Zen and the art of spiritual maintenance: Anne Nicholls maps out the diverse options for voyages of self-discovery

Stressed out, harassed at work, depressed, indecisive, traumatised by some personal disaster? There was a time when the advice was simply to get on with things, grin and bear it, or join the local amateur dramatic society. Now there is an array of courses, workshops and therapies designed to 'release the inner self', 'discover your life energy' or 'remodel your behaviour patterns'.

From Saturday nights dancing around in corn circles to sitting in a seminar room writing action plans on flip charts, there is no shortage of workshops to help one change direction.

Instead of a course at the local college learning to unblock the kitchen sink, rewire your home or redecorate the living room, and picking up a useful certificate in the process, some people prefer to spend their leisure time unblocking their waste potential, channelling their energy sources or developing the art of creative visualisation.

Walk into Neal's Yard in Covent Garden, spiritual home to London's 'new age' 30- and 40-somethings, and you will find a mind-boggling selection of courses, workshops and groups on offer. You can learn about your Aura (the electromagnetic energy field around your body), relive your birth experience, chant Buddhist mantras on polished wooden floors or even learn how to breathe (if you don't already know how).

The style and approach of many of these courses draws on an eclectic mosaic of disciplines from assertiveness training and California-style positive thinking methodology (walking on hot coals - that sort of stuff), to Indian-based philosophy and meditation, oriental healing processes, the martial arts and semi-pagan mystic practices.

Trying to sort out the good from the bad, or finding a course or workshop that is right for you, is difficult.

Many people have emerged psychologically bruised and battered after a weekend locked in a large hall being harangued by someone called a 'facilitator'. If you can cope with that kind of catharsis then fine, but for the emotionally fragile it can be devastating.

Less threatening, but still not everybody's cup of Camomile, are the groups which insist on letting it all hang out and 'sharing' California-style.

Anyone not comfortable with the idea of disgorging their emotional baggage in a room full of complete strangers, bear-hugging their immediate neighbour on command, or being chatted up by a man in a multi-coloured jumper who looks like a relic from Woodstock and calls himself Rainbow, should look elsewhere for a more cerebral approach.

Rather than spending a weekend Exploring Anger with Dance or learning about The Sacred Meditation Cord of Atlantis, you may be well advised to go for something more down-to-earth.

The Gestalt Centre offers a range of short and long courses, plus counselling and drop-in information. The approach is to address the the whole person rather than focusing on a specific problem. Through group sessions people can explore feelings and emotions such as grief, rage, despair, sexuality and joy in a safe environment. The centre also runs Marathons - an intense experience (usually over a weekend) for those who feel stuck in repetitive patterns and unproductive relationships.

Psychodrama (courses are run at Goldsmith's College and the City Lit Institute) involves acting out or role-playing scenarios either to help them to get rid of pent-up emotions and anger or to rehearse situations which are causing anxiety in their immediate environment.

This technique is very effective in helping people get in touch with their feelings and express empathy. As with most workshops, the effectiveness of the exercises depend very much on the skills of the group leader.

Another powerful technique for changing behaviour which has gained considerable credence in industry and sport has the rather cumbersome title Neuro-Linguistic Programming. The idea is that by either changing the way one looks at situations (reframing) or altering one's linguistic patterns, it is (possible to influence relationships and become a better communicator. So by 'modelling' thought patterns and processes which, say, a star tennis player might go through before and during a match, the NLP gurus say one can improve one's game. It's a form of the Inner Game techniques used in a range of sports like shooting and skiing.

Key to the change is learning to understand one's own - and other people's - thought processes, which are essentially verbal, visual or kinaesthetic (based on feelings). Like many techniques, it cannot be learnt in one evening. It takes months, even years to alter behaviour, but the NLP practitioners claim their method is extremely fast when compared to psychotherapy.

Linking mind and body is the philosophy at The Quindo Centre, where people can relax and de-stress themselves in beautiful surroundings to the sound of a trickling water fountain. Dr Shaleghal Quinn, featured in the Channel 4 series on self-defence, Stand Your Ground, believes the mind affects the physiology of the body, so learning self-defence is as much a state of mind as a physical reaction.

The aim of Quindo is to help people open their senses, become more aware of things happening around them, and to offer space and tranquility in which to find solutions.

With such a diversity of personal development courses it is hard to choose which will meet individual needs.

The blurb on publicity leaflets frequently drifts off into meaningless psycho-babble which goes on about 'voyages of self-discovery', 'getting in tune with your energy source', 'purification through breathing' and 'finding your true centre so you can realign your life with your soul (not sole) purpose'.

Attending a free 'taster' session will give some idea of what lies in store and whether the style is right, whilst the qualifications of group leaders may provide some clues.

Neither, however, will guarantee quality.

Psychologist and self-help expert Gael Lindenfeld advises: 'Personal development work isn't something you can just taste. Making changes in your behaviour takes a long time - years in many cases. Some people complain that courses are too superficial or just plain silly; they make them feel good for a few hours and then the effect wears off. What many fail to do is to encourage people to take responsibility for their own lives on a more permanent basis.

'Other courses - the more confrontational ones - can leave people raw and

vulnerable afterwards. The easiest thing to do is to open people up; it is much more difficult to develop a strategy for putting them back together again.

Anyone contemplating going on a course should find out whether there is any support after the event. It is easy to be cynical and dismissive, but many personal development courses have transformed lives and enabled people to reassess their goals.

Much of our upbringing and education is focused around logical thought and learning practical skills - preparing for work rather than life. Few people really learn how to communicate and deal with human emotions.

So instead of spending next weekend fertilising the lawn, decorating the bedroom or pumping iron, a session of aura cleansing, prana revitalisation, chakra hunting or rebirthing could open up a whole new world.

FINDING THE RIGHT COURSE

The Festival for Mind, Body and Spirit runs until 30 May at the Horticultural Halls, Westminster. Details from New Life Designs; tel: 071-938 3788

Neal's Yard Agency for Personal Development, 14 Neal's Yard, Covent Garden, London WC2; tel: 071-379 1041.

There is an information resource centre, courses and 'tasters'. Coming up: Past Life Therapy on 28 May, pounds 50.

Health and Healing Centre, St James's Centre, 197 Piccadilly London W1V; tel:071-437 7118.

Coming up: New Age Jargon - a tongue in cheek discussion by Gerry Thompson, on 13 June.

The Quindo Centre, 2 West Heath Drive, London NW11 7GH; tel: 081-455 8698.

The Gestalt Centre, London. Contact them at 54 Warwick Road, St Albans, Herts; tel: 0727 64806.

The Open Centre, 188 Old Street, London EC1V 9B; tel: 081-549 9583.

Association for Neuro Linguistic Programming, 100b Carysfort Road, London N16; tel: 071-241 3664.

Mary Ward Centre, 42 Queen Square, London WC1N 3AQ; tel: 071-831 7711.

They have a Personal Growth workshop and run a course, Presenting the Inner Child (10 meetings each).

Chiron Centre, 26 Eaton Rise, Ealing, London W5 2ER; tel: 081-997 5219.

Coming up: Body-Centred Psychotherapy on 28 May, pounds 50.

Gael Lindenfeld, runs self-help courses; tel: 0962-855 801.

A useful reference book, Holistic London (Brainwave, pounds 7.95),

contains addresses and an explanation of major alternative therapies and personal development courses.

(Photograph omitted)

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