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The business of wellbeing

Wellness centres

It’s that time of year when you start to wonder if your swimming kit has shrunk while sitting idly in your drawers all winter. One way to fend off the awful truth is to get a quick fix at a wellness centre, one of those institutions that have spread like impetigo across the face of the earth, thriving not only on our loss of faith in state health systems, but also on our loss of faith in modern medicine per se.

I sometimes wonder what my father would have made of these places. He worked in the National Health Service, fought in two world wars, and had little time for what he would have described as “namby-pamby self-indulgence”. Besides, he was not a great one for baring his flesh, my father. I have a picture of him in a deck chair on Wales’s Aberdovey beach (www.aberdovey.org.uk) in the 1950s. He is topless, but he is still wearing long trousers with the braces attached…and brogue shoes.

I guess my father would have been on the side of Edzard Ernst in the debate between “alternative” and “not-alternative” medicine. Known as “the scourge of alternative medicine”, Ernst was forced into early retirement from Exeter University where he was the world’s very first Professor of Complementary Medicine.

Some have suggested that the staunchly alternative Prince Charles was behind Ernst’s removal. Charles set up something called the Foundation for Integrated Health (the FIH) that had tried to persuade the NHS to embrace alternative treatments. The FIH, however, was closed in 2010 after one of its staff embezzled over £300,000.

Anyway there’s a lively debate out there, and I decided some time ago to do some “independent” research of my own. This has involved laying myself down on countless massage tables, covered in little more than a tanga and sweet-smelling oil; allowing fine needles to penetrate my flesh so I go ‘twang’ in a high wind; and eating large quantities of beets, roots and leaves.

Most recently I visited Koh Samui’s Kamalaya resort (www.kamalaya.com). Based in Thailand (where alternative is almost the only alternative), it says its facilities focus on “Holistic Wellness”. I signed up to treatments with names like Chi Nei Tsang and to a detox diet designed to remove quantities of shit from those among us who are too full of it.

Take my word for it, the diet worked. Two days into regular small glasses of dark green wheat-germ juice, ginger tea, shredded cabbage and pounded beetroot, I found that copious toxins from the likes of Caffé Nero and the Brackenbury Wine Bar were departing my body like wildebeest crossing the Mara.

In between visits to the loo I managed to squeeze in some acupuncture and shiatsu, neither of which I had tried before. And I learnt that with alternative medicines – as with so much else – it’s less the thing itself that matters, more the person what does it. (I think it’s called the ‘placebo effect’. My father called it ‘bedside manners’.)

Kamalaya had a Japanese shiatsu practitioner in residence. Yutaka Homma was his name, and he was obviously a star. His balletic stance as he balanced his weight to apply pressure to specific parts of the body, was worthy of a Degas painting. The grace and beauty of it alone was enough to make you feel better.

By contrast, there were a couple of practitioners of other therapies (no names mentioned) who were so bumbling in their explanations of what they were about that I would not have signed up for a session with them had they been promising eternal life itself.

Anyway, here are some of the findings from my extensive research spread over many years:

Stay local. One of my worst experiences was in a “Turkish hammam” in Morocco where my therapist (yes, that’s what they called him) threw me about like a rag doll in a travesty of the wildly invigorating treatment you can find in such places in Istanbul. I wasn’t too happy with my “Thai” massage in the Caribbean either.

It’s very rarely a good idea to let people persuade you to shove things up your bum. My father never told me that. But he would have done had he been with me at the health farm where I once found myself taking two enemas a day – for almost a week.

Beware of alternative alternatives. I once had a back “treatment” somewhere deep in the Mekong delta from a spider woman who crawled all over me, literally digging her heels into strategic points on the way. And the omnipresent yoga needs to be handled with care. It has spread far from the original Indian practice which, don’t forget, was designed by (and for) short, thin people – ie, not for the likes of me.

And finally, make sure your therapist speaks the same language as you. And make sure that you’re wearing your hearing aid. I have missed out on volumes of what might have been sound advice by being the sort of person who doesn’t dare say, “I didn’t quite catch that”. Anyway, for the placebo effect to work, it requires communication – more communication than passes through inane grinning.