Feel good special: Alternative therapies

With so many therapies claiming to improve your wellbeing, which should you choose? Genevieve Roberts is pricked, pummelled and stretched in her quest for the answer
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Indy Lifestyle Online

The day before going for acupuncture, I get the fear that it will be like a trip to the doctor, traumatic for any hypochondriac. While I am not scared of needles per se, having metal spikes lingering in my skin sounds uncomfortable at best. Lydia Coles puts me at ease - a little. "You might feel a dragging on the skin, but it's not painful," she says.

She feels my pulse at various points on my body and looks at my tongue. She asks about my health, and I admit to getting dull headaches when I don't wear my glasses.

This method of assessing wellbeing has been practised in China for more than 2,000 years. Rather than treating isolated symptoms, acupuncturists aim to balance the body's energy (chi) so it moves smoothly through a series of channels (meridians) beneath the skin.

Lydia studied acupuncture for three years and has been practising for 11. She was inspired to learn after having the treatment for a bad knee.

The anticipation is the worst part of the treatment; when she actually inserts the needles it is surprisingly painless. I can feel a pulling inside my wrist from the first needle, which subsides after a couple of minutes. Lydia puts a second in my foot. The third is destined for the middle of my forehead. This is a terrifying prospect, but after the slight tugging feeling, I can't even feel it.

After checking my pulses again she leaves me to "relax". I don't want to get too relaxed, I could wake up to find I've stabbed myself. When Lydia takes the needles out, my headache has gone. I feel drowsy but calm, and Lydia predicts I will sleep soundly that night. She's right.

Feel-good factor **** Effective for those people who do not faint at the sight of a needle

Finding an acupuncturist Lydia Coles works at the Traditional Acupuncture Centre in Waterloo, a practice of 26 acupuncturists (www.acupuncturecentre.org.uk; 020-7928 8333). Initial consultation costs £70, subsequent treatments are £50. When finding an acupuncturist, check they are fully-qualified. Look for a practitioner registered with the British Acupuncture Council or the Association of Traditional Chinese Medicine.

YOGA

Not only does it reduce stress and improve posture, yoga can apparently also boost your concentration and improve your mood.

Brenda Hobdell looks at least 10 years younger than she is, and if that is the result of yoga, I'm ready to sign up. She has been teaching iyengar yoga, which links breathing and movement in flowing exercises, for 15 years. It leaves devotees supple enough to wrap their legs around their ears, or in my case, somewhere close to touching my toes.

Yoga originated in India around 4,000 years ago, where it is seen as a means to enlightenment. Beginners' classes in the West are likely to have more emphasis on the physical than the spiritual. But all forms of yoga aim to balance mind and body through controlled breathing.

Iyengar yoga, which focuses on body alignment, uses bricks to help balance and straps to pull the body into different poses. This helps to compensate for any lack of flexibility, so it is good for newcomers to the exercise who are able experience poses (asanas) more easily. It was developed by Yogacharya BKS Iyengar, who was born in 1914. Now in his 80s, he still practises yoga.

Repeating the series of asanas in the class gives the illusion of becoming instantly more flexible. When I have a one-to-one session with Brenda later, I wonder whether I am going to break as she yanks my creaking body into the poses. But rather than feeling disillusioned, I end the class determined to conquer my lack of stretchiness.

The following day I felt pleasingly stiff, enough to convince myself that the benefits are akin to taking part in a decathlon, just less sweaty.

Feel-good factor *** The most physically rewarding, but this does (unfortunately) require personal effort

Finding a yoga teacher Brenda Hobdell works in Waterloo and south-east London. Weekday classes are £7, or a course of 11 classes is £70 (www.southbankyoga.co.uk). Triyoga has centres in Primrose Hill, Neal's Yard and Soho (www.triyoga.co.uk). The BKS Iyengar website has details of Iyengar yoga teachers (www.bksiyengar.com), while Teachers are also listed on The British Wheel of Yoga website (www.bwy.org.uk)

MEDITATION

The sense of calm in the Kagyu Samye Dzong Tibetan Buddhist Centre is almost tangible, and the sound of occasional sirens in the distance is the only reminder that I'm in central London.

I meet Lama Zangmo, the Buddhist teacher who runs the centre. Since 1977 she has spent 11 years of her life in retreat, and has been teaching for the last nine years.

"Meditation is for everyone," she says. "It deals with the mind, thoughts and emotions. A calm, mind makes people more able to deal with day-to-day activities."

I tried meditating once before, and spent the entire class trying to suppress the random thoughts that came into my mind. But Lama Zangmo says that people are not aiming to be like "an empty robot" when they meditate. "Allow the thoughts to come and go - try not to elaborate on them. If you see them as insubstantial, like clouds, it will give you the freedom to live wholly in the present, rather than identifying with turmoil."

We enter the traditional Tibetan shrine room, and she shows me the posture, sitting with knees bent and the right palm over the left. I am told to concentrate on my chest rising and falling as I breathe in and out. Later, I focus solely on the tip of my nose, as air enters my body.

It takes discipline not to let the mind wander, but Lama Zangmo says that with practise it is not as hard as people think. And meditation feels so removed from the hustle of the city; it is calming in itself.

As I leave Lama Zangmo, I wonder whether she finds the constant rushing of people outside the centre bizarre. I suspect she must.

Feel-good factor **** Excellent way to gain some calm

Finding a meditation teacher Kagyu Samye Dzong Tibetan Buddhist Centre, Lambeth, London. (www.london.samye.org; 020-7928 5447). Introductory courses £40, weekend course £45. For Kagyu Samye Dzong Centre's across the country, go to www.samyeling.org

MASSAGE

The former estate of the Earls of Clarendon has been transformed into a luxury hotel and spa. The Grove, set in hundreds of acres of parkland, opened three years ago, and is a slightly unexpected addition to Watford.

The spa area is unadulterated luxury. Wrapped in a robe, I wait in the relaxation room before my massage. The beds are heated, and earphones and fruit juice are provided for those determined not to snooze.

Amanda Jones tells me about the treatment ahead over a cup of peppermint tea. I am to have two hours of chakra balancing, which involves a full body massage with hot stones (based on a Native American practice), gentle stretching and an acupressure head massage to calm and soothe the mind and spirit.

"One stroke of a hot stone is worth seven of the hand," she says. The heat relaxes muscles, allowing for a deeper massage. The stones are placed on the chakras, or energy points. She then starts the treatment with a foot massage and exfoliation. By the time my two hours are up, I can barely keep my eyes open. I would recommend this at the weekend, because it is so relaxing you are likely to spend the rest of the day floating round. The pool, steam room and Jacuzzi are also great places to linger after a treatment.

Feel-good factor ***** Indulgent

Where to have a massage

The Grove (www.thegrove.co.uk; 01923 807 807). Chakra Balancing with Hot Stones: £150 for one hour and 50 minutes. Boreh Spice Indulgence at The Sanctuary, Covent Garden: £90 for 85 minutes. (www.thesanctary.co.uk; 08707 703 350). For spas across the country go to www.massagetherapy.co.uk

REIKI

Developed in 19th-century Japan by the Buddhist healer Mikao Usui, reiki is an oral tradition handed down from master to student. "Rei" means "boundless and universal", while "ki" is "life "ki" means "energy". It's an intuitive treatment, in which a practitioner works through 12 basic hand positions on your body.

To test it out, I visit Melanie Hoffstead, a reiki master for 14 years. As I lie on her treatment table in a bright loft room in Archway, north London, she puts on some meditative music and tells me to relax. She starts by touching my shoulders; then lays her hands on my face, neck and body.

The transfer of energy in reiki can be felt as a sensation: heat, cold, heaviness or tingling. I was sceptical, and am surprised to feel a prickling in my hands and toes.

After about half an hour, she asks me to turn on to my front. While some people recall the past and find reiki emotional, after a few mundane thoughts of the "must remember to pay my rent" variety, I find myself lulled by the chanting music.

Melanie says that everyone reacts differently. "It instils a deep sense of safety. It's a melting experience that can provoke tears or laughter or snores, but I have never had a patient left cold by it - everyone has been moved. And I have the most sceptical people coming for treatment. Reiki really is open to anybody, from businessmen to football fans to pregnant women. It is also good for the grief process."

Feel-good factor *** Surprisingly relaxing, will definitely try this again Findinga reiki practioner

To contact Melanie Hoffstead, call 020-7263 2628 or e-mail m.hoffstead@talk21.com. She also teaches reiki in small classes here and abroad. One-hour session costs £45. Visit the Reiki Association website to find teachers: www.reikiassociation.org.uk

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