what felt like skeins of muscular knots. Did I ski any better for that?Who cares?In an age when yoga is practiced competitively, when reward is inevitably yoked to endurance, when it seems more crucial than ever to forgo the idiocies of "no pain, no gain" for the indulgence of touch, it's important to remain vigilant against creeping Puritanism and to get naked with a stranger every once in a while.

GUY TREBAY is a contributing editor for Travel + Leisure and a staff reporter for the New York Times.

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