Today’s lifestyle, with its ubiquitous technology and information, can be overbearing at times. Finding a balance and downtime within this high-paced, stressful world can be that much more attractive, and needed.
“Social media, emailing, checking notifications — it’s creating a feeling of loneliness and disconnection, especially in older generations,” says Paul Hennessey, founder of Circle Wellness Studios, a producer of healing amenities that blend modern innovation with ancient materials and techniques.
His flagship product, the WelPod, is a personalized sauna-like cube, typically with two or more walls of heated Himalayan rock salt glowing a warm amber, refreshing ventilation, and plenty of space to move and stretch, or be meditatively still.
“Being a business owner and a pretty extroverted person most of the time, I need that balance, I need that time to myself,” he says.
Hennessey’s entrepreneurial journey began seven years ago with a quest around the globe to unearth the world’s best healing practices. His vision later evolved into “more than just a business — it’s a sense of purpose and passion,” he says.
Hennessey’s travels took him to Europe, where he discovered a “singing room” secreted away in a hidden hotel, sound vibration therapy that would make his body buzz, and sacred salts crystallized with 150 million years of anti-aging properties.
“The tour guide played the gong for me,” Hennessey says, recounting a rare experience at a healing salt cave in Germany. When the gong reverberated through the cave, Hennessey says, “I was actually vibrating. I was laughing out loud and thought, ‘I can’t believe this place — this is so crazy.’”
In Asia, Hennessey learned the health benefits of charcoal, how to craft wooden tubs, and how to efficiently warm large rec-centre-sized spas.
Once back in Vancouver, he compiled the ancient know-how and techniques of these cultures, built upon that wisdom using local materials, and developed North America’s newest healing womb and Circle Wellness Studio’s first product — the WelPod.
Before leaving Canada to explore the world for its hidden healing treasures, Hennessey’s experience as a spa amenities builder, ski patroller and paramedic gave him insights that seemed to be grooming him for his future venture.
In his 20s, he saw underutilized pools, hot tubs, and saunas built mainly for social status, with the latter often turning into storage rooms.
He wondered, “Why aren’t we building things that can be more utilized 365 days a year, which can be tweaked and changed as we mature and get older and have different interests?”
Hennessey wondered whether the typical amenity experience was the reason for its lack of use. With his active lifestyle, he often wanted to relax his muscles and unwind in such amenities, but couldn’t.
“It’s very limiting to find yourself in a sauna where what you want to do is move around and stretch,” he says. “Especially when you’re raising the temperature of your muscles and your joints, your body is getting to a point where this is feeling really comfortable. But when you’re sitting and stacking your spine in a seated position, it’s frustrating.”
In 2010, Hennessey thought it was time for a new direction in his life.
“I was working as a paramedic, and then I got really drawn to using all my skills and all the knowledge that I had, bridging it all together — the building and swimming pool experience, the wellness and health knowledge, and the biology and pathophysiology that we studied in paramedicine,” he says.
Hennessey picked up the phone and started calling spas all over Europe.
“My name is Paul Hennessey,” he says, remembering his cold calls with a laugh. “I’m coming over your way. I’m doing R&D for a company that I’d like to start, building wellness environments.”
People wanted to help, and friends, strangers — and a priceless altruism — became his guiding lights on his adventure.
“I had a lot of really amazing hospitality when I was there, too, because people were interested in sharing their stories and hosting me,” he says, noting that most of his generous hosts were people he had met in Canadian ski towns.
One German friend, Lars, lent his car to Hennessey, who then plugged in random spa addresses all over Europe and took off in the little Volkswagen.
“It was a pretty epic time,” Hennessey says, smiling fondly.
In Switzerland, Austria and Germany, Hennessey learned that people who worked in salt mines were healthier and were living longer. While hacking away at the salt rocks for hours every day, they’d inhale vapours and trace minerals, or simply absorb them through the skin.
The salt has a plethora of therapeutic qualities — it sterilizes the air, draws in dust, and its high mineral content prevents bacterial growth. Rock salt can also heal progressive lung diseases like asthma and emphysema, Hennessey explains.
In Germany, Hennessey discovered a special cave that would elucidate the preciousness of salt. A group of doctors, naturopathic practitioners, and osteopaths pooled millions of dollars together to build a tunnel to a salt mine.
“They actually built this tunnel to a healing cave — they made this huge healing cave,” he says.
People would visit this community for two-week periods; most of them had illnesses they wanted to heal. Every morning and evening, they’d ride a mining cart four kilometers down this man-made tunnel to spend time inside the salt cave, a healing cocoon enhanced with gongs and saltwater falls.
“They created a meditative environment,” says Hennessey, who got a private tour of the cave just after 50 elderly people had left. He was lying there alone, amidst 75 empty lounge chairs, laughing, feeling the pulse of the gong echoing off the “purply-pink-orangey” salt crystal walls.
“My experience was otherworldly,” he says. “That was a huge eye-opener for me — this material makes so much sense to use. It was energetic being surrounded by it in a natural form.”
Hennessey says that was the moment he knew healing salts would be a part of his future wellness environments. He’d later put his own intuitive touch on the use of salt, deciding to heat the Himalayan salt walls in his WelPods.
“Salt, when heated, creates negative ions, which can battle some of this wireless electricity. All the waves that are crossing through the environment around us — negative ions can help to counteract all these different frequencies,” he says. “Negative ions are what you’d find around a waterfall or by the ocean where there’s air movement, salt, or that fresh air you feel after it’s rained and you walk through a forest. It’s invigorating. It’s physiologically beneficial to have in your environment.”
It wasn’t just science that supported Hennessey’s decision to harmonize heat and salt, it was a lifelong love of the meditative arts that inspired him.
“For many cultures, the health benefits are well-understood from raising your core temperature, stretching, meditating, and then slowly dropping your body temperature down for a relaxation period after,” he says. “That experience can be tweaked and customized with materials, layout, or just different spatial interests and what’s more important to my client. Then all of a sudden you’ve got this amazing space that you’re excited about using, which won’t get forgotten like a swimming pool or hot tub.”
With such an enlightening moment in Germany, Hennessey eagerly continued on to Switzerland to visit the fabled wellness hotel Therme Vals. The architect, Peter Zumthor, won the world’s most prestigious architecture award — the Pritzker award — for its design.
When Hennessey arrived, he wondered, “Am I even in the right place? Did I just punch in the completely wrong village?” He chuckles, remembering his initial bewilderment that would soon turn to delight. The only entrance to the spa is through the hotel, which is tucked away into the hillside.
Hennessey parked his friend’s car and meandered through darkness, through a long, dark tunnel. As motion sensors picked up his gait, he heard a soft buzzing and low lights lit his path.
“It’s this ethereal, amazing experience — it’s like a different world,” he says. “The way that it was all laid out was so intelligent and experiential. It had a sequence that was so well-executed — it was super-inspiring.”
In addition to its conscious design and layout, Therme Vals continued to unexpectedly draw Hennessey into its understated, subtle magic, especially in one room that many visitors often miss on their stay — the Singing Room.
“It’s this secret room — you have to swim through this little corridor while you’re in the bath,” he says. “The surface material they use in this room and the water create sound resonance. When you make any sound, it gets carried and spun and amplified in the environment. It was like a dream. The whole approach to this place just felt like I was in a dream the whole time.”
Hennessey would later incorporate the healing power of sound in his WelPod, which emanates a balanced sound and vibration from its walls.
“I’m not a DJ or a producer, but I’ve always been connected to music,” he says. “Part of the experience that I like to curate for people involves sound and sound resonance — feeling sound rather than just hearing it.”
After the Singing Room, more priceless insights awaited the future entrepreneur.
“The spa manager at Therme Vals gave me a tour of all the back rooms, how the whole system behind the walls works — the filtration, the pumps, all the mechanical stuff, which I was really interested in,” Hennessey says. “She was really, really helpful. I got the same kind of experience talking to all these people who managed, designed or worked at these spas all around Europe.”
Hennessey’s travels to Korea and Japan were equally impactful, opening his mind to new therapeutic materials and different ways to build a more functional therapeutic spaces.
Spas in Korea started as communal bathing areas, where people would come once a week and clean themselves thoroughly, a substitution for bathing at home. In time, these jjimjilbangs transitioned into “therapeutic hostel rec centers,” as Hennessey describes them, all equipped with restaurants.
“These are places where families and friends will go to spend time together,” Hennessey says. “It’s a spa but it’s really a casual place where anybody can go. You could even sleep there, and people use them as crash zones when they’re away from their homes.”
What impressed Hennessey was their sheer size — he no longer felt confined to a cramped corner to sweat and sit still like in European saunas.
“I’ve always seen an opportunity to do something that is more functional and more purpose-driven for the way we live, to create functional wellness environments people will utilize their whole life,” he says. “Especially people who are interested in yoga or meditation, to give people the opportunity to be healthier and to spend that time they need connecting to themselves, and really go deeper into that exploration.”
Since jjimjilbangs were often multi-level, Hennessey wondered how on earth they could efficiently be kept so hot.
“They are the originators of these in-floor heating systems, hydronic heat, which is water piped through the floors — that was really interesting,” he says. While in Korea, Hennessey visited heating manufacturers to learn more in depth about their technology, which would later be incorporated into the floor-heating in his WelPods.
Hennessey’s trip to Japan and Korea also introduced him to an ancient healing material he’s recently been experimenting with at his studio.
“The charcoal that I have been hired to do for one of my future projects is actually the therapeutic kind — it’s known to absorb and remove toxins, neutralize odours and emit infrared rays when it’s heated,” he says. It’s used for water filtration, absorbing chlorine in water, or, even if someone drinks too much and gets alcohol poisoning, medical personnel will first pump the person’s stomach and then fill it with charcoal to absorb the toxins.
Hennessey learned the ancient, time-consuming, delicate Asian techniques to create therapeutic charcoal, which he’s localizing by salvaging wood from arbutus trees, a West Coast hardwood tree.
“My idea is to use materials that have been repurposed, then… [use them] for a therapeutic value within the [wellness] environment,” he says. “I’m utilizing a lot of the practices of the Koreans and Japanese, and then building a wall out of charcoal. It’s a very invested and intense process to create that much charcoal that looks that pretty, but it’s really breathtaking when you can be in an environment with that type of material on the surface.”
The blackened tree rounds add an earthiness that is both grounding and aesthetic.
Last year, Hennessey, the consummate student, returned to Japan to learn more about its therapeutic soaking culture. The trip inspired him to pioneer Circle Wellness Studios’ second product — a wooden tub that will make its public debut at Taste of Life’s Luxury Home & Design Show this spring, alongside his healing WelPod and a backdrop that will transport you into a rainforest.
“[During] the last trip to Japan, I thought the way they’re doing it makes so much sense — the designs, the overall feel, the energy of that culture,” he says. “The Korean culture too, and how they’re so humble. It’s free flow, free range of movement. I’m really trying to translate that into approachable and enjoyable design for people here.”
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