By the time massage therapist Sheila Shearer brings out the ice cold rock and rubs it along your spine, you've already been lying on a bed of rocks, had hot rocks stuck between your toes, in your hands and on your forehead.
"Ice cream on a summer day," she says softly as the freezing rock touches down and you involuntarily gulp air.
It only sounds like torture. It's actually called LaStone Therapy and it's the latest craze in the world of massage.
LaStone Therapy was developed in the early 1990s by Tucson-based massage therapist Mary Hannigan, but only recently has the technique made its way into spas, salons and health clubs nationwide -- and now to Shearer's Oak Street massage studio. Shearer attended a LaStone certification course in Kansas City last summer and has added LaStone to her "menu" of massage techniques, which includes sports massage, Swedish massage and deep tissue work.
"The effects of using hot and cold stones in massage are pretty exceptional," Shearer says. "It's like vascular gymnastics."
LaStone Therapy centers on the use of smooth, dense stones -- marble and basalt -- that vary in temperature from zero to 140 degrees. The massage therapist uses them both to place on muscles and joints for minutes at a time as well as to work deep tissue as the therapist's hands would do in a regular massage.
The key to the stones is their temperature, and the key to LaStone Therapy is using the hot and cold stones effectively, according to Shearer. The basalt rocks, which are heated in a roaster, are used to send heat into muscles and joints, while the ice cold marble, kept in a cooler, help sooth inflammation and stimulate blood flow.
The application of hot and cold provides a sort of cleansing of the vascular system, says Shearer.
"The heat brings in new blood, the cold takes it away," she says. "It's like a tonic to all the organs."
The alternating hot and cold also serves to confuse the brain, according to Shearer. "The brain doesn't know what to do, so it just lets go," she says. "You go into what I call `the zone.' What occurs is a very deep mental rest."
Because of the intense temperature variations, understanding how best to use LaStone on an individual client is important. An intake form and discussion with the client helps Shearer determine "where (the client's) health is." From there, she decides how to tailor the LaStone session specifically to the client's needs. For example if someone has lower back pain, Shearer might use more cold marble stones in that area.
"We'd want to take the inflammation away," she explains. Furthermore, if a client has a disease or specific ailment -- such as a heart condition or multiple sclerosis -- she might moderate the temperature or duration of the session.
"LaStone can work divinely on them, too," Shearer says. "But it's very powerful. You have to know pathology when you do this work."
Shearer knows pathology, not just from studying it to become a licensed massage therapist but from personal experience. Twenty years ago she suffered from a neuromuscular ailment. After several years of unsuccessful treatment with western medicine she turned to acupuncture, Chinese herbs and massage.
"I just began looking within and I started getting better," Shearer says. Her journey led her to the East/West School of the Healing Arts in Portland, and eventually to open her own massage therapy practice. Today she is free of disease.
But Shearer believes strongly in the need for all methods of healing. She says she often confers with doctors via chart notes or phone calls regarding clients "so I can better help them."
"I love the blend of working with doctors, chiropractors, acupuncturists, physical therapists and massage therapists who specialize in certain areas that are not my specialties," Shearer says. "We all have knowledge. We all have something to offer." The ultimate goal, she says, is helping people get better or stay well -- with whatever combination of methods works best.
With LaStone Therapy, people often feel not only physical benefits but emotional as well, says Shearer. For one, the use of opposing forces -- hot and cold, black basalt and white marble -- ties into the concept of yin and yang.
"The balance of the stones can help people get back into their `centeredness'," Shearer says. "I've had people on my table start to cry. Others have had visions that helped them gain clarity."
By their very nature, the stones also help people get closer to the earth and the natural environment, Shearer says.
"It's geothermic therapy," she says. "It's just a way to connect to the earth."
LaStone also has spiritual aspects.
"I always ask people if they have a religious affiliation," Shearer says. "That's because I don't want to bump up against that, but LaStone is very spiritual. It honors all religions, all components of a person's spiritual path, whatever that may mean to them."
Shearer says the best part of LaStone, for her, is being able to share a new massage technique with clients. "I just want everyone to have it," she says.
That, and the stones themselves.
"Sometimes I take them home with me and put them out in the garden on hot days," Shearer says -- or out in the rain, or in a stream. "That may sound crazy," she says, laughing, "but they seem to work better when I do that. The more you nurture the stones, the more they nurture you."
Sheila Shearer's massage studio is located at 116 Oak Street, Suite 7. The studio phone number is 806-0662.