Health: The instant karma factory

It had to happen. Devotees of alternative therapy now have their own `supermarket'
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ONE SIGN of a successful product is a wide selection of brands. We don't just have jeans, we have Versace jeans, Armani jeans, Levi's jeans, and the cognoscenti can tell them apart. A similar brand consciousness is just beginning to emerge in the specialised field of oriental medicine.

Say "oriental medicine" to most people and they will think acupuncture and Chinese herbs, which is rather like calling all cars Fords, or all trainers Nike.

"Actually, there is a rich variety of oriental medicines," says Mark Salmon, co-founder of a new centre dedicated to making these ancient systems rather more user-friendly.

"For instance, there's Ayurveda from India, Tibetan medicine, Chua- ka Mongolian massage, Kampo Japanese herbalism, Tui-na Chinese massage and Qi-Gong ."

Kailash, which opened a few months ago in newly trendy St John's Wood in north London, gathers all these exotic varieties under one elegant roof. If ever you've wanted to try oriental herbs or a different sort of massage but weren't sure where to begin, this is the place to start. Salmon's smart marketing ploy to make them accessible has been to create a health centre that looks like a trendy restaurant or a new shop. Costs vary depending on individual practitioners.

The initial consultation with one of the Western doctors costs pounds 60, a herbal diagnosis pounds 20, a massage pounds 40 to pounds 60. In some cases it may be possible to get treatment on the NHS, if you are referred by your doctor.

From the ironic post-modern glass porch stuck on to this yellow-painted Regency building, to the recessed ceiling lights, white walls and bare wood floorboards inside, the message is: "We're cool but competent." The mock Georgian gilt of a typical Harley Street waiting-room tends to look pompous and rather old-fashioned by comparison.

But how do you decide between Mongolian herbs, meditation and Shiatsu? You don't have to. Newcomers can book an appointment with Dr Rajendra Sharma, or his assistant, both Western-trained doctors with a very long experience of eastern medical traditions.

"I will, first of all, make a diagnosis to check that you don't have something that would be better treated with conventional medicine," says Sharma, looking reassuring and authoritative in a consultant's dark suit and tie.

"Conventional medicine is great for emergencies. With meningitis you need antibiotics fast; if you are in a car accident, you need an emergency ward. But for most other conditions conventional medicine doesn't have a cure; it only treats symptoms. Oriental systems are much better at getting to the underlying cause," he claims

Once you've been assessed, Sharma will recommend one of the 20 or so practitioners at the centre who he thinks may be right for you. If, after a few sessions, things don't seem to be working out, you can always change.

"What's unusual about Kailash," he says, "is that there is a lot of discussion between the different practitioners, so we can look as different aspects of a patient's problem."

Nichola Nicholls, who describes herself as a venture capitalist, was

relieved to have Dr Sharma's guidance. She had had a tumour removed from a breast and when she came round from the operation, the anaesthetist had told her it was vital she didn't feel a victim.

"He said I ultimately had to feel as though I was in charge," she says. "That, plus some studies at the Royal Marsden that shows that cancer patients who combine conventional therapy with complementary do better, was enough for me.

"I did the lot: hypnosis, biomagnetic resonance, homeopathy, antioxidant infusions, you name it, but when I arrived at Kailash I felt I was being directed and taken care of. The atmosphere was so calm and soothing and I felt really reassured, seeing Dr Sharma. Knowing he was properly medically trained, I felt thathe wouldn't allow me me to do anything that would cause any harm.

"He suggested trying meditation, to my great surprise, which turned out to be absolutely brilliant."

Shiatsu - massaging acupuncture points - is practised by Mark Salmon, whose energy brought the centre into being. He's also obviously the one responsible for the designer decor. He looks as though he could be on his way to the Groucho club to tie up a TV deal.

"I was in the media," he confesses, "but I discovered it wasn't for me, so I did a four-year course at the London Academy of Oriental Medicine. My father travelled a lot in Asia, so I've spent several years there and I've always dreamed of running a clinic that brought the very best of Eastern medicine to London."

He proudly reels off a list of the practitioners at Kailash, senior figures in their field but hardly what could be described as household names.

"We are linked with the Dalai Lama's centre in Dharamsala," says Salmon. "That is the only place that teaches the real Tibetan medicine. It's a system that is particularly good for conditions with a neurological or emotional basis, as they have a subtle understanding of the mind."

Like many of the oriental systems, Tibetan medicine can trace its roots back over 2,000 years and practitioners still use texts first composed in the eighth century - about the time of the Venerable Bede in this country. Health is thought of as coming from a balance between three humours in the body: rLung (air), mKhris-pa (fire) and Bad-kan (earth and water).

Should Dr Sharma consider the Tibetan approach is what you need, you'll first have your pulse checked. This is done in several oriental systems and it's a far more sophisticated procedure than the quick count familiar in the West. Under the fingers of skilled practitioner, the pulse becomes a subtle diagnostic tool, a sort of body sonar that can that can pick up the faint echoes of weaknesses and imbalances from all over the body.

Then your urine would be checked. This is a speciality of Tibetan medicine. You need to supply a fresh sample (no spicy foods, or sex the night before) which is then whipped up with a chopstick. One of the key indicators is the size of the bubbles. Large ones, for instance, known as "watching the yak's eyes" are a sign that something is out of balance with your rLung. This, it turns out, is something we Westerners are particularly susceptible to.

"The rLung person does not sleep much, takes meals at improper times, and has too much sex and lots of mental pressure," says Dr Tamdin Sither Bradley, Britain's only fully Tibetan-trained doctor, and a practitioner at the centre. "For someone like this I would prescribe food with heavy nutritional potency such as lamb, butter, molasses, alcohol, milk and soups, and advise them to stay with a good friend in dark, warm places where it is quiet, with beautiful scenery."

Oriental medicine isn't an easy option. "Western medicine offers you pills and surgery and generally doesn't demand you do much for yourself," says Salmon. "We start from the assumption that you are ill because something, somewhere, is out of balance, so you may have to make all sorts of changes. But once you do that, lots of other things clear up."

Kailash, Centre of Oriental Medicine, 7 Newcourt Street, London NW8 7AA (0171-722 3939). On Saturday 27 June is an open day with talks and the chance to have free consultations and cut-price treatments