Saya Barkdoll owns Ohana Wellness Center in Bethesda. Credit: Photo by Liz Lynch

As a teenager in 1996, Saya Barkdoll witnessed a transformative moment for her mother, Delphine, who was suffering from AIDS. Hospice care was at the family’s Kensington home. Morphine wasn’t helping. Someone recommended massage therapy, and Barkdoll saw the difference it made for Delphine. “She lit up, she stood up. It was phenomenal. It was beyond comprehension. That moment, I was like, ‘I’m gonna do this,’ ” says Barkdoll, whose mother died about a month later.

Now 36, Barkdoll owns Ohana Wellness in Bethesda, a tranquil massage therapy center that’s more consultation-focused than a spa. The Academy of the Holy Cross alum, who graduated from the Potomac Massage Training Institute in 2000, bounced around spa jobs before landing at a wellness center in 2004. That same year, she gave birth to her daughter, Taylor, who spent two months in the neonatal intensive care unit because she was born with hydrocephalus, an accumulation of fluid in the brain. Taylor was being poked and examined all the time, and Barkdoll sought to counter that with “positive touch.”

“I was massaging her constantly, before I could hold her,” says Barkdoll, who lives in Silver Spring. As a toddler, her daughter was delayed physically and late to walk, so Barkdoll continued using massage. “It helped with her muscle growth, and giving her the body awareness to know how to use the muscles properly,” she says. Taylor, 11, is thriving now. “They gave us a pretty grim outlook on her future. She’s my little miracle girl.”
Ten years ago, after the wellness center where she worked closed, Barkdoll opened Ohana in Woodmont Triangle. The staff—Barkdoll and seven others—does mainly massage, with a couple practitioners for acupuncture and craniosacral therapy. Clients seek pain reduction, injury prevention and simple relaxation. “I think most people come for the escape,” Barkdoll says, “to have their little hour of peace.”

In her own words…


“In my family, we were very close. We were very touchy people, so I was never afraid of touch. Also, going to Holy Cross with all the girls, [there was] lots of hugging. I really disliked feet, so I had to get over that.”


“We see a good amount of people with pulled muscles, a lot of neck and back pain. Frozen shoulder is unfortunately a big one—when you totally lose range of motion on your shoulder. [We see] a lot of computer stuff. Everybody at the computer, rolled shoulders, head in.”


“A lot of my clients will tell you that they’re not just getting a rubdown. There is something to be said for that, too, but most people that come here are looking for more. We need to stop viewing massage as a luxury. Yes, it’s relaxing and it feels good, but ultimately the [health] benefits are beyond great.”



“I have never turned anyone away. Even if the client is in spasm and can hardly move, I will just customize my pressure and focus to help them relax and find relief. Everyone can receive some form of massage, whether you’ll get a deep tissue or just a loving touch. Everyone can benefit.”


“Almost half of our practice is prenatal mamas—that’s such a wonderful thing. Two of us are doulas. We work with a lot of midwives and obstetricians that send their patients here. We sometimes see the babies afterwards for infant massage.”


“There can be a lot of emotional release that happens on the table. Or things can come up from the past. Oftentimes, laughter is a sign of major release. And tears, too. People will start just crying, then start laughing because they don’t know why they’re crying. We definitely are part therapist.”