Health: `I felt like a greasy chip. I loved it'

Demi Moore loves it. Jemma Kidd swears by it. And now Ayurveda, an ancient healing system designed to de-stress, detox and revitalise the body, is taking over the world. But are you ready to be smothered in hot oil?

Panchakarma, Abhyanga and Pizzichilli all sound like something from the menu of your local takeaway, but in fact they are all therapies from an ancient Indian healing system called Ayurveda, which is rapidly gaining in popularity.

Forget Feng Shui: Ayurveda - which also includes advice on interior design, personalised according to your body type - is now the favoured choice of celebrities including Demi Moore, Jade Jagger, Lulu and Jemma Kidd. Not only is it supposed to improve your health; Ayurvedic medicine also makes you look great and lose weight - Prince Andrew is said to owe his new streamlined figure to the system.

Ayurveda has been practised in India for more than 3,000 years and is now being taken seriously in the UK. The first Ayurvedic hospital is soon to open in Northwood, West London, and you can now do a degree in Ayurvedic medicine at the Wolfson Institute of Health Sciences at Thames Valley University.

Health farms have also picked up on the trend. The European Ayurvedic Centre, which started as a small clinic in Bournemouth, has been so oversubscribed that it is opening an additional treatment centre in Hoar Cross Hall in Staffordshire, the largest health spa in the UK. The new wing at Hoar Cross - dedicated to Ayurvedic treatments - will open in February. Other health farms are expected to add Ayurvedic treatment opportunities later in the year.

Ayurvedic treatments are a lot wackier and more powerful than anything you might indulge in at your local health club or salon. Abhyanga, for example, involves being hosed down with gallons of hot sesame oil and massaged while naked by two therapists (of the same sex as you, of course). It's particularly pleasant and designed to stimulate the release of toxins and improve the circulation. Having the hot oil dripped over your forehead and body feels so luxurious, I completely drifted off to sleep. All my manic thought processes were stopped dead in their tracks. Abhyanga is also designed to release deep-seated aches and pains and brings flexibility to your joints. I came out feeling like a greasy chip, but very relaxed. I loved it.

Urdvartana involves being covered in a red herbal paste and given a thorough body scrub and massage. A gritty exfoliating substance is massaged into your body, which feels strangely like peanut butter. It has a delicate herbal smell, and left my skin feeling silky smooth.

My favourite was Netra Tarpana, where freshly made dough rings filled with fragrant oils are placed around your eyes. You have to keep your eyes open so the oils run into them. I was slightly nervous about this, but I emerged feeling as if I'd just had a good night's sleep.

All the treatments aim to de-stress, detoxify, release aches and pains and improve circulation, as well as boost the immune system. Weight loss and cellulite reduction are just happy by-products.

Ayurvedic medicine is an integrated system that incorporates a (vegetarian) diet and places great emphasis on digestion. Foods that aggravate your system should be avoided. For example, eating lots of raw foods and salad is frowned upon as they are considered cold and create wind - you are taught that the seasons should govern what you eat. Some of it is common sense - a big dinner after eight o'clock at night is not recommended as it tends to make you sluggish and overweight.

Ayurveda is a Sanskrit word meaning "life knowledge", and its principles are based on Hindu religion and philosophy. Ayurvedic practitioners believe we are made up of three basic types, or doshas; vata (air and space), pitta (fire and water) and kapha (earth and water). Everyone is a combination of all three, and for perfect health they should all be balanced. However, for most of us one type will dominate. The idea is that with the correct diet, exercise and lifestyle, the body's system can be rebalanced.

International property developer, Lawrence Roberts, 34, had a rude awakening when he turned up for a four-day course of Ayurvedic treatments in Bournemouth.

"I had been feeling stressed out with work - jumping on and off planes," he said. "I arrived in the afternoon having had no lunch, expecting a slap-up meal, sirloin steak or something. I was presented with a bowl of soup, some bread and a dessert of stewed fruit. I was told it is good for your digestion. I thought, I'll give it till the morning.

"The next day I had my first hot- oil treatment. I have never had anything like it, it was fantastic. I was a bit perturbed that they tucked me up in bed with a hot-water bottle afterwards. I couldn't even reach for my mobile phone; they force you to sleep. After that, I was completely hooked. I have never felt so relaxed in my life. After four days I didn't want to leave. I am a workaholic normally, and I'd completely forgotten about work. It is the nearest that I've ever got to an out-of-body experience. I also lost about 4lbs in weight."

Jemma Kidd, 25, a make-up artist, model, and sister of supermodel Jodie, swears by Ayurvedic medicine. She lives in London and has a typical London dosha of vata-pitta with a vata imbalance. If you are this type, according to Ayurvedic principles, you are better off living in the country rather than the town. Kidd became hooked on the ancient system eight months ago, after friends started raving about it. "A couple of my friends were having treatments and said `you've got to try this, you'll love it', and I did. They also looked really well on it," she recalls.

"I have a really hectic schedule, and I'm out most nights. Rushing around town all day you don't realise how tired you are - but after a few treatments, I feel great. My eyes look a lot brighter and my skin is smoother. I am vata-pitta, which means I can easily get burnt out, and the treatments, particularly the hot oil ones, are great for calming down.

"I've made changes to my diet as much as possible. I try to have a hot meal at lunch time, I don't drink coffee, I have hot water and lemon and eat ginger pickle before a meal. I also try to go to bed early and get up early. If I follow the principles, I feel much better. If I stop, I start feeling lousy. I used to have a lot of problems with digestion, my stomach would get bloated, but all that has changed. My weight has also stabilised.

"What I like most about it is that it is not just a fad and I can adapt it to my lifestyle. But I am not rigid about it. If I want a glass of champagne, I'll have one."

SO, WHAT TYPE ARE YOU?

There are three basic Ayurvedic types, or doshas. Model and make- up artist Jemma Kidd, pictured right, has vata and pitta characteristics

Vata: You are slim, angular, restless and creative. You probably like athletics or dancing, enjoy travelling and can be flirtatious and emotionally insecure. You are prone to joint pains, dry skin, rheumatism, mania and depression.

If you are stressed or hyper, you are probably suffering from a vata imbalance and should avoid coffee.

Pitta: You are of medium build with fair or red hair and reddish skin. You're articulate and a good leader, but can be impatient. Lunch is very important to you. You are prone to rashes, ulcers, gastritis, cystitis and urinary infections. If you have a pitta imbalance - characterised by irritability - avoid alcohol and late-night feasts.

Kapha: You are stocky, overweight and a loyal, solid worker. You are also patient, affectionate and forgiving. Your skin is smooth and oily, and you are prone to acne, weight gain, asthma, bronchitis, colds, sinus problems and depression. If you suffer badly from these symptoms, you may have kapha imbalance, and should avoid fatty foods.

n Ayurvedic treatments are available from February 14th at Hoar Cross Hall, Hoar Cross, Near Yoxall, Staffordshire DE13 8QS. Tel: 01283 576515. Prices start from pounds 260 a day.

n For more information and a list of qualified practitioners, contact the Ayurvedic Company of Great Britain, 81 Wimpole Road, London W1, 0171- 370 2255.

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