Del Ray, Doing Well With Wellness

Del Ray, Doing Well With Wellness

By Brigid Schulte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 2, 2008 

In the space of a handful of blocks along Mount Vernon Avenue in Del Ray, one could get a hot stone massage followed by a bone-cracking chiropractic session, breathe deeply in a yoga class, firm flabby core muscles with a Pilates trainer, pick up some Chinese herbs, clear chi with acupuncture needles or realign one's chakras with reiki, analyze one's past with a psychotherapist or envision the perfect future with a life coach. And perhaps top it all off with a cleansing colonic.

Add in foot reflexology, a facial and a meditation class and it's clear why some people are saying that Del Ray, the funky Alexandria neighborhood where, as locals like to say, "Main Street still exists," is beginning to look a lot like "Well Ray."

So long Rent-a-Center, locksmith and down-at-the-heels dry cleaner. Just say Om.

"Everywhere you look, there's another yoga studio, a Pilates studio, five massage places," said Megan Bellamy Brown. "You wonder, how can the avenue support all this? But somehow it does."

Brown, a physical therapist, is co-owner of a yoga/Pilates/meditation studio called Mind the Mat that she opened in the summer on Mount Vernon Avenue. At first, some people told her she was crazy. "I knew the market would be tough given that there were so many other wellness centers nearby. But we all feed off each other," she said. "We all have our place."

"It's kind of like having a Restaurant Row," said Lola Capps of nearby Chrysalis Chiropractic. "Except we're Health and Wellness Row."

Some, like Del Ray Business Association President Maria Wasowski, have watched the transformation into Well Ray with a mixture of awe, incredulity and trepidation.

"I think the reason why some people say, 'Oh no, not another health studio,' is because they would like to see more of a critical mass of retail that would make Del Ray more of a destination," Wasowski said. "But small-business owners should be able to open their businesses where they think they are going to do well. And they're doing well. The newest place, Mind the Mat, is filling up their classes. People are constantly coming in and out of there. So clearly the market was not saturated."

They succeed, practitioners say, not only because the wellness industry is booming, but also because everyone does things a little differently. Studio Body Logic specializes in Pilates classes on a contraption of springs and weights. Mind the Mat offers kid yoga as well as classes for those recovering from injuries. Stephanie Simmons at the Healing Tree offers acupuncture for fertility. Capps adjusts even newborn spines.

"There's a surprisingly huge variety," Wasowski said. "It's kind of fascinating to me that this all evolved. There's been no plan. It's all been very organic."

Although no one can quite explain how it happened, most trace the beginnings of Well Ray to Maryellen Thorp. In 2001, Thorp was working in Old Town at an athletic club and going to massage school. She had just bought a house in Del Ray and liked the small-town feel of Mount Vernon Avenue, its main street, and how easy it was to walk to shops. Then she spotted a sign that Spurlock's, an old watch-repair shop, was going out of business. The place was for rent. "Once I saw that For Rent sign, that was it," Thorp said.

She opened the Healing Tree, providing massage therapy and "therapeutic body work," first working just two days a week.

Thorp said she believes that, as she likes to say, massage matters. At age 29, when her two children were young, she learned that she had Hodgkin's disease, a cancer of the lymphatic system. During treatment, she said, she felt like she was fighting the cancer. But the long months of waiting for test results, her mind racing with questions like "Will the cancer come back?," "How do you go on?," "How do I raise my kids?" and "How do you not live in fear?," nearly did her in.

Massage helped her through, giving her a safe and silent space. "Massage put me in touch with my body. I think a lot of people spend a lot of time trying not to feel their bodies and so feel disconnected. Massage calmed me down and quieted my mind," she said. "I like to say that Western medicine saved my life, but Eastern medicine healed the rest of me."

Over the years, her practice has grown so much that more than 11 massage therapists and licensed acupuncturists work in two Healing Tree locations. These days, Thorp can't walk far without bumping into someone carrying a yoga mat. "My clients come in from all over, the neighborhood, D.C., Maryland, Arlington, Loudoun County. Some people even come in from Manassas," she said. "I'm afraid to say this, given all the bad economic news, but," she paused to knock on a wood table, "but we've been doing well."

The reason, Thorp said, has everything to do with stresses such as the current financial downturn.

"Some of my clients say this is not a luxury, this is a must-have," she said. "We're all working harder than ever. People are bringing their BlackBerries to bed. We have a lot of stress. One client is a rocket scientist. He says daily living is stressful because we have to fight against gravity."

The American Massage Therapy Association released a survey last week showing that 59 percent of Americans are more stressed out this year than last year. The survey also found that more Americans no longer consider massage a dilettante's luxury but a "cost-effective way to relieve stress."

"Yoga is a lot less expensive than psychotherapy," Mind the Mat's Brown said. "And I feel that people really can de-stress by going to a yoga class. We offer free meditation on Sunday morning, and I think people leave our programs feeling, 'Wow, my mind is clear, I'm feeling more centered, stretched-out. There's not as much tension in my neck.' We can do all that at a reasonable price."

Added chiropractor Capps: "Your health and wellness shouldn't have anything to do with the economy. Your money can come and go, but your health is going to be with you forever."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company

www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/10/01/AR2008100100876_pf.html 

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