The Shakti Mat: At the sharp end

Its fans claim that it can relieve back pain, allergies, insomnia and depression. But as Simon Usborne finds, this new take on the 'bed of nails' is just as painful as you'd expect

It would be churlish not at least to try something that, according to its accompanying literature, can lead to "dramatic improvement in a wide range of conditions such as back pain, neck pain, insomnia, depression, fatigue, digestive problems, weight loss and allergies".

That's a lot of improvement. And so, at home, after a long day at work, and with a strong sense of fatigue and a slightly achy back, I lower my bare torso onto a bed of nails.

And guess what – it bloody hurts. The bed is in fact a thin foam mat large enough to support the back. In place of nails, 230 hard plastic buttons support a total of 6,210 tiny spikes. They couldn't be hammered into wood and don't glint menacingly in the light, but they're really, really sharp. Imagine lying on a table studded with a thousand plastic forks, their prongs sharpened with a file.

But why would you? The Shakti Mat is the brainchild of a bearded young Swedish chap with a ponytail, called Om Mokshananda. Cursory Googling reveals he was a juggler called Jonathan Hellbom before he found himself in the Himalayan foothills and became a monk. He created the Shakti Mat "with a vision of wholeness and love" and "according to ancient Vedic science, where the ultimate goal is the union of mind, body and spirit in order to promote a long, healthy life, filled with joy".

Attempts to learn more about Mokshananda's vision are thwarted when Rose-Marie Sorokin, who has started importing the mats to Britain and selling them at Shaktimat.co.uk, says the monk is "on a retreat and isn't taking any calls or emails". Of course he isn't. Not a problem, though, because Sorokin is herself a pilates and yoga teacher. She discovered the Shakti Mat when a Swedish friend recommended it. "If I've had a busy day I use it for up to an hour and feel very calm and relaxed," she says. "If I have any tension in my neck or back it will just melt away, and often I'll fall asleep."

Back in my sitting room, my flatmate looks on bemused as I groan on the coffee table a few seconds after lowering my back onto the mat with all the enthusiasm of a burns victim getting into a hot bath. "Initially... contact with the plastic points may be experienced as a little painful," the instructions read. "But this will fade and be replaced by a comfortable heat when the circulation of the blood increases." Sorokin reckons this will take three or four minutes. After approximately 35 seconds, the heat has built up, as advertised, but the pain only builds with it and soon becomes unbearable. I can't decide if it would be more comfortable to be lowered into a poultry-plucking machine or throw myself down a slide lined with sandpaper.

In the eyes of all but the 300,000 yoga enthusiasts who have bought the Shakti mat (yours for £63), the contemporary bed of nails is the preserve of macho circus performers, and also physics lecturers: if packed densely enough, individual nails or spikes exert a force on the skin that is small enough not to break it. To ram that theory home, an assistant sometimes applies a sledgehammer to a board placed over the prone participant.

But the bed of nails has a longer history that might help explain why I appear to be torturing myself on my own coffee table. Sami tribespeople in Scandinavia apparently took naps on thorny juniper branches, while acupuncture, that other great spiky tradition, dates back to ancient China. Centuries ago, Hindu ascetics in India developed the traditional nails-in-wood arrangement. A photograph taken in 1907 by the British photographer Herbert Ponting shows a bearded yogi lounging on alarmingly well-spaced nails as if they were the piles of an oligarch's carpet.

Nail mat fans trace the device's resurgence to 1980s Russia, where a rubber mat studded with drawing pins found its way into pharmacies after reports that it relieved pain.

Scientists in Sweden are now examining the reported benefits of the Shakti treatment, but in the meantime there is scant empirical evidence for its effectiveness. Some suggest a release of endorphines triggered by pain leads to a feeling of well-being that may then lead to other benefits.

Whatever, it still hurts. I try adopting some of the other suggested positions. I lie on my front. Ow! I stick my face on it. Ow! Giving my bare bottom the nail treatment (I'm nothing if not game) triggers nothing more spiritual than a string of curses.

It may well be, I conclude, that beds of nails aren't meant for me. My only other brush with yoga, during a surfing trip to Brazil, ended when miscommunication led to a painfully stifled giggling fit. Sitting cross-legged in a beachside gazebo, the group's earnest instructor, whose forestial eyebrows were distracting enough, invited us to "feel the energy from the earth. Feeeeel it come through the floor and touch your cocks [he meant coccyx] and travel up your colon [spinal column, presumably]."

As I retreat to the soft embrace of my bedsheets, my back still hot and smarting, I fear that, in my case at least, Om Mokshananda's vision may also be lost in translation.

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