Lying back on an ultra-comfortable facialist’s couch, I stare in fascination at the scenes swamping my vision. From the outside, the virtual reality headset I’m wearing may look cumbersome, but here on the inside, it’s all space and wonderment.
A disembodied female voice — I’ll call her Sofia — is welcoming me to my ‘mindful spa experience’ and inviting me to ‘reconnect to my senses’ as extraordinary images unfurl in front of me. A vast blue sky with fluffy clouds has given way to something stranger.
It looks as if I am underwater in some kind of lagoon, but I’m actually at the Sanderson Hotel’s Agua Spa in central London, experiencing the latest high-tech facial, which combines virtual reality with mindfulness.
A virtual reality headset and the world it creates may be something that is familiar to today’s teenagers from the latest video games, but for middle-aged women like me it is a strange and somewhat unsettling experience.
Wearing this headset, I feel I’m not just watching something on the screen in front of me. Rather, it makes me feel I’m actually in the middle of the scene I can see. I daren’t move my head to look around — which you can do in the virtual world — for fear of losing my balance, which is ridiculous, given I am already lying down.
Sofia’s smooth, calm American accent is telling me about the power of touch, and how each new contact with my skin triggers the release of neurochemicals linked to ‘serenity, tranquillity and happiness flow’.
Gosh, yes, touch. Sofia isn’t in this on her own. I forgot to mention the facialist — Sandy. A real human being who is synchronising her movements to Sofia’s words and steadily moving her hands down my arms and legs in a series of gentle acupressure movements.
Sofia’s voice asks me to breathe in deeply through my nose, and as I do, I can smell a delicious blend of essential oils, which Sandy is wafting in front of me.
‘Acknowledge,’ suggests Sofia, how in this precise moment, the aromas, along with the power of touch, are boosting your sense of wellbeing.’
My mind reels. It’s verging on sensory overload, all this touch, smell, sight and sound coming at once, but it’s fabulous.
‘Pay attention to your head and observe the sensations,’ urges Sofia, as Sandy begins giving me a gentle scalp massage and kaleidoscopic shapes blossom and merge before my eyes.
When Sofia says, ‘Whatever you’re experiencing is your reality right now,’ my brain more or less hangs up, unable to process it all. ‘Mind. Officially. Blown,’ as teenagers might say. Welcome to the future of the facial.
Natura Bisse, the brand behind this out-of-your-head experience, is no silicon valley fly-by-night. The Spanish luxury skincare company has more than 30 years’ experience creating ground-breaking beauty products, particularly in the field of anti-ageing. It spent two years developing and honing ‘The Mindful Touch’ treatment, which was trialled on celebrities including Emma Stone in the pre-Oscars pampering suites, and has just launched in the UK.
The idea behind it, says the company, is to translate the fashion for mindfulness into the beauty world, to help quieten the constant chattering in the brain, which is the main source of our worry, anxiety and stress.
Stress certainly has a bad, and measurable, effect on the skin, and the benefits of mindfulness for our health are proven.
Using breathing techniques or just concentrating lightly on what we are doing at the present moment helps to boost our overall mood, our physical and mental health, our creativity, our concentration, our sleep.
I completely agree with all this. I’ve been writing about the benefits of mindfulness for years, and I meditate every day. Well, almost every day.
But I still find the main difficulty with mindfulness is actually doing it, actually having the discipline to pull my thoughts, which tend to bounce about like ferrets in a sack, into a calm and orderly place of quiet.
I love facials, too, not least for the chance to lie down and rest, but I often find that it takes a good half hour to fully relax into the couch, however expert the facialist.
What’s fascinating about the Mindful Touch treatment is that it has an almost instant tranquillising effect.
The virtual reality part only lasts for an intense eight minutes — but eight minutes is enough. The Natura Bisse visions are amazing without being overwhelming — you get to watch what is going on, the images of giant flowers unfolding, or molten lava bubbling through cracked rock, rather than feeling too dangerously immersed in it.
The package of touch, smell, images and Sofia’s exhortations to ‘reconnect with my senses’ has the effect of plunging me into a place of deep calm.
By the time Sandy gently removes the headset — well, it wouldn’t be much of a facial if she couldn’t get at my face, would it? — I am so dozy and relaxed, I barely notice the tingly sting of a 25 per cent glycolic acid solution being painted on to my face — something that freshens the skin by dissolving the bonds that keep dead skin cells stuck to the skin’s surface, so they can just be wiped away.
As Sandy moves on to the main business of what she refers to as the ‘Diamond Experience’, I find myself pondering how far the facial has come.
When I started having treatments in my 20s, they tended to be basic and formulaic. A bit of cleansing, a bit of steaming, some painful extractions of blackheads and a face mask, with a massage if you were lucky.
Thirty years later, the term facial can encompass any amount of high-tech gadgetry, from needling devices and soothing red lights, both of which stimulate collagen production in the skin, to microdermabrasion — an advanced form of exfoliation.
But this mindful virtual reality moves the whole thing on to a new plane.
The headset may be off, but Sofia isn’t done with me. Her voice continues on a speaker while Sandy works her magic.
I realise that when written out on the page, Sofia’s continual commands to breathe, to focus and to feel what’s going on in my body look extremely annoying and slightly bossy.
A bit like a sat-nav for a full mind-body experience. I found myself flinching while typing them out. But at the time, they seemed just great — an invitation to go with her on this wonderful voyage of exploration into mindfulness.
As she reminds me to observe the thoughts that cross my mind, I realise she is talking over the lightly thumping soundtrack of a slow, calm heartbeat.
Clever. If my pulse wasn’t already at an all-time low, I am sure this would help it sink further. The gaps between Sofia’s pronouncements become longer and longer. I drift off into a light doze, as Sandy kneads my face with her expert fingers and applies serums, nectars and creams.
I barely surface even when she whispers in my ear to check I’m not claustrophobic before painting a thick layer of ‘algae mask’ over a gauze cloth that covers my eyes, as well as the rest of my face.
Sofia’s voice comes and goes. She seems to be repeating herself a bit. In fact, she seems to be snoring. Oh, heck, that’s me.
When the hour is up and Sandy and Sofia both gently encourage me back into the real world, I feel as if I’ve been a long way away — on a different planet perhaps. My mind feels as clear and fresh as my skin looks.
As treatments go, this is definitely a game-changer, particularly as the virtual reality headset can be used before any of the facials or massages that Natura Bisse offers. It may be the only treatment of its kind available at the moment, but this stress-buster and skin-booster rolled into one is such a clever innovation that it’s bound to be widely copied.
As Sofia would say, this is the new reality in beauty.