Many spas in New York City combine physical refreshment with an Eastern or New Age spirituality. In East Harlem Soluna Holitic Spa also draws upon Puerto Rican and African spiritualities.
As an 13 or 14-year-old girl, Susu Lespier became the neighborhood skin doctor. When her preteen friends began to suffer from acne, Lespier provided the recipe for healing: cook oatmeal (no sugar added); apply to skin; and leave on for 30 minutes. Her friends found lasting results. Curiously, they asked Lespier how she discovered this remedy. Lespier replied: "My grandmother told me. I learned them all from her kitchen.”
Her grandmother complemented her healing medicines with spiritual divination which Lespier believes helped her grandmother to avoid most illnesses. More significantly, her grandmother taught her about the family’s roots in Puerto Rican spiritualism known as Espiritismo, the Spanish term for "Spiritism" (link to pdf of paper on Puerto Rican espiritsmo and traditional healing remedies). This spiritualism stems from the belief that ancestors function as intermediaries between the divine and the secular.
After her grandmother’s passing in the early 1980s, Lespier made a commitment to spiritually connect with her. Consequently, the matriarch's influence continues to guide Lespier's life journey.
With her grandmother, Lespier spent hours cooking meals and using herbs for health. “[My grandmother] instilled everything inside me,” Lespier said. “She was a very strong person and the one who gave me the nurturing sense I have.”
Lespier’s education from her grandmother culminated with the opening of her business which she calls an “urban oasis in the heart of Spanish Harlem.” Soluna Holistic Spa, situated on 103rd street and Lexington Avenue, offers an array of natural remedies for skin care, massage therapy, nutrition and exercise. It's only a two year-old business, but it stands out in a community needing healthy alternatives.
The spa is in an area known as a “food desert," a term used to portray communities with few options for nutritious and affordable food. In 2008, the NYC Department of City Planning announced that Spanish Harlem had among the city's highest levels of diet-related diseases like diabetes and heart issues. Lespier desires her spa to be a place for fostering a healthy lifestyle with the added benefit of spiritual renewal.
"We want this place to be where people can get that touch of healing," Lespier said, a graduate of the Swedish Institute for Massage Therapy. "That’s why we’re in the healing business. To us, holistic means educating [the community] about these wellness and alternative lifestyle choices. We can give them the tools, and then they have to do the work.”
Soluna massage therapist Yvette Morales agrees. "This area has never had a holistic place to go," Morales said. "If they don't learn this, they are not only going to continue living unhealthy, but they are going to spiritually die. With the services we offer, what we do is different from any other spa. There is a caring here to educate."
Lespier's journey as spa owner starts with her ancestors from Puerto Rico. Her ancestors practiced a religion developed during the period of the Puerto Rican slave trade in the nineteenth century. Africans from the Congo region brought religious beliefs that developed into Espiritismo.
Although a basic tenet of Espiritismo is the presence of one omnipotent God who's the supreme creator of the Universe, the riual focus is on ancestor worship and spiritual channeling. Without a priestly hierarchy or formal church buildings, the worship takes place mainly in the privacy of one's home. Ancestors are spoken to as active spirits who directly affect the daily lives of their family.
Her grandparents immigrated to Spanish Harlem in the 1930s due to the country's unstable economy and poverty. Her grandmother became a seamstress. Waking up every morning at three, her grandmother would make fresh meals for her husband before heading out to work by six. Everyday when her grandmother came home, Lespier headed over to the apartment after school.
"I stop and say a prayer to my grandmother and other relatives everyday," she said. "I talk to them just like I'm talking to anyone. I don't think I could do this without their guidance or strength. We all have our guardian angels and our spirit guides. I completely believe that."
Following her grandmother’s death, Lespier moved to New Paltz, New York. Her family followed later to join her. She owned and operated a small organic product store back then. But in 2000, Lespier heard the voice of her ancestors calling her back home to Spanish Harlem.
"My spirit guides said you gotta go," she said. "I went to the bank, got some money and went on my way."
When she first arrived back to the city, she found a job teaching skin care. Then, she moved for awhile to an apartment on 111th street in Harlem a decade ago. When an old doctor's office opened for rent on 103rd street, Lespier's desire to kickstart her own business began to elevate.
"I just had this sense that I had to be here," she said. "I always had a vision of having a business in a brown-stone."
The setting proved to be ideal and the size accommodated the massage therapy bed, skin care and waiting rooms. In order to rent the space for her business, Lespier made sacrifices. She leased her apartment and moved from one friends house to another for eight months.
"I work so hard at this everyday," Lespier remarked. "I put it all out into the universe and I feel like my family members bring [the strength] to me."
In Espiritismo, spirits can affect health. So to further this traditional connection of spirituality and health, Lespier started offering yoga and tai chi classes last summer. In the backyard of the spa lies the "garden of possibilities" where classes take place throughout the week. The open outdoor space enclosed by a wooden fence has room for up to 20 class participants. Yoga classes are carried out up to three times a day with "hot yoga" practiced at noon during the peak hours of the sun.
"Yoga works the mind and the body together," Soluna yoga instructor Annette Vetere said. "After I first started taking yoga classes years ago, I began to have a completely different outlook on life."
In the spa, spiritual healing is found in the areas of skin care and massage therapy with clients processing lingering emotional pain. "I've done aroma therapy sessions with people diagnosed with Eczema and they say, 'Nobody ever wants to touch me.' People come in who need that touch and we give it to them," Lespier said. The spa owner also emphasized that they are give encouragement to people of all faiths.
Soluna massage therapist Morales also saw this pain in many clients who enter the doors of the spa.
"They often are crying because they are experiencing an emotional release," she said. "It's like a spiritual awakening--whatever it may be for them is very powerful. The one thing that connects all human life is the ability to transfer touch. We are teaching them that the act of touch can be healing."
Healing is not only a common word used for clients at Soluna Holistic Spa. Lespier’s own spiritual healing has been a process since the death of her 49-year-old brother David one year-and-a-half ago, whom she shared a close relationship.
"Losing my brother was the biggest hurdle of my life," she said. "My family has always been very close. Now there is an emptiness and loss I feel. But I believe that from the moment my brother passed away to this very second, he is here with me."
The spa as an "urban oasis" rings true especially for Lespier. Everyday as she returns to her spa, she continues to find spiritual recovery. "I hear my brother say to me, 'Take care of yourself Susu.' I am able to do that here," she said. "I don't know where I would be emotionally or spiritually without this place."
Lespier's family connection continues to be strong. She speaks with her mother everyday and remains in contact with her older and younger sister. She has a grown son living in New York City. The strength she gains from the deep-rooted connection which she feels toward her past ancestors allows her to think about the future for those still here today.
"The crew sometimes asks me, 'How do you do it? How do you get here on three hours of sleep and work the whole day and leave late at night to come back and do the same thing the next day,'" she said, pondering. "The answer is, it is just for my family. I'm doing this so that I can help out my family."
143 East 103rd Street
Between Lexington & Park Avenue, Ground level. Close Mondays and Tuesdays