Passport, toothbrush, ticket... sweatband: Can you combine a holiday with a body reboot?
Our three intrepid reporters head off in search of yogic balance, an army work-out and a diet that gives new meaning to 'slow food'
Sunday 09 May 2010
'I can feel my cells drowning'
Yoga and foot baths: Harriet Walker hits the holistic health button in Goa
The Total Body Rebalancing Programme at The Beach House in Goa, India, may sound drastic. In some ways, it is. But it is also an ideal combination of high impact, low effort – and it's ultra-effective for people whose idea of "wellness" doesn't involve five hours on a treadmill.
The principles of the programme come from a hybrid philosophy of tending to mind, body and soul. So far, so familiar. But the combination of yoga, Ayurvedic theory and massage with modern life-coaching, counselling and neuro- linguistics is new. Add to that exacting attention to your diet and digestive system – the root of all ills, according to Beach House – and the result is a total overhaul of your habits, your health and your hunger pangs.
It is an attractive prospect to someone like me, who doesn't have the willpower to sustain any diet for long and finds exercise abhorrent, but is convinced that, on the inside, I'm the sort of holistic person who sees kale as a treat and dairy as the devil's breast milk. I just need a guiding hand – which is what life-coach Kate and nutritionist Francine are there to provide. And I'm convinced that before long I, too, will be the type to choose carrot juice over cachaça.
The daily schedule includes an hour's yoga first thing in the morning on the property's sea-view sun terrace, several talks every day, two treatments and an overwhelming amount of liquid. We are encouraged to drink hot water with fresh lime, honey and apple-cider vinegar after each of our six daily juices and broths to aid digestion and the ongoing alkalisation of our bodies. We're also encouraged to drink as much mineral water as possible, and after the first morning, I can feel my cells drowning and hear sloshing each time I stand up.
With all that going in – the menu ranges from green juice (celery and cucumber) to orange juice (carrot) to pink juice (beetroot and what tastes like dishwater) – there is no sense of going without or of being hungry. On the contrary, I am perfectly full and content (but for the almost crippling desire to grind my teeth against the delicious salty husk of a pork pie).
Alongside each drink comes a startling array of supplements: aloe-vera juice, which is good for the immune system and for neutralising stomach acid; wheatgrass, which is the worst thing I have ever tasted but promises to help detoxification; and an array of pills that would put Damien Hirst to shame. The juices are mixed with psyllium husk, which looks like desiccated coconut and inflates in the gut to help roll out the nasties that are lurking there.
Because that's what the programme's aim is – not to lose soapstar amounts of weight in a week, but to shut down the digestive system to rest and rejuvenate it. Our stomach and intestines spend so much time crunching through delicious but unwieldy delicacies that they don't get a chance to recuperate, nor are they given the nutrients it needs to do so. The Total Body programme is like cold turkey for my colon, I am given to understand, so naturally there is some discomfort to experience before I reach the zenith of wellness.
Although the emphasis is on relaxation, the programme is tailored to ensure busyness at all times, with health talks in the morning and a regimen of treatments throughout the day, lest you realise the fundamental gaps in your daily routine. There are massages and facials, even a detox foot bath that sucks out toxins by electrolysis. (I'm not yet so light-headed or hallucinatory that I fall for that, despite being presented with a washing-up bowl full of black water at the end.) It seems strange, even spoilt, to equate going for a massage with the dragging feeling of having to get up for work, but when all you want is a clear run of lying on the beach, it begins to seem that way. That said, every treatment is of the highest standard: relaxing, invigorating and refreshing – and they do feel as if they're doing you good.
The most obvious omission on a holiday like this is the lack of a focal event at the end of the day: namely, a hearty meal and several bottles of wine. The programme aims to replace this with pedagogical talks and evening discussions about health and lifestyle issues. These are informative and constructive, but lack a little direction and if you aren't one for public confessionals, can feel a little invasive.
One of the main sources of discomfort are the twice-daily coffee enemas that form part of the schedule. I won't pretend it's dignified, but the rather self-righteous feeling of having put your organs through a car wash doesn't fade quickly. And it's a great way to wean yourself off caffeine; one whiff of a latte now and I can feel my intestines wince.
After a couple of days, my teeth are coated in something that feels a bit like velvet and is not dislodged by brushing, and my skin smells a bit like the green juice we had for, ahem, "lunch". But I am noticeably brighter: my skin is clearer, my eyes are sparkling and I don't mind getting up at dawn.
Whether I'd be quite as perky if I wasn't surrounded by palm trees, tropical beaches and unfailingly friendly staff is hard to say, but the sense of wellbeing that comes from doing little and, furthermore, being told that doing little is imperative to my treatment, can't be beaten. There are a few cod-science elements that must be smiled through (vegetables have vivid auras, apparently) but, hokum or health-freak, you can't fake the sense of having been giving a chance to start again, with a clean conscience and even cleaner colon.
The Total Body Rebalancing Programme costs from £1,050 for seven days (thebeachhousegoa.com). Thomson has direct flights to Goa from £599 return (thomson.co.uk/flights)
'My lungs will not limit me'
Adam Jacques tests his stamina at a boot camp in picturesque Devon
I am standing on a mud-sodden stretch of meadow in the heart of the Devon countryside with 10 other recruits, body clenched and hands shaking in anticipation of what's to follow. I take a deep breath in and the liquid-oxygen cylinder that is strapped to my back whooshes into action, filling my nostrils with a burst of sweet-smelling oxygen as I make a final adjustment to the connected nasal tube lassoed over my head. "Alpha unit, GO!" shouts Staff Reitz, and with (toy) assault rifle in hand and camouflage paint daubed across my face, I drop to the floor and start commando-crawling along a grass verge. Springing back up on to my feet to the sound of automatic-weapon fire around me, I zigzag my way across the field to avoid the "enemy insurgents" who are trying to block our progress. It's a frigid mid-afternoon in early December at Prestige Boot Camp – and this is exhausting stuff.
I have never found exercise particularly easy: as anyone with a chronic chest condition will tell you, just taking a deep breath at rest can feel like sucking in air through a straw, while the steep walk up from my house to the rail station can leave me panting like an over-the-hill pensioner (I'm a slim, 31-year-old guy). Taking part in a one-week boot camp in Devon had seemed a delusional idea at best – but an inner voice kept insisting that a pair of shoddy lungs shouldn't limit me from my drive towards a fitter, more muscular me. So, armed with a plethora of medical equipment including a pulse oximeter (for measuring my body's oxygen saturation levels: under 90 per cent for anyone is bad) and a couple of liquid-oxygen canisters, I headed off to the Prestige course, a nervous knot forming in my stomach: would this be a step too far?
"Now, break left!" bellows another one of our fitness instructors at recruit Nikki, who, in a moment of panic, crawls backwards in sheer confusion, bum lofted high in the air. "Private Benjamin!" barks Reitz, struggling to suppress a grin, "Sort it out!" My lungs are heaving as I finally cross the finish line; gasping for air, I pluck a mini-oxygen-level monitor from my pocket and clip it on to my finger: it reads 89 per cent, which is way too low. I take several slow, deep breaths in and wait for the numbers on the tiny screen to flash back up to a medically acceptable 96 per cent before unhooking the oxygen cannula from my nostrils and unstrapping the oxygen pack from my back. As I collapse on the floor, spent, I take in the glorious patchwork panorama and feel a huge surge of achievement.
Prestige is one of an increasing number of fitness camps that aim to whip participants into shape and help them cleave off the pounds over seven days of relentless muscle- firming, fat-melting, lung-burning exercise. But this camp's biggest differentiator (other than the luxury en-suite bedrooms and the Michelin-recommended chef) is the philosophy behind it. "This isn't the army," explains ex-military fitness instructor and camp co-founder Reitz. "You won't get forced to do anything you don't want to do, but remember why you're here." So while some boot camps are rife with tales of apoplectic, muscle-bound instructors inflicting late-night punishment marches and fire-alarm wake-up calls at dawn, Prestige aims to get results through gentler encouragement and education.
Which is not to say that its touchy-feely health seminars make it easy – with a 12-hour daily work-out schedule that typically features stamina-sapping interval training, circuits, boxercise and exhausting coastal hikes, this is not for the faint of heart, and after just one day of constant exertion my legs and thighs ache so much I can't sit on the loo without using my arms to lower myself gingerly down. So while this is a steep learning curve for me, it's also suitable for any level of fitness, with sessions carefully arranged to allow top performers to excel and back-of-the-class recruits to set their own limits.
By day four, my body has started to adjust and things are getting easier. After a gentle early-morning warm-up, I find myself with 10 other recruits on an exhilarating sprint up a wind-lashed hill; I don't remember the last time I ran at full pelt, let alone uphill. I do have to rest halfway, mind, body bent over double, panting furiously as I draw in the precious oxygen from my back-strapped cylinder. Staffs Wincott and Reitz yell out words of encouragement to me and implore the others to "dig deep" as they barrel past. Some, like me, can't push any harder and take a much-needed rest further up; no one is ever forced to carry on. As we take a mid-morning break and I start catching my breath, the 11 other, female, recruits (I'm the only guy in this "mixed" camp; single-sex ones are also available) gather around me, clucking like a brood of hens, offering warm words of encouragement and providing a unique insight into what it would be like to have 11 mothers.
By day seven, as we prepare to leave camp, there are some significant changes afoot; most recruits who were looking to lose weight are letting out squeals of delight as they find out they've lost upwards of a dress size, while I am pleased to say my fitness levels have rocketed. Come Monday morning it's time for me to go back to work, and as I hike up the steep hill from my flat to the station, I realise, with a flush of excitement, that I'm not feeling my usual breathless self.
There are a lot of things that might put you off going to a boot camp: with prices starting from just under a grand, it's not a cheap week away – and losing control over what you eat for seven days will be hard for some to stomach. But the physical challenge it presents is achievable for almost anyone; if I can do it, I really think you can too. '
A one-week Prestige Boot Camp programme costs from £995, including accommodation, food, drink and all activities at either its Devon or Herefordshire sites. One-day boot camp programmes are also available in London and Bristol, costing £60 (tel:0117 973 12 13, prestigebootcamp.com)
'Out damned toxins, out'
Lisa Markwell chews each mouthful 40 times at the famous Mayr clinic
The Mayr clinic's reputation precedes it. I had heard of a place in Austria where you have to chew each mouthful of food 40 times and make a small cup of soup last for 30 minutes. I had heard of visitors who couldn't hack it and had run, whimpering, to the nearest KFC. But after a bout of illness and general sluggishness, I got more curious. Why do devotees spend two to three weeks (and several thousand euros) every year undergoing such torture. I asked a Mayr-going friend, and her answer? Clear skin, flat stomach, bright eyes, shiny hair, more energy... Need she go on? She need not. I want what she's got.
I arrive in Klagenfurt, Austria, home to the Mayr since 1976, when the spa was first established on the shore of Lake Worth. Named after the late Dr Franz Xaver Mayr and following his teachings, the spa's ethos is that good health begins in the digestive system, and that most illnesses can be prevented, or alleviated, by eating properly. This deceptively basic approach continues today: the illnesses might have changed (more stress, more IBS, more obesity), but the treatment remains the same. Patients must rest, cleanse the system, learn about nutrition and substitute good food and supplements for bad.
I use the word patients advisedly – the place has the feeling of a medical institution rather than a touchy-feely spa. If you want pedicures and pilates, you can have them, but the Mayr's strength is in its doctorly doctrines, delivered (in my case) by Frank Bolvari. A genial, fun-loving and BlackBerry-toting chap, the doctor nevertheless advises strict adherence to the Mayr regime in his initial medical examination. Tummy measurements are done in handspans – old school-style – and the talk is of poos and farts. I soon learn that no bodily function is off limits here (a Mayr devotee had told me of people rushing off, mid-conversation, to commune with nature). I'm having some vitamin transfusions to boost my general health, and Dr Bolvari fires 13 acupuncture studs into my ear to help calm my jangled system (they drop out after a week or so and I get to love my post-punk bristles). I had already prepped with a visit to London's Organic Pharmacy, where I loaded up with liver and kidney drops, some detox and antioxidant tablets and the Mayr's special powder, so I'm used to a pseudo-medical daily regimen.
I'm signed up for a traditional cure. On waking, I must drink Epsom salts and alkaline powder to get my system going, then breakfast on sheep's yoghurt, a spelt roll and some protein: I can choose from a boiled egg, tuna pâté, slice of ham and so on. This becomes a decision loaded with import, since it's my only choice of the day. The spelt roll is chewy and joyless, about as far from a croissant as it's possible to get. It is stamped, without irony, with a smiley face.
Back in my bedroom, I peruse the Mayr manual. There are no weighing scales (banned by the doctors), but reception has a hole-punch for guests who find their belts have become looser over the week's stay. I find that encouraging. There is also the daily midday nap to look forward to. How anyone needs a daytime snooze is beyond me when all there is to do is some light walking, sipping of soup and reading, at least until day two when, zzzzz, I find myself nodding off under the covers with a warm hay pack nestled on my abdomen. The faint farmyard smell takes some getting used to, but my liver is loving the attention. Out, damned toxins, out.
Lunch is an extremely modest bowl of vegetable soup, to be eaten with a teaspoon. "Try to make it last 30 minutes," say the encouraging staff. To defer boredom, I do just that. And find I can, because the one-and-a-half litres of water I've drunk between meals has taken the edge off my hunger. Ah, so that's how it works.
The long hours until supper (6pm) stretch ahead, and there is only more vegetable soup to look forward to. I do some "kniepping" to pass the time. Dipping legs into alternate very hot and very cold baths is not everyone's idea of fun, but it's all about drawing out those toxins. So is the mud bath I go off-piste with, a curious, heavenly process. I'm slathered with black mud, then wrapped in a rubbery duvet and lowered into warm water so that I float for 20 minutes. I could happily have spent the night there, not least because the actual beds are on the firm side.
Lake Worth, too, has plenty of pretty diversions. One day I take out a bicycle and meander around the lanes. On several occasions I grab some Nordic poles and take a long, slow walk through the forest behind the hotel. There's an indoor pool, and feeling intrepid, I swim the crystal-clear, icy-cold waters of the lake itself, from the wooden deck where the 7am stretching class takes place. Just along the way I hear the screams of guests who have been in the lakeside sauna, then leapt in among the ducks and carp.
I certainly get in tune with my body at top speed – and learn the locations of each and every loo in the complex. I learn that wheedling the waitresses, all smiles in their traditional Austrian costumes, doesn't result in them giving me a spelt roll when it's not on my diet sheet. I realise that I have been overeating, and not drinking enough water – popping in a cake when sipping a cup of herbal tea would have sated me. These small, annoyingly obvious lessons are the kind that should stick in the mind.
The Mayr teaches me to learn to love my tummy and to treat it with respect. When the hand-span measurements are taken at the end of the week, and the once-only hop on the scales takes place, I am very happy with the results. Flat stomach, clear skin, bright eyes, check. When I get home, everyone comments on how fab I look.
I don't imagine the Mayr cure works for everyone. It's the start of a life-long commitment to eating in a way diametrically opposed to most of our habits. We must eat sitting down at a table, slowly. We must not eat late at night, in front of the telly. We must eat less acidic stuff (white flour, sugar, pulses, beans, alcohol) and many more alkaline foods (dairy, vegetables, fresh herbs, soya). We must not snack between meals. And if we have a big blow-out, we must fast the next day, to allow our stressed digestive systems to gently recover.
I can't wait to go back and get taught all over again.
A seven-night stay in a single room taking in the FX Mayr Classic (originalmayr.com) costs from £1,302 (€1,500) per person, including initial and final medical consultation, massages, some treatments and tests (you can custom-add more), use of all facilities and access to daily exercise classes (tel: 020 7437 360, 1360travel.co.uk) . For pre- and post-Mayr advice and supplements/vitamins, contact The Organic Pharmacy (020 7351 2232, theorganicpharmacy.com)
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