Spa x Home's Jenka Gurfinkel on the Intersection of Design, Health and Creativity
Jenka Gurfinkel is a UX designer. We know her principally through the Spa x Home project, which we discovered when the mid-term of 2020 confinement made us start longing for small and priceless routes to sanity. Below, we talk with Jenka about the origins of Spa x Home, how it's evolved and changed her, why self-care is important, the concept of "wintering," and her perspective on creativity.
Muse: Hey, Jenka! Tell us who you are, what you do, and where you are in the world.
Jenka Gurfinkel: Hi! I'm a principal UX designer at athenahealth, where I design healthcare products for a network of more than 350,000 providers and over 110 million patients. I also write and speak about the intersection of technology, design and public health, and I've developed a new health-centered UX framework for aligning technology with values that promote a culture of health. And I am the creator of global self-care rituals at Spa x Home. I am in Boston, Massachusetts.
What is Spa x Home, and how did it start?
Spa x Home started out as my quarantine birthday party. In June 2020, I was trying to figure out what to do for my birthday. I was really sick of Zoom birthdays. I'd been to my first Zoom birthday so early in the pandemic, it made the cover of San Francisco Chronicle, like, "Look at this new way people are being social now." And by June I was just so over the Zoom parties. They're really emotionally draining and not fun. All I wanted for my birthday was to have something on the calendar to be able to look forward to. So in the process of trying to figure this out, I had this idea of hosting a spa that my friends and family all over the world could all do together from home.
I designed that, and that's what we did. Afterwards, my friends were like, "You need to do this again." So I kept doing more, and it just grew from there into this collective self-care ritual connecting people all over the world.
Where do your ideas about self-care come from, and do they nourish a bigger philosophy?
My ideas on self-care come from a bunch of places. Probably the most salient is having had chronic back pain for a decade, and my experience of recovery from that. There is a big aspect of self-care and self-compassion that was essential in that healing process. More recently, in the pandemic, my relationship with self-care has expanded beyond just the initial analgesia into something that's more existential, and even spiritual.
I think the term "self-care" can have a lot of connotations of being self-indulgent or frivolous. As if the act of being able to find enjoyment in the life you inhabit is some kind of privilege that's only reserved for people who have perfect lives. That's kind of the message from The Culture, right? Like, if you don't have a perfect body, you should feel bad about it. And if you don't have a perfect life, you should feel bad about that, too. It took a global pandemic for me to confront the fact that I had been spending my life waiting for when my "real life"—which was obviously going to be more perfect-conforming than the life I had—would start, then I would finally have permission to enjoy it.
That is such a trap! Life is what you're living, even on the imperfect days. So my ideas about self-care evolved into cultivating a practice of self-compassion and self-kindness, and finding ways to feel good to be in my one, precious, imperfect life while I still get to live it.
Who is using Spa x Home, and have the types of people changed with time?
So many people! From Johannesburg to Seattle, Austin to Amsterdam, São Paulo to Edmonton. I've had people do it together with their mothers and sisters who live on the other side of the world. At the latest spa, I had a group of girlfriends do it as a Galentine's party. My youngest guest so far was 3 years old. She absolutely loved the guided meditation. Her mom still sends me photos of her sitting to meditate. Another mom did it with her pre-teen sons. Couples. Teams. It's just such a great way to nourish yourself, and also have a shared activity that you're doing with others that you can then recap later and chat about and have a thing to discuss that you did together. Like normal times!
Is there anyone you wish would try it more?
I do wish men would be more into it. Some men are. But a lot of the responses I've gotten are like, "This is really cool, but it's not my thing. I'll tell my wife." Although our mutual friend Ben Kunz is a frequent guest at the spa! He and I actually talked about the resistance he has encountered when he tried to invite his male buddies. I think maybe men feel like the spa isn't for them because they feel that nurturing themselves isn't for them?
I've done a couple of sessions and it has evolved, though core details remain the same: We gather basic materials, like olive oil and lavender essential oil, hot towels and a big bowl. There is a pressure point self-massage, a mask application and meditation, and a moisturizing portion. Now there's a perfuming bit, which I really like; it makes a good ending. What informed this procedure?
Everything I put into the spa are all things I've road-tested on myself for years. The pressure point massage came out of that long history with back pain, and constantly dealing with tension in my body. I've been meditating off and on since 2005, though recently it's become very on.
The natural ingredients for skincare are also a practice I've had for ages. Honey face mask, olive oil moisturizer. I chose all these things because they're such ubiquitous, accessible, household staples. I wanted it to be things people were bound to have in their homes so they wouldn't need to go out to buy anything extra in the middle of a pandemic. Also, there's something magical about discovering that these foods you have around the house can make your skin look and feel good!
I also try to add new/different steps for various spa themes. The perfume part was specific for the Feb. 13 spa, themed around wholeness, a direct rebuke of the Valentine's messaging of incompleteness.
I did a spa in September for Rosh Hashana—"Rosh Hasha-spa!"—that had apple and honey components. So I look for new elements to keep exploring and evolving the experience.
How has this project changed you?
That is such a good question! I think it's been such an inextricable part of how the whole of 2020 changed me. Which is just in every way imaginable. I lost my father to Covid in the early days of the pandemic. That was compounded by the loss of everything else that had been my "normal life." Creating an experience that brought so much positivity to people, and contributed to helping them feel good, especially in a time of literal existential fear and dread, filled so much of the space that was left empty by loss in a way I could never have imagined would be possible.
What feedback do you get from people? Has anything struck you, positively or negatively?
As a UX designer I am always asking for user feedback! It's definitely helped improve the experience as it's evolved. I'll let some of the most striking comments I've received speak for themselves:
What do you think about when you think about creativity?
Lately what I think about when I think about creativity is health. I think we have such limited constructs for how we think about health. Is health a line on a lab result chart? Is health some external biomedical intervention performed on you? Is health your outward appearance? Is health the "optimization" of a mechanical, objectified self?
We have relegated the concept of health, as we understand it, to science. How do we explore the concept of health as a creative pursuit and art form? I love the term "healing arts," but even that's not exactly right, as it speaks more to practitioners than to every individual person with their own self-determination and self-expression in their unique experience of health as a medium for creativity.
Some time ago I noticed you were reading a book called Wintering. Can you talk a little bit about wintering and whether it nourished your process?
Yes! Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times is a book by Katherine May that I was reading when I was putting together the Winter Solstice Spa x Home. This passage resonated so deeply with me on so many levels that I ended up incorporating it into the December spa:
Plants and animals don't fight the winter; they don't pretend it's not happening and attempt to carry on living the same lives that they lived in the summer. They prepare. They adapt. They perform extraordinary acts of metamorphosis to get them through. Winter is a time of withdrawing from the world, maximizing scant resources, carrying out acts of brutal efficiency and vanishing from sight; but that's where the transformation occurs. Winter is not the death of the life cycle, but its crucible.
Once we stop wishing it were summer, winter can be a glorious season in which the world takes on a sparse beauty and even the pavements sparkle. It's a time of reflection and recuperation, for slow replenishment for putting your house in order.
Doing these deeply unfashionable things—slowing down, letting your spare time expand, getting enough sleep, resting—is a radical act now, but it is essential. This is a crossroads we all know, a moment when you need to shed a skin. If you do, you'll expose all those painful nerve endings and feel so faw that you'll need to take care of yourself for a while. If you don't then that skin will harden around you.
It's one of the most important choices you'll ever make.
Having been born in Moscow and then spent my formative years in Boston, you'd think I'd be accustomed to winter forever. But then I lived in L.A. for 13 years. And once you leave and move somewhere warm, you start thinking it could stay this way forever. Maybe it could always be like this. Life without winter. I returned to Boston five years ago, as my dad's Alzheimer's was becoming more advanced, but I still tried to maintain plausible deniability. Before the pandemic, as soon as it got cold, I would find ways to run away to Austin or SoCal or Mexico.
In 2020, however, in the spirit of facing the forces of nature we cannot control, and looking cold, hard reality in the eye, I decided to lean into winter and embrace it as an invitation not for escape, but to be more mindful, nurturing and respectful of what it takes to be a human living through a cold, dark time. Now I think winter can be so beautiful.
What is one thing you'd like people to know?
Be kind to yourself. Once you change your relationship to yourself, everything else in your life changes.
How do your personal interests inform your professional work, and vice versa?
In the past it was quite unhealthily, I would say. But as I've gotten older, I've become much more conscious of these boundaries and of being vigilant about maintaining them. I resonate with a lot of the The Nap Ministry's wisdom on this theme of being really ruthless about rejecting The Culture's messaging—that we have to exploit every aspect of ourselves as a sacrificial offering to relentless, capitalist exertion. Your personal interests can just be a form of rest and spiritual retreat.
Tell us about something that inspired you recently.
Less than a year after the WHO reported a pneumonia of unknown cause in Wuhan, the world had multiple vaccines with 94-95 percent effectiveness. Mind-boggling achievement for humanity. Like, wow. If we just put our collective will behind something, you know? Also, just everything Stacey Abrams does.
What do you hope Spa x Home becomes?
When I developed the Health-Centered Design Framework, I had this idea of creating a destination retreat that would be like a recording studio but for product design. I used to work with a lot of musicians and they were always going off to Germany or Joshua Tree to get away and focus their creative energies on recording an album. So for years I was telling anyone who would listen about my dream of having this destination retreat, somewhere out in the Mojave desert, where you could go to channel those creative energies into creating products aligned with health-centered values.
Some very smart people asked me, "What would be the MVP of this?" And back when I had all the freedom to do anything and go anywhere in the world, I couldn't come up with anything. It took the constraints of the pandemic for me to create something that, in retrospect, I recognize is the MVP of that vision. So I would love to see Spa x grow into that dream of a physical destination, and maybe multiple physical destinations, centered around the intersection of design, health and creativity.
The pandemic has driven a lot of existential questions about the ways people spend their time, and why—from whether their jobs are meaningful, to why they live in a certain place, or why they're with partners they've chosen. Do you think people should try to turn personal interests into jobs?
I think perhaps one of the things that people are reexamining about their lives is, in fact, whether the "shoulds" they've been hearing all their lives actually make any sense at all for them. I don't really have any new "shoulds" to contribute to the stockpile.
I personally spent my 20s working in music festivals, which was very much me turning my personal interests into a job, and got super burned out on that. It's a very unsustainable lifestyle. But it was cool, and that sort of filled in for the lack of other values. I ended up in healthcare completely by accident. It was a total fluke that this pathway opened to me, but pivoting my career and going into healthcare was by far the smartest career move I've ever made. It's a space where I feel like I can contribute my skills to do my most meaningful, values-aligned work. So I think people can take from that what they will.