Health: `It feels like pygmies dancing across my back'

It has nothing to do with sex, but devotees claim that bonging, the latest fitness craze to reach us from California, relieves the parts other back cures fail to reach.
Bonging - not to be confused with a similarly sounding word, although proponents say the results can be equally satisfying - is the latest Californian health craze to hit the UK. Hailing from the Orient, bongers are traditional massage tools that give an invigorating, Shiatsu-like massage that you can do to yourself if self-flagellation is your thing. Celebrity bongees include Madonna and Courtney Love and massage therapists are now using them to ease tension knots other forms of massage cannot reach.

You'll soon be able to bong around town, as from the end of September bonging will be available at three venues in London's West End, including Selfridges department store. Bonging will also be popping up in desk-top massages in the workplace; when used in conjunction with back massage it wakes you up - so you won't fall asleep at your computer after a session.

Bongers - which look like rubber balls on sticks - are used rhythmically to drum out your knots. It's a bit like tenderising a steak. Most back pain is caused by overworked muscles that contract suddenly, turning into hard knots. Basically, if you have back pain, your body is crying "help! bong me!" (well, this is the explanation given by the makers of bongers).

Bonging is supposed to soothe headaches (nine out of 10 headaches are caused by tight neck muscles); to do the trick you bong the neck gently on both sides of the spine for 30 to 60 seconds.

It is also claimed that bonging is an enemy of the dreaded cellulite - it is said to encourage the blood to flow through capillaries, thereby improving circulation.

But what do the back specialists think of bongers? Dr Douglas Diehl, a chiropractor from the US, says: "Bonging is a great technique to relax your muscles, especially your shoulders. But it does not have a lasting effect and should not be used on anyone suffering from acute back pain or on an injury."

Originating from "do-in" - an ancient Japanese massage technique - bonging is believed to relieve trapped energy. In Chinese medicine energy is known as "chi" - if you are healthy, your "chi" should be flowing. Christine Lyons, a 24-year-old accounts assistant, was bonged out after her session: "I work on a computer most of the day," says Christine, "so my shoulders get really sore and that is where I hold all the tension - so it is really nice to be bonged in that area. I don't like anything too gentle as it doesn't really get rid of the knots, although it's not like someone beating the living daylights out of you - it is a nice feeling. I've got a pair of bongers at home. I use them after work sometimes if I've got a headache."

Bonging is also particularly suitable for a small person working on a large back as it is difficult to reach all the knots. But it is not great if you are feeling faint or if you are pregnant. You can bong away quite happily on most parts of the body, including the soles of your feet (bong! go for those reflexology points), pectorals and leg muscles but avoid the kidneys in the lower back area.

I was excited at the prospect of my first bong, as the label on the bongers clearly states that this will give your body paroxysms of unbridled ecstasy - which I am quite into. After an enjoyable back massage (fully clothed) the therapist bonged up and down the side of my spine - percussion-like, moving out to my shoulders and back, hitting my knots. Mmm! I thought when it had finished - bong me some more. Comments from seasoned bongees extracted from Bonger News, a Californian newsletter include: "It feels like a thousand pygmies dancing on my back", and: "This is like a mugging" to: "I feel as if I've just finished riding my lawnmower."

If there are certain areas you can't reach with the bongers you could also try the Backnobber, also imported from California. It's a giant plastic tube with a chunky knob at each end. You just hook one end over your shoulder and, holding it firmly, press one of the knobs into your knots.

The Backnobber helps to relax tense muscles in the back, neck and shoulders. It should be used over light clothing, so you can knob in polite company or while watching television or before and after a workout. But don't overdo it until you've got used to it.