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Snakes on an astral plane

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NO ONE could understand why I wanted a snake massage. "That sounds like some kind of punishment, like 'You're sentenced to 30 minutes of snake massage,'" my father said when I told him I was getting one. Over dinner, my friend Rachel asked, "Are you afraid of snakes?" I told her I didn't think I was, but then, I had never held a boa constrictor, let alone had a few of them slithering along my body.

There is a macho element of wellness that we don't often talk about, a performance of the wildest or most extreme treatments, for bragging rights - or, better, a picture shown off on social media. There are so-called vampire facials, LED light masks that make wearers look as if they're in a slasher film and fish that nibble your dead skin during a pedicure.

I am not immune: I've applied a face mask partly made from colostrum, braved the extreme cold of cryotherapy and gone to a beer spa.

So when I heard about a woman in Los Angeles who did some kind of ritualistic snake encounters, I wanted an appointment. But she was on maternity leave, so I started searching online to see if there was another modern-day snake priestess around. Which is how I found Serpentessa, a woman who lives outside New Paltz, New York, and who offers massages with her 10 snakes. She even comes to Brooklyn about once a month.

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I signed up for a massage on a Sunday afternoon and got several emails explaining the benefits of snake massage. She wrote that she was inspired by the Asklepios and Hygeia snake sanctuaries of ancient Greece. Snakes were said to have the power to help us see how we react to stress, and to have the ability to find parts of the body that need some extra physical or spiritual TLC.

"Welcoming the Serpent to merge with you will deepen & clarify your connection to the Divine within You!," she wrote.

The allure of a snake massage could be the sensation of snakes against skin, or it could be seen as a more spiritual experience about letting go. Or it could be simply about confronting fears. I was sent a form that included the lines: "There are NO GUARANTEES that you will never get hurt by a snake. No one ever has in any of my work with my Snakes and clients."

When the day came, I wasn't nervous until I showed up at a multiunit space in Prospect Heights that appeared to house masseuses. I wandered mistakenly into what looked like a dance studio. "Hi, I'm here for a snake massage," I told a woman who greeted me. She looked aghast and asked me to repeat myself and then said, "I think you're in the wrong place."

I eventually found Serpentessa, who led me to a treatment room with a massage table that she had covered in skins her snakes had shed for me to touch and to think about regeneration and letting go. I took off all of my clothes save for my underwear and positioned myself face down.

She began taking boa constrictors out of a box and placing them on my back. First Ember, a male, and then two females named Shanti and Oracle.

I was Medusa!

I felt a little tense as I heard them hissing (which Serpentessa said is from exertion) and felt the flicking of their little black forked tongues on my skin. All three immediately headed for my head, where they proceeded to wrap themselves around my crown. I was Medusa!

At this point Serpentessa began to sing in a soft, slightly reedy voice. "Face to face, skin to skin, you and snakes and earth are kin." She invited me to think about what I wanted to let go or an image I wanted the snakes to bring to the earth for me.

Snake massage would likely be more accurately described as a snake ritual. If you're looking to have your muscles worked, you'd be better off finding someone with hands. There were moments when having the snakes on me felt not unlike being in a massage chair at a nail salon - that same undulating pressure. Every so often, as one of the snakes would tighten a bit around my head or my neck, I'd remember that they could probably kill me if they felt like it.

After 20 minutes of snakes on my head, Serpentessa moved them to my back, and all three slithered down my legs and wrapped themselves around my left ankle, which I had broken last summer. About 10 minutes later, they really started to warm up to me and started to slither under and around my knees, over my face and lips, and one parked herself about an inch away from my crotch and just hung out there.

At that point I took a few selfies in my new role as snake goddess, and Serpentessa, who has long grey hair and wore silver snake-themed jewellerry, told me about how she got started belly dancing with snakes in the 1980s and about how the snakes feed on rodents she buys frozen every three weeks.

When my 80 minutes were up, I said goodbye to each snake as they were placed back into their box. I like communing with serpents, although I'm not sure I'd ever get a snake massage again. I think regular old human hands are what I prefer. I couldn't wait to take a very long shower.

Serpentessa told me I might dream of snakes, which I haven't, yet. She also gave me a plastic bag with a few pieces of their shed skin from the tail and the belly to tuck under my pillow or place on an altar.

Instead I forgot all about it until I got out my chequebook at therapy the next day. Perhaps that was my reminder to talk about transformation and to start shedding some of my own skin.

We tried it

Who: Serpentessa, a modern snake priestess who was previously a belly dancer and made Grateful Dead T-shirts, will facilitate a personal encounter with her snakes.

What: A few of her 10 boa constrictors will slither all over your body, wrapping themselves where they want, which some people credit with bringing relief (be it physical or psychic). If you feel fear around snakes, this would be a very intense way to confront it.

Vibe: References to the yoni, songs about being kin with snakes, visualising letting go - this feels like an old-school New Age treatment.

Cost: From US$297. For more information or to book a snake massage: serpentessa.com. NYTIMES