When people were looking for ways to connect early in the pandemic, my friend Jenka came up with a brilliant way to bring a physical experience into the virtual realm. In this episode, we discuss her guided wellbeing experiences and her journey into hypnosis after using it to heal her chronic back pain.
Jenka Gurfinkel is a Principal User Experience Designer at athenahealth, a network of more than 160,000 providers and 110 million patients. She is also the founder of SPA x HOME guided wellbeing experiences. SPA x HOME began as Jenka’s quarantine birthday party and has since grown into a social self care ritual shared by people all over the world. Through the SPA x Jenka combines digital tools with ancient healing practices to design experiences that relax, inspire, and transform. Jenka writes and speaks about how technology design affects public health and is fascinated by the exploration of health as a medium for creativity.
Referenced in this episode:
- Healing Back Pain: The Mind-Body Connection by John E. Sarno, MD
- Suggestible You: The Curious Science of Your Brain’s Ability to Deceive, Transform, and Heal by Erik Vance
- SPA x HOME
- Instagram: @spaxhome
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The written version of this interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Kristen Ciccolini: Can you tell us how SPA x HOME came about and how you got the idea for it?
Jenka Gurfinkel: My birthday is in June, and in June of 2020, as you may recall, there was just a desert void of anything to do. I had been Zoom very early on in the pandemic, and I immediately knew that that sucked. I did not enjoy that. All I wanted [for my birthday] was to have something on the calendar to be able to look forward to. In the process of trying to solve that riddle, I kind of put my user experience designer hat on to solve this problem and came up with this spa experience that my friends and family across five different time zones all did together for my birthday.
Afterwards, a bunch of my friends were like, “That was incredible. I want to keep doing that.” So they kept doing more and then it became something that just took off and turn into a business.
KC: And it’s grown so much throughout the pandemic, right? How has it evolved throughout the last couple of years?
JG: It started off as my quarantine birthday party, then the third one I ever did, I was hired to do it for somebody else and it was their birthday party. So I was doing those kinds of birthday parties for people. Eventually, over the holidays in 2020, it actually turned into corporate holiday parties. At the time, everybody was basically remote. But a lot of people still continue to be remote. So it continues to be a way to do team building.
It’s a way to create tangible, shared memories together.
KC: I love that because it’s such a different experience than I’m sure a lot of corporate events are. I mean, I’m not in corporate, but you are, I’m sure you deal with a lot of very boring events.
JG: Yeah. There’s not a lot of creativity around how those experiences are done. It’s all very much the same. You sit and stare at the screen for an hour. Then when you turn off your computer, you feel more drained than when you even started.
The way this works, there’s no staring at screens required. There’s a kind of instructional guide, but the whole experience is really you being able to move around and be comfortable and off-camera.
You are going through the same narrative as other people, but you’re doing it yourself. Then afterwards, you actually have something to be able to come back around and talk about like a great movie that you would have seen. You know? You’re talking about, “Oh, what was your favorite part? What do you think about that?” So this becomes more like that kind of natural experience that you would have had out and about and you’re able to then connect with people.
KC: What actually happens in a session? Are you sending people things that they can use for this? Are they finding things around their home? How does it work?
JG: In June of 2020, I was not trying to send anybody to the grocery store for an extra run. So I really thought about, what are essentials people are going to be likely to have in their homes already? So what people do is they get a list of essentials together, and these are things like olive oil, a washcloth. These are all basic household staples. And a lot of these things have been used for beauty and skincare products for thousands of years. Honey was one of Cleopatra’s favorite beauty products. So you don’t have to go very far to find these things that are already in your home that have extended application for what they can do.
I used that and then created a guided self-care “vacation tour” where you go to one stop, you do some stuff, then you go to another stop, you take photos there. So it goes through a whole itinerary.
There is a breathing exercise. There is a candle or incense lighting. There’s a guided pressure point self massage, which is actually really good for relieving physical tension. There is a hot towel treatment. There is a honey face mask.
While you’ve got the mask on, there is a guided hypnosis meditation for physical comfort and relaxation and ease. Then the olive oil is used as a moisturizer afterwards. You can obviously use your own favorites, if you have a favorite face mask or a favorite moisturizer.
KC: Let’s talk a little bit about your experience with hypnotherapy and how you got into that. You have a really great story.
JG: It is a wild story. For over a decade, I had really bad, debilitating chronic back pain. I did all the things, went to all the doctors, nothing helped.
One day, I read this book called Healing Back Pain by Dr. John Sarno, and as absurd and ridiculous as this sounds, reading the book made my back pain go away. The premise of the book is that, lo and behold, the mind and the body are connected, and things that influence one have affects that are manifested through the other.
I can really only describe it as a spiritual experience, feeling this pain that I was in for over 10 years go away. Then I thought, “Oh, okay, what are other magic books that are out there? This is clearly a magic book. What else is out there?”
So I started getting really interested in things like the placebo effect. I mean, the placebo effect fundamentally is like your mind affecting your physiology because there is no active ingredient. It is just what your mind is creating. Then I got this book that was about the placebo effect.
In it, they also talked about hypnosis and in the back of the book there was a hypnotic induction you could read yourself. I was like, you know what, I’m going to save this for later. I don’t need to read this right now. You know, save it behind glass just in case of emergency.
This was the end of 2019, and then by April 2020, I was like, “Well, this is an emergency, so let’s break this glass.”
So I read the hypnotic induction script and it worked. It was the most unexpectedly calming, relaxing, almost blissful kind of experience. It really opened my mind and curiosity
I ended up taking a hypnotherapy course and getting certified in it, and this now influences the way that I do the guided meditations that are part of the spa, and I’ve even done some kind of group hypnosis events as well that are all sort of under the SPA X umbrella. It’s just an incredibly, incredibly powerful tool and even just re-describing it is reminding me of how powerful it is.
KC: I’m curious, because it can take so long to reach a kind of spiritual experience like that, did you have a spiritual practice before? Did you only have to read the script once for it to work?
JG: I was incredibly disinterested in anything that Healing Back Pain had to say. In fact, I started reading it and I was like, “What is this drivel? You’re telling me that the pain I’m experiencing is not coming from a structural source? This is bullshit.”
Then I just continued to be in pain, and that went on for like a year and a half.
I was Googling around for alternative ways of treating back pain and who was doing anything interesting and innovative. Shout out to the New England Baptist Spine Center. I saw some articles about how they were doing something different and interesting about back pain.
I went to see a doctor there, and she gave me this article about this doctor in New York who was applying this very different approach to treating back pain. It was the same guy whose book I have. So I reread it, and then it really worked. If I had not experienced it myself, I would never believe that it can work like that.
KC: I’m a big believer that things will come to you when you’re ready for them. Obviously you weren’t ready for it prior to that, then it all just fell into place. So now that you’ve had that experience, if you’ve been back to doctors, have you told them about this experience and did they believe you?
JG: I was supposed to have a follow-up appointment at the New England Baptist Spine Center, and after I read the book, I didn’t need it. So I like called them and I was like “This is really weird, but I read a book and it made my back pain go away, so I don’t need to come back for this follow-up.” And they’re like, “Yup, story checks out. Bye-bye.”
They’ve seen this happen.
KC: Does this experience influence how you do your UX work?
JG: Yeah, absolutely. Designers really like to make things look pretty and have lots of what we call the negative space. It’s like the Apple aesthetic, where it’s like text and then lots of white space around it.
The thing is, for our kind of users, they’re dealing with potentially hundreds of entries. The more beautifully spaced out and designery that you could make things, the bigger the physical tax you’re actually putting down on the user because then they have to scroll more and things are further apart. Where they potentially could have 30 entries on the screen before they have to scroll, if you space it out, now they’re seeing 17. So thinking about things like “How does what I’m designing affect the physical body? Are they feeling drained and tired at the end of it, or what can we do to minimize that?” That is core throughout everything I design.
If I’ve gotten a doctor to spend more time on site, I’ve actually failed. I’m not trying to get you to click more things. I’m trying to get you to click fewer things. And so the sort of the design values and the design language that I infuse into what I’m doing is I think very different from the standard conventions of mainstream technology design.
Many things that are “accessibility,” when done right, they’re better for everyone.
KC: I want to back up, cause I have a logistics question about hypnosis. You mentioned that you read the script to yourself, and I know that when I’ve seen written meditations in books, I’m always like, okay, but when I meditate, my eyes are closed. Do I open my eyes and look at the script and then close my eyes and try to get back into it?
JG: That is an excellent question. Basically you imagine yourself standing at the top of a staircase and the staircase has, let’s say, 20 steps. As you imagine yourself taking a step down, with each step, you imagine yourself feeling more and more comfortable, more and more relaxed, more and more physical ease in your body with each step. And I’m reading this.
And basically I think I got to step seven and then my eyes just drooped closed. I put the book down and I could not even keep my eyes open anymore. So it’s a cliffhanger, I never got to find out how it ended. It had already worked. I was already in that hypnotic state of just floating around.
KC: How do you get out of it?
JG: You’re not trapped in there. You know that feeling of when you’re falling asleep and you’re really, really comfortable, you’re on the verge of falling asleep, then you get a really good idea and you’re just like, “oh, but I’m so comfortable. But this is so good. I should probably write this down because it’s that good. And it’s important, but I don’t even really want to move.” It’s that feeling.
I just decided to pick a cue. I have a wind chime, and so when I was floating around in the hypnotic state, at some point, the wind blew and I heard the chimes and I was like, “Oh, this is how.”
KC: Hypnosis might sound scary to some people, cause it’s not something that’s very common that you hear about. I know you lead people through self-hypnosis, and that’s probably a little bit less scary because you’re kind of controlling it. Why don’t you share about that?
JG: Fundamentally, all hypnosis is self-hypnosis. It’s really used as a pattern-interrupt tool for ingrained habitual behaviors. It’s very useful for that. And then on the flip side, it’s also used for creating new, positive behaviors that you would want to put in place of behaviors or beliefs. When I do guide people through the process, I guide them through how to use it as a tool.
And it is actually very similar to meditation. There’s not an infinite number of mind states. There’s a lot of overlap between things. Meditation and hypnosis, and that feeling of when you’re falling asleep and that great idea comes to you — also, some people have it in the shower. Lts of people have great ideas come to them in the shower, when they’re walking, when they’re driving, when you’re very relaxed and your mind is able to explore that hypnotic state.
KC: Can you walk us through how people will be able to do it at home? Or is it better for someone to go through it with a trained practitioner first?
JG: I think they’re both useful. I mean, I read it in a book.
I think doing hypnosis with somebody that is trained in it, the benefit of that is that it’s a conversation and you are able to have a conversation with your subconscious mind, and they’re sort of like a mediator.
There are so many things that we believe subconsciously that drive our behavior, we don’t even know what we really, underneath it all, think or believe. You know the term limiting beliefs?
Where does that really come from? Your subconscious is 100% of the time it’s trying to do what it thinks is protecting you. So having somebody that can take you into a conversation with this part of you that thinks it’s trying to protect you and having basically a negotiation with it to arrive at a point, like, how can you actually serve me in a way that is actually going to help me? As opposed to this unhelpful thing that you know, we’ve been doing for a decade or whatever.
I think that is something that is much more effective with a trained practitioner.
KC: Is there any any feedback from people that has surprised you, or is there any common thing that you hear from people?
JG: The thing from hypnosis that has really surprised me is that at the end, fundamentally, what people want on a subconscious level is always the same things. Love, care, support, and control. No matter what it is that they’re trying to do or whatever they want to accomplish, whatever limiting belief or experience they want to overcome.
It’s not the promotion, it’s not the house. It’s the feeling of love, care, support, and control.
What I consistently find is that people actually really love the social aspect of [the spa] because so much of it is just somebody putting something on your calendar and telling you at like 2:00 PM on a Sunday, you are going to take this time to yourself to nurture this. You’re going to dedicate some time to nurturing that relationship for an hour.
People really need that thing on their calendar that tells them that this is that time.
KC: Yeah, we’re not really encouraged to actually take out the time. The spa aspect, I mean that kind of event, that also brings in those four elements of love, care, support, and agency. You are choosing to do this for yourself. It is supportive of your wellbeing. You’re loving on yourself, caring for yourself, doing it with your friends. It’s such a great offering.
JG: I love that. I’ve never heard that put together that way. And also just the message that it sends to your subconscious that message of those feelings. You are doing this for yourself, you are giving yourself that care.
KC: Yeah. It’s good to show yourself that you are worth that time and effort. Okay. I think that’s a great place to wrap up!