Confessions of a yoga lout
James Brown has been extracting the urine for years, but he's never had to drink it. And this was only one of the rituals he had to endure for 'Extreme Celebrity Detox'. Here, he describes how 10 days in the Himalayas stretched him to breaking point
Monday 14 February 2005
There's only one thing worse than watching a bunch of desperate Z-list celebrities on television performing weird Indian internal cleansing exercises, and that's being one of them. Tonight, on Channel 4, I will appear in a programme called
Extreme Celebrity Detox, for which I spent 10 days in the Himalayas doing an intense course of ashtanga yoga and a combination of brutal cleansing and purification rituals. The course was described to me by the producers of the programme as being "extreme yoga". I've since renamed it combat yoga.
There's only one thing worse than watching a bunch of desperate Z-list celebrities on television performing weird Indian internal cleansing exercises, and that's being one of them. Tonight, on Channel 4, I will appear in a programme called Extreme Celebrity Detox, for which I spent 10 days in the Himalayas doing an intense course of ashtanga yoga and a combination of brutal cleansing and purification rituals. The course was described to me by the producers of the programme as being "extreme yoga". I've since renamed it combat yoga.
Joining me would be the Nineties television presenter Magenta Devine, the television and radio funnyman Rowland Rivron, and the reality-TV regular Lisa I'Anson. I'm not sure what their motivations for going were. I just wanted to go on holiday and have a laugh: unless someone is planning to make a further programme called An Idiot's Guide to Getting Fit, I doubt that this venture will have improved my career much. I guess I was lured by the prospect of a flatter stomach and the possibility that my mates might finally stop calling me the "wok-smuggler".
The night before we left, I went to see my friend Georgie, who was with her friend Derek. I sensed something was wrong when I noticed that Derek, who had been casually flicking through the phone-book-sized guide to what we would be doing on the trip, had gone silent and turned white.
This was not a good thing. Derek is an RAF fighter-squadron commander who dodged anti-aircraft and friendly fire to lead the first bombing raid on Baghdad at the start of the recent Gulf War. He was probably the last person I would want to see turning white the evening before I committed my body to a bunch of yoga nuts thousands of miles away. Quietly handing the guide back to me, he said: "I think you should read this." He pointed to a page full of drawings of ugly naked people, possibly having sex, before showing me a chapter about the benefits of drinking your own urine. I began to feel sick.
One long-haul flight, seven hours of mountain roads with no crash barriers (Lisa squealing in delight, Rowland and I screaming in terror), numerous enormous signs for VD clinics, and a three-hour uphill hike later, we find ourselves before a Himalayan trekking hut made of cowshit and wood, with a freshly built shed for toilets and a rough patio of flattish rocks for yoga. There are no phones and no computers - indeed, no electricity - in Village Rulpulli, Chamba Valley in Himachal Pradesh - but what a view. Our garden is a bumpy mountain-top meadow, with cows and pine trees. Below is a steep valley, lined with agricultural elevations to grow corn on, and interspersed with tall bamboo platforms to escape from bears. Eagles soar beneath us, and the "ground" is too distant to be able to distinguish roads from rivers.
Our host is Piers Brittain, a tall good-looking didgeridoo-playing guru from Bristol. He's spent years studying yoga in India, but I get the sense he feels that by taking part in a "celebrity" TV show, he may well have ostracised himself from the hardline UK yoga scene.
"We must forget about our ego because everything is energy," he announces ominously. "This week we will be practising kriya, in which we will be aiming to become clearer, lighter and have more energy. We want to create space inside you, to give you more flexibility for yourselves to exist."
Before becoming a yogi, Piers tried his hand at being a courier and a masseur, and while his dad would still rather he'd get a proper job, he's very good at the yoga. Every morning he gets up and eats a tea towel and then makes his washboard stomach ripple and regurgitates it. "Assisting" Piers in his instruction is his girlfriend, an opera-singing German who's very tactile and flirtatious, and who spends a good deal of time hanging around the showers smiling at me. I'm concerned that extreme yoga might be a euphemism for swinging.
It is fair to say that, although I try not to prejudge people, my initial impression is that Piers is a ponce. You want proof? At one point, he uses the Keanu Reeves film, The Matrix, as a reference point. As he struggles to convince us of his outlook, I begin to wonder whether I have come on retreat by mistake - or at least should have been delayed a bit longer in London, like Magenta.
Of the three of us, only Lisa has professed to be in search of spiritual enlightenment. Rowland and I have shown up in search of a little humorous adventure. So it's a tribute to Piers's abilities to say that, by the end of the course, when the others have gone home, I no longer considered him a YTS Dalai Lama and opted instead to stay on and hang out with him.
Before then, though, we need all the encouragement - and help - we can get. To help put us through out paces, Piers has hired the services of two of India's top yoga practitioners, Sheshadri and Parvesh. Given the limited capabilities of the yoga celebrities, I think that Piers's helpers are a little overqualified - he could probably have co-opted a couple of local goatherds to move us about.
Instead, we get Sheshadri, a tiny, wiry chap with a Fulton Mackay moustache and a strange gleam in his eye, who has twice won the equivalent of the yoga Olympics. And Parvesh, a yogic doctor from Delhi, who is far more outgoing than Sheshadri and wanders around the camp in aqua blue trousers and a burgundy satin tour-jacket advertising a West Indian rum on the back - which is weird, considering that he doesn't drink. Parvesh is a keen sportsman, and proves himself to be a decent batsman in the mountain-top cricket we play with the teenage shepherds.
Sheshadri takes care of the yogic exercises. Parvesh does the kriya - the weird stuff, the flushing of toxins from the body and drinking saltwater until we puke, sort of stuff. The idea behind the kriya is that by cleaning the stomach, clearing the nasal passages, scraping the tongue and so on, we rid ourselves of toxins, thus allowing ourselves to be lighter.
Parvesh uses kriya and other yoga practices while working with heroin addicts in the Delhi police hospital. He says that the practice significantly reduces the number of drug relapses. Despite their obvious expertise, however, I can't help thinking that they are just making the stuff up. Once, when they wander off into the woods, I heard them laughing uncotrollably across the mountains - I couldn't help thinking they were saying "what about when you made the Leo Sayer lookalike stretch over like a deckchair".
Piers is very keen that we lose the trappings and practices of Western life as soon as possible, so the first thing is to adopt a new daily routine.
He wants less chat, more thought about where our food comes from, and less giggling during meditation. More important, he doesn't want any questions about the Calvin and Hobbes tattoo on his lower abdomen.
Each morning begins at 5am, when we're woken up by the chime of some thumb cymbals in order to go for a quick sprint through the cold, dark morning air to the shower, which consists of four measuring jugs full of freezing cold water, which we throw over various parts of our bodies. This followed by a cup of green tea before sitting in a tiny room decorated with sheepskins, candles and Sri Ramana Maharshi yoga books for an hour's meditation. This involves breathing, silence and 10 minutes of mouthing "Ohm, ehh, zee".
Try saying that without thinking of the Fonz.
From 7am, an hour is spent standing around looking at the sun spreading itself across the mountains, which is significantly more impressive than breakfast * * television. That's the good bit; the bad is that this is the witching hour when Parvesh appears with various steel containers of warm salt water, which we are supposed to pour up our noses and down our throats. As we stand there throwing up in unison, I can't help but wonder what the neighbours are thinking. We eat breakfast at 11am, six hours after getting up.
We are expected to practise the four disciplines of kriya every morning. First, there's sutra neti, where we stick a piece of twine up our nostril, wiggle it down the back passage and out through the mouth. Then jala neti, where we pour salt water up one nostril and let it trickle out of the other and then blow it out, along with a load of snot and mucus. Then the most lethal of all, the fearsome kunjal, where we drink cups of water until we're sick, and then put our fingers down our throats until we are beyond puking bile.
But they are nothing compared to drinking our own urine. "The mid-flow of the first wee of the day is full of nutrients," insists Piers as he tries to persuade us of the benefits of taking the piss. He doesn't persuade everyone. Lisa, fairly, argues that she isn't going do anything she wouldn't do in England and doesn't believe would do her any good. Aware that the path to enlightenment means losing the ego and forgetting about embarrassment, I sidestep the heated debate and begin sipping the amber nectar. It isn't a big deal, really, despite the fact the camera crew are hanging over us at this moment like vultures. It tastes like those cups of wine you find behind the settee two days after a party's finished.
As the yoga and the kriya progress, I certainly notice that my clothes are starting to appear baggier. I'm not sure if I'm losing weight or simply hallucinating from lack of chocolate. But things are about to get harder.
Fasting is not something I've done a lot of. I eat constantly. Here in the mountains, there is far less to eat. Chapattis, fruit, honey and yogurt make breakfast by far the best meal of the day. Dinner is chapattis and simple Indian vegetable dishes. In between, we get the odd apple and a vile green probiotics drink that looks like ditchwater. Then Piers ups the ante by announcing: "We're not going to eat for a day."
If I don't eat, I get tense. That night, in the medieval mud-walled kitchen we cook in, I hide two of the chapattis I'm making for our dinner. I have no intention of eating them, but I feel better knowing that I have an edible security blanket.
"The fast starts tonight after dinner and ends the morning after tomorrow," Piers explains. Which is actually 38 hours, but I don't think Piers is in any mood to bargain. Twice a day, we are given a cup of fresh fruit, and we can have as much green tea as we want. To make things even more fun, Piers gives each of us a pad and a pencil and forbids us from talking for the day.
The good news about the not-eating bit is that after a while you genuinely stop feeling it. The stomach and mind sort of harden over. Twenty hours in, you begin to fantasise about food, but all fantasy is futile. At home there is a 24-hour garage full of food at the end of my road; up in the Himalayas, there isn't even a 24-hour cow around for milk.
By the time the fast is officially up, I actually want to go a few days more and get rid of the wok under my T-shirt for good. This seems to annoy the others, but for me an enforced diet of fruit and tea actually feels good.
Eight hours later, Piers insists that I eat, because we need to line our stomachs for the bowel cleansing tomorrow. The what? You would think that after two days of starvation you can roar back in with chocolate cake and tomato ketchup-flavoured crisps. But no chance: a big bowl of soggy rice drowned in ghee is our only reward. And then, the only thing I don't want to do on camera: shankaprakshalana.
Imagine cleaning out a fish tank by pouring one clean cup of water in for every dirty one removed - that is the basic description of what happens next.
We are to drink two cups of warm water and then go through a series of stretches designed to push the water through the system. We are then to walk like spacemen with big steps across the mountaintop until we feel the need to go to the toilet, or not, as the case may be.
Every time the walk is over we have another two cups, a stretch and so on. The intention is to continue doing this until we are passing the same water that we have drunk, having flushed everything else from our system.
The consequential exit strategy is absolutely vile. And the poor guy who has to clean the bogs after us pretty soon takes to working with incense and a face mask.
Colonic irrigation crossed with circuit training is not my idea of fun. I understand that the road to enlightenment requires you to do this sort of thing, but I just wish it isn't going to appear on television at home in the time slot normally reserved for The Sopranos. For the cameras, Piers, Parvesh and, apparently, us, this is the headline act. Can you drown and starve at the same time? We are about to find out. It is definitely the most tense day of the trip.
Having felt up my stomach, Parvesh tells me he thinks it will take about 10 cups of water. I struggle to approach this with the maturity and concentration needed to complete the task and - away from the glare of the cameras - I manage to get the show on the road in a bivouac toilet Piers has rigged up in the woods. A hole in the ground, four sticks and some bin-liners make his VIP latrine look like those tents police erect to cover murder victims. Pretty soon it begins to smell like someone has been killed in there. Sixteen cups and four hours later, I am passing clear water and I've finished. I can now shit on demand.
Amid all this, there is of course the traditional ashtanga yoga. Unsurprisingly, with all the vomiting and piss-drinking going on, the first two episodes of the television programme don't seem to feature any actual yoga.
But it is with the yoga that I genuinely feel that something beneficial is happening. Sheshadri manages to bend me and stretch me until I start to look like a fat ballet-dancer. "You must keep up the yoga, James, you are much improved," he says, his eyes gleaming with a mixture of pride and sadism. "And you must eat less, or it will be very bad for you," says Parvesh, with a look that says: "You will die young unless you ditch the Haribo."
After just a week of stretching on a surface of uneven crazy-paving stones, I am able to hold positions I couldn't have imagined, never mind achieved. I've definitely lost a lot of weight, but any idea of the break being a holiday has slipped away. In 10 days, I only manage one afternoon sunbathing, but I will definitely take up yoga when I get back to London. Honest.
Hitting England in early October, the flu bugs had a field day with me. In the aftermath of the shankaprak-whatsit, we were supposed to down masses of probiotic hedgewater, but I'd skipped that. After a week of yoga and a week of English winter illness, you could actually see my cheekbones and ribs.
And as for the yoga? Up there in the Himalayan air, where the eagles soared and the cowbells jingled, it felt like the most natural thing to reach over your knee and straighten your arms and your legs like an arrow and look out over the sun rising on a beautiful mountain range.
The problem is that if I walk away from this computer and have a go right now, I will just be within reaching distance of the fridge.
PIERS BRITTAIN'S FIVE DETOX DELIGHTS
These are yogic cleansing techniques, a series of six actions designed to cleanse and balance the body's internal environment and subtle psychic energies. They are performed by yogis to detoxify the mind, body and spirit, to increase awareness, and to heighten the impact of regular yogic practice. The techniques should only be learnt and practised under the guidance of a qualified yoga therapist.
Basically stomach cleansing. One to three litres of warm water is drunk, moved around in the stomach and expelled through the mouth. The exercise is done first thing in the morning to clean the stomach and to rebalance the mucous linings. It also tones the abdominal region, increases digestive fire, quietens the mind and opens the heart centre.
This is sinus cleansing with salt water. Half a litre of warm saline solution is poured through the nasal cavities, draining out both through the nose and the mouth. It is also done first thing in the morning before the practice of breathing. The benefits are: cleans out catarrh; opens up the passageways and makes breathing easier; makes eyes sparkle; and balances the subtle energies in the head, so making the practitioner more alert.
Also sinus cleansing, but with catheter or string. A cotton thread or rubber catheter is inserted through the nostril and down into the throat, where it exits through the mouth. Again, it is done first thing in the morning before the practice of breathing. The benefits include: massages and strengthens the membranes, so enhancing membrane function; eases respiratory infections such as asthma and emphysema, and increases infection resistance; removes excess catarrh; and stimulates nerves and the related brain functions of eyes, ears, sinus and head.
A technique designed to achieve a complete intestinal cleanse. Three to four litres of saline solution is drunk, and is then moved through the intestines using special yogic exercises, and finally expelled through the anus. It is usually undertaken twice a year, in the spring and autumn. The benefits are: removes toxic conditions of the blood and tissues caused by intestinal waste putrefaction and fermentation; relieves flatulence, constipation, acidity, indigestion, menstrual cramps, asthma, boils and acne; relieves urinary infections and prevents kidney-stone formation; cleanses the lymphatic system; and counteracts habits of bad diet and sedentary lifestyle.
Piers Brittain practises in Bristol and London. For his schedule of worldwide retreats and seminars, see www.lightbalance.com
'Extreme Celebrity Detox' is on Channel 4 at 11.05pm, from tonight until Thursday
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