From Healer to Green Guru: Paul Schmidt of Green Spa Network

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A spa may seem the antithesis to sustainability. Luxury intrinsically means indulgence. Paul Schmidt and thousands of other spa workers and owners involved in the Green Spa Network (GSN) know otherwise: theirs is a Wellness Warrior-style mission of finding ways to create regenerative experiences for spa goers and our planet.

Recently we caught up with Paul, GSN’s new Executive Director—a “big picture” thinker with a background in massage, the healing arts, and spa management. During the course of our interview we learned how the “green spa” experience is a microcosm of living the “prevent and protect” life—a proactive way to assuring natural health and wellness without resorting to cure-alls, and without plundering the planet of resources. 

What inspired you to lead Green Spa Network (GSN)?  

Personally, my venture into and through the spa industry is rooted in sustainability. I am fascinated with change, transformation, and paradigm shift, which is something I see GSN facilitating in the health and wellness community. I see a big interest in the spa community to become an even larger part of the healing process not just for people, but also for communities, culture, and even humanity at large. Given my background in massage and healing, as well as my experience in the environmental field, I am excited to be part of an organization that is acting as a voice for this movement. Right now leading GSN really feels like the right place and the right time for me.

Tell us a little more about your personal experience in wellness businesses, healing modalities and the environmental field before GSN. 

My degree at University of Vermont was in environmental studies, and my thesis project was compiling and publishing a directory for holistic practitioners. I created the directory by design to allow myself to interview the work place and the market of holistic health. And it worked. My book ended up with over 300 people representing 97 modalities of work—M.D.s, chiropractors, psychics, massage therapist, energy workers, etc… It was a community of people who were doing similar work, yet they hadn’t ever been connected. One of my life goals is to be a bridge – to help people connect.  

That’s a wide range of practitioners. Was there resistance from the traditional side of medicine, or vice versa, to being in the same guide?  

I resisted using the word “alternative” for some of these practices. I don’t like that word. It breeds conflict: one alternative is mutually exclusive to another. I say I’m all about building connections, but for me it’s really just reminding people about the connections that already exist. So a term like “complementary medicine” is much more comfortable to me.  

What excites you most about healing, nurturing, protecting health?

Throughout my college years I had a number of experiences with healing, therapy, massage, and conscious breath work. I had been exposed to energy work through a course that I took at the Omega Institute with Rosalyn Bruyere. My dad actually gave me the course as a graduation present from high school. Through that I found that I had a gift for laying-on of hands. So that is where my healing career started.  

Can you give us an example of healing via laying-on of hands? 

My first paying client was someone with terminal pancreatic cancer given three months to live, according to his doctor. We worked together for six months, and afterward I kept in touch with him for years—he didn’t die as most in the medical community said he would. To be honest, through working with Larry, I experienced some things that were really uncomfortable for me. I could see that my gifts and abilities provided me the opportunity to become a leader, or at least someone who could make a difference with this work. That actually scared me. At that age, I wasn’t emotionally capable of having that kind of influence and standing in that type of role with clarity. So, I kind of shied away from it. Yet I needed a job. Going out and advertising energy work and then taking money from people for it didn’t sit well with me. So, I got training in massage therapy because that seemed more accessible to me. It also gave me a license to touch people, which you need in today’s world. 

How did you learn to balance a business career with a passion for the healing arts?

I built my initial private practice in Vermont while founding The Healing Center with five friends. I also extended my publishing and graphic design interests through directory updates and a quarterly free publication called Conscious Times. I then moved to Utah and joined the massage team at the Cliff Spa at Snowbird, one of the more advanced ski areas in the country. The people who come there like to ski hard and they hurt. I got really good at therapeutic and deep tissue massage. 

Another formative and early-on work experience was being around the founding of the Utah School of Massage Therapy, which is now the Steiner Education Group with 15 locations. I taught polarity massage at the school with my wife as the school was getting started. Around this time, we also founded The Living Energy Center, which was an urban oasis for well-being with a dozen practitioners bringing a diverse range of bodywork, Kripalu Yoga, lifestyle education and two of the first Rolfers to the people of Salt Lake City. At that time, massage and healing centers were virtually unheard of in Utah, and we did a lot of work with the community to get people on board. From the Utah Jazz and NBA, Salt Lake City Ballet to the Vice Squad of the Police Department, which regulated businesses that offered massage at the time, we brought together so many different partners to make our community center work and thrive. 

How did your awareness of environmental issues keep pace with your interest in the healing arts? 

I spent a summer in Switzerland working for the International Academy of the Environment as Director of Reporting. The Academy had organized a number of weeklong pilot workshops designed to help countries expedite environmental solutions by facilitating communication between relevant stakeholders. I directed a staff in creating reports in multiple languages for each meeting. For example, one seminar included scientists, educators, and policy makers from what is now the country of Ukraine, which at the time was going through some serious shifts due to the ousting of Gorbachev and needed a lot of help with environmental challenges including energy, pollution, water, and public health. Another seminar included activists and policy makers from Brazil trying to make inroads on rainforest deforestation. Yet another was a group from Scandinavia attempting to solve issues with the paper and pulp industry. Each seminar had such a different feel, such different goals and such different outcomes. That summer was a rich and eye-opening experience. I could get lost telling you stories about traipsing around Europe with the KGB, but we probably don’t have time for that. 

So you apply the principles of “spa” and healing to the work that you do at GSN? 

I think that everyone should have access to the type of healing that is offered through the spa experience. I learned through my experiences with healing and massage that I could make a difference one hour at a time. I think that we are all capable of healing the world one hour at a time. 

One of the things I learned working with energy and transformation is that you can’t push: it is much more effective, in my opinion, to lead people toward insights of their own ... creating a safe space for people to discover whatever is next for them. 

I find the same sort of principals at work in the environmental movement. The mission of creating a sustainable future is compelling and seductive, but its grandiose nature is capable of resulting in mission drift in environmental organizations. There can be too many great ideas. The risk is leaving a wake of those ideas unfinished. 

So, I think that success takes a measured approach. Sustainability, the concept of it, and the attempt to put it into practice, really brings up all kinds of energy for people. It is more emotional than you might expect. Patience is something that I’ve brought to my work. The value of being present and grounded when communicating, and not being afraid to embrace my own change. This is what I see GSN doing as well. I think that GSN is here to help facilitate that process of growth and change in the spa industry. 

What is the meaning of “Green” in the Green Spa Network? 

I don’t know if I will always think this, but right now, for me, green means new. That’s one quality of sustainability that I think is often lost on people. Sustainability is not the kind of conversation that you can grasp fully and understand completely in any one moment: it is an ever-changing and ever-evolving [new] conversation.

Green is one those terms like “spa” and “wellness” that is mushy. Back in the early 2000s “green washing” was rampant. And that’s because it was effective. All you had to do was have a statement that said, “I believe in the planet” and print it on recycled paper with soy-based ink, and you were good to go. It’s not like that anymore. It’s not just about changing to energy-efficient light bulbs. And I fight against the unspoken assumption that sustainability comes with sacrifice.

 My personal vision of sustainability is one of abundance: constant movement and evolution and growth. It is one where community is a living breathing being rather than disjointed or separated. One of my college professors, Ian Worley, in an environmental philosophy course that I took did something that really hit home for me. He drew these concentric circles, with our body, mind and spirit, which, of course, is a cliché in the spa industry. But he then went on to expand it out even further to family community, society, and planet. He proposed the idea that there is no separation between any of that stuff. . we just make those separations to understand it and talk about things. So, that level of taking down barriers and embracing the whole of things and getting to abundance – to me that is what sustainability is about. 

How is GSN creating a more sustainable spa industry?

GSN has two very distinct aspects to its mission. One is the basic “greening of the industry:” providing tools like the Sustainability Assessment Tool that help people “green” their business and have a smaller carbon footprint. The other piece of our mission involves anything that allows our spas to have a bigger healing footprint. For me—and GSN members—personal wellbeing and planetary wellbeing can be the same thing. You can be the healthiest person in the world, but if the planet is dying, who cares?

I am with GSN to help reconnect spa with those values. Spas are places where people go for transformation. Whether consciously or unconsciously, people go to spas for help. They need a place to help them feel better, to shed old ways and pick up new ways. The spa experience is not a religious experience, but there is a spiritual component to it that I think is very valuable.

It is one thing to help businesses be greener, but it is another to reach through those businesses to millions of people and green the planet. GSN exists because a greater energy of wellbeing exists in the spa industry and calls it forward. We are not making something happen that doesn’t already want to happen; we are just trying to facilitate it. 

It all goes back to the healing thing; as with bodywork, you don’t actually cause someone’s muscle to relax, you just help it get into a situation where the body/mind feels comfortable and safe enough and the muscle let’s go returning to balance with a simple grace. Ultimately, for me, that’s the core of my vision for GSN: To bring the great people who make up this industry to a threshold where embracing a new meaning of ‘spa’ in the light of a sustainable future becomes our next great challenge and together we cause the transformation for people and planet we all hope for.

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