I feel pretty good when I go to visit Mira Didinsky, immigrant and self-proclaimed inventor of a pain-relieving massage technique she calls Reflexo-Therapy. But then she grinds her thumbs into my face just below my eye sockets. At one point I'm worried they'll slip and smash my eyeballs. "You have a lot of tension here," she says, her words infused with a thick Russian accent.
Didinsky's practice, called the Relaxo-Therapy Center, is in an office building at 1050 N. State, and most of her clients are aching like a split tooth before she starts working on them. They "believe that pain relieves pain," she says.
"Everyone has a predisposition for some kind of pain," she says, rolling me onto my stomach and jabbing her thumbs into my spine. "Every process in the body operates on a very deep cellular level, so we have to go very deep to relieve pain," she says, her thumbs invading the back of my neck and the edges of my shoulder blades. "The relationship of tension, stress, and fatigue is a major component of illness," she says. "If tension and stress build up, the muscles become tight, and they squeeze blood and nerves." By pressing her thumbs into a network of bodily pressure points she dislodges toxins, she says, and signals the brain to pump pain-relieving endorphins. Blood circulation is stimulated, oxygen flows, metabolism speeds up, and toxins are excreted.
"Toxins build in our body from food, from stress, from pollutions. Body on its own can't adequately eliminate toxins. It needs massage." After giving me an abbreviated version of her "full-body treatment"--including a bizarre episode of frontal neck massage during which I find myself alternately groaning and giggling--Didinsky piles layers of hot towels and a hot pack on my chest. "The heat will help body sweat out toxins," she says. I'm just relieved it's over, and what I really want to do is take a nap.
Didinsky, now 53, grew up in the Siberian town of Barnaul, a few hundred miles northwest of the point where Russia, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, and China converge along the spine of the Altai Mountains. Barnaul's key industry was a tractor plant, and people in the town subsisted in part on mushrooms and berries they gathered in nearby virgin forests. When Didinsky was seven she was diagnosed with TB in her right leg, a condition that had caused the limb to twist and shorten by five centimeters. For two and a half years she wore a cast that covered her from her right foot to her chest. It failed to straighten her leg.
The cast was finally cut off when she was sent to a sanitarium a thousand miles away in the Ukrainian port city of Odessa. During her nine months there she ate fresh fruit, stretched her leg, bathed in the warm waves of the Black Sea, and received daily massages. "I had an energy and desire to be healthy," she says. "I made my body to be strong to fight these problems."
With the help of an attentive physician, Didinsky succeeded in straightening her leg and regaining her health. The path for her future was clear. "I turned to preventive medicine because I wanted to know how to keep myself healthy," she says.
As a young woman she studied physical therapy and dietetics at the Minsk University of Public Health (currently located in Belarus), where a Tibetan doctor introduced her to the concepts of bodily auras and pressure points. He told her she had a healing aura. Building on his teachings--and those of Chinese, Mongolian, and Japanese doctors--she devised her massage technique, and in 1976 she earned a PhD in herbal medicine from the University of Moscow. She practiced her massage techniques while working as a physical therapist in a Minsk clinic.
In 1980, with help from a Jewish advocacy organization, Didinsky, her husband, and their two sons emigrated to the United States, fleeing anti-Semitism and the Soviet Union's war with Afghanistan. "My friends were receiving coffins instead of their boys," she says. "I didn't want my boys to be involved in a war. In Russian my name means peace. I'm for peace." The whole family was required to sign papers pledging they'd never return to Russia. "We left as enemies of the country," she says.
She chose Chicago because she liked Theodore Dreiser's descriptions of Clark Street in Sister Carrie. Shortly after arriving, Didinsky's husband--an engineer who spoke English--was killed in an accident. "I cried day and night for two years," she says. At first she didn't know a word of English, but early on someone gave her an old TV. It received only channels 9 and 32. "I learned English through the cartoon movies," she says. "Especially The Flintstones."
Left to support her boys--then ages 6 and 13--on the meager charity accorded political refugees, her English choppy at best, Didinsky enrolled in and eventually graduated from a school of cosmetology. "I had to make money some way," she says. "Back then nobody cared about my education. People didn't believe in massage or herbs."
She eventually saved enough to pay the first two months' rent on an office space at 1 E. Oak, where she opened the first incarnation of the Relaxo-Therapy Center. With no money for advertising--and knowing she had to bring in clients fast if the shop was to survive--she began approaching strangers on the street, studying their faces and presenting them with on-the-spot health evaluations. "You have problem with headaches?" she'd say, or "Excuse me, you are having back pain?" Some people freaked out and walked quickly away, but others stopped, intrigued by the fact that she'd correctly guessed their ailments. Her sales technique worked, and she's now been in business for ten years. Today she relies on word of mouth.
"When I see a person or talk to them over the phone I can feel aura right away," she says. "Everyone born with some kind of color in their aura. I see person in color." Auras indicate bodily energy and vitality, and areas of pain or clogged energy appear as dark spots. After she recognizes a person's aura and spots the problems within it, Mira knows where to concentrate her Reflexo-Therapy, she says. "I know exactly what part of the body needs my help."
She says my aura is violet, but it's spotted with "lots of discoloration." She sits in a chair across from me, eyes closed, concentrating. "You have dark spots in your aura here," she says, gesturing to the area around her own heart and lungs. "And here." She points to her abdomen. As far as I know my heart, lungs, and abdomen are in good shape--but who can say what sinister forces are rallying there? I ask Mira if it's serious, if I should be worried. "Not, not serious," she says. "It means energy is not balanced in your body. Four of my treatments will open blockages and balance energy."
On the wall of her office are charts Didinsky made--sketches of the human body dotted to identify pressure points, soft spots on the nervous system that can cause trouble in organs a limb or two away. The gallbladder and stomach can be treated with points located on the sides of the nose, and the lungs with points on the feet, she says. Credentials and aphorisms adorn another wall: membership certificates from the International and American Associations of Clinical Nutritionists, one from the American Association of Nutritional Consultants, and a quote fom Herophilus, circa 300 BC: "When health is absent, wisdom cannot reveal itself...wealth is useless, and reason is powerless."
One of Didinsky's regular clients, a smartly dressed blond ad exec named Beth, comes in complaining about her back, and she and Mira disappear behind a floor-to-ceiling beige curtain that divides the small office. Beth says she started coming to the Relaxo-Therapy Center because she had headaches. "But after about ten treatments, once a week, they went away."
On a stand just outside the curtain, "Mira's Miraculous Herbal Teas" are displayed: there's Formula 74--a spicy blend of 74 herbs, including rose-hip berries, oat straw, Irish moss, and licorice root--and her special Colonic Herbal Tea. "Every cell, every organ is affected by the condition of the colon," she says. People in the Altais--known for their long life spans--have used a similar sort of colonic tea for thousands of years, she says. "The best food when it is not properly eliminated is no better than the worst," she says. "A properly functioning colon leads to health, happiness, and longevity."
While Beth naps behind the curtain (the "best part," she says later), Didinsky attempts to sum up her philosophy: "Relaxation brings the essence of life energy. Feeling good is not a luxury. It is a necessity."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lloyd DeGrane.