Spa Watch: Aji Spa, Arizona
By Mary Alice Kellogg
An Arizona native, SpaWatcher wonders: where’s the resort where views from an award-winning restaurant include wild horses roaming free in the desert distance, luxe rooms incorporating true spirit of place … and a spa sanctuary where authentic local plants and tribal culture come together in singular and memorable treatments?
Of course SpaWatcher found it. At Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort, the art, heritage and culture of the owners – the Pima and Maricopa tribes of southern Arizona – are everywhere, from the culturally-themed guestrooms, to the “new Native American cuisine” at the resort’s AAA Five-Diamond Kai restaurant. Set on the 372,000-acre reservation outside Phoenix, Wild Horse Pass has the requisite challenging golf courses (two of them), tennis, horseback riding and – a couple of miles away – the casino. And yes: wild horses do indeed make frequent cameo appearances in the surrounding landscape.
But what brought me here was something more intriguing: the resort’s 17,000-square foot Aji Spa, which boasts “the world’s most autentic Native American spa services.” To test that, I chose the Pima Medicine Massage, which promised to incorporate energy work and ancient techniques to achieve relaxation “with traces of spiritual healing.”
This isn’t precisely New Age; the Gila River Community can trace its origins and culture back to 300 B.C., after all. The fact that my massage/energy session would be conducted by Belen Stoneman, a Pima spiritual healer and cultural caretaker who created most of the treatments at Aji – which means “sanctuary” in the Pima language – sealed the deal.
Stoneman – barefoot, wearing traditional dress and with flowing long black hair – began our session by asking me what issues were weighing on my mind. I immediately spilled. Taking my hands in hers, she spent a few moments in silent prayer – moments in which I immediately began to relax, feeling a palpably warm healing energy. During the course of a one-hour full-body massage, she used creosote spray, oils made from local plants, and gentle yet effective accupressure and bodywork techniques passed down for generations of healers to release stress and install mind-body-spirit balance. This was more than a massage, of course; a sense of peace, trust and restoration was present throughout. The scent of burning sacred sage signalled the end of the session and, during our post-massage conversation, I knew that Stoneman truly was a gifted healer, the real deal. I felt lighter, more focused and, with her parting words, the recipient of some mighty wisdom that I carry with me still.
Leaving the spa, I saw a magnificent hawk tracing whirlwind patterns in the blue sky above me, following me for a few moments until it … vanished into thin air. A parting spirit sign from the Pima medicine woman? You betcha: that’s my journey and I’m sticking to it.
Native plants are used in all the spa’s Indigenous product line, including creosote, sage, willow bark and other Sonoran desert plants. Every month, Stoneman herself gathers about 100 pounds of creosote alone, talking to and blessing each plant as she goes. A spa where even the unguents have sacred origins? Aji had me at “hello.” It will you, too.
Mary Alice Kellogg, a New York-based writer and editor, is a recipient of the Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Award for Consumer Reporting. A contributor to many national publications, including Travel + Leisure, Conde Nast Traveler, Bon Appetit and GQ, she has reported from 120 countries and five of the seven seas to date… and counting.Visit MaryAlicekellogg.com