Just twenty minutes walk from Glastonbury Tor, the retreat is based in a series of converted farm buildings. The minute I saw the Cider House (my home for the week), I smiled broadly. It was the sweetest little cottage – all whitewashed walls and exposed beams and stonework. Almost monk-like in its simplicity yet supremely cosy and comfortable, it was the perfect place for a detox retreat. Quite honestly, I could have hunkered down and spent the entire week there.
However I pottered over to the communal building, a spacious airy room with large bean bags scattered around a log burner. Once everyone had gathered (there were 15 of us in our group, but some weeks have up to 22 guests), the team explained exactly how everything worked while we sipped our last ‘proper’ meal – a mug of warming vegetable soup.
Juice detoxing is made easy here. I can honestly, hand on heart, say I didn’t feel hungry at all – in fact, sometimes it was actually a struggle to finish each juice. I did feel light-headed after a few days though, but Fiona dosed me with a little real liquorice to restore blood sugar levels.
The days passed in a blur. I’d planned on catching up on reading and writing but, while there is plenty of free time on the programme, it was all too easy to mozy over to the communal room and have a chat. It’s all incredibly informal and friendly and the place soon took on the feel of a laid back house party, particularly in the evenings when a small crowd would loll back on their beanbags, all snuggled up in blankets, and watch soppy films.
‘I’m not keen on colonics,’ I winced as Fiona showed me how to rig up the DIY colema board in my bathroom. For those who’re wondering, a colema is mid-way between a colonic and an enema – in practical terms, it doesn’t reach up as high into the intestines as a full colonic, but higher than an enema, and you don’t have to hold anything in. They’re totally optional but apparently do help to flush away the toxins being released into the intestines (cutting out a lot of detox side effects). My first attempt was less than successful, taking well over an hour and giving me a numb backside and goosebumps (I’d forgotten to turn on the bathroom heater and you can’t exactly whizz over to turn it on while you’ve got a tube stuck up your bum). Fiona patiently worked through everything that had gone wrong and, by day three, I had got the hang of it and, truly, it was fine. You’re supposed to use it as a chance to get in touch with your body but I confess I read a book.
Vital recognise that detoxing can be a hugely emotional process (as well as a physically challenging one). My Journey session with Anna was gentle and nourishing (though others had intense and cathartic experiences) while coaching with Annie left my jaw scraping the floor. She’s an astrologer as well as a life coach and I could have happily spent hours with her. In fact, the whole team are delightful – warm, kind, full of integrity and humour – totally ‘real’.
I loved that everything had been thought through so carefully, with impeccable attention to detail. I also loved that you could be as sociable or as monk-like as you chose. It was great to chat and be sociable during the day but, come evening, I relished retreating to my cottage and sitting, snug as a bug, curled up in an armchair with a soft throw wrapped round me, either reading or catching up on DVDs.
The walks consisted of gentle rambles along tracks and through woodland. One day we found ourselves at the bottom of the Tor (but were advised not to take the steep climb while detoxing). Another day I made the acquaintance of Gog and Magog, two ancient oaks that stand on the edge of the farm – a surprisingly emotional encounter.
If you’re a detox novice I’d heartily recommend Vital. They will hold your hand right the way through and see you through any wobbles. No matter if you’ve never meditated or dared consider yoga – this is the place to try them in a totally easygoing, non-judgemental way (and, yes, I know they’re never supposed to be competitive but, let’s be honest, some places do make you feel the need to drop into a full lotus on your first class). And, if you have ever wondered about colonics but never liked to ask? This is the place to go. No shit.
I visited Vital Detox to report for Queen of Retreats – see my full report on the site…www.queenofretreats.com
I loved writing The Natural Year. The aim was to produce a book that would act as a friend throughout the year, not badgering or hectoring, but offering suggestions, inspiration, helpful ideas. Whether you want to overhaul your entire life, or just tweak it here and there, the book will hopefully provide a springboard for shift. It’s a bit of a smorgasbord really, with tips and techniques culled from traditions all around the world, from the myriad teachers and guides I met when I was writing a weekly column for the Daily Mail on natural health.
Anyhow, here’s a section from the beginning of the book. Although you can start the book at any point in the year, I kicked off in March, at the start of spring. To my mind, each season has a different focus and, for me, spring is…
THE SEASON OF THE BODY
KEY FOCUS: Getting in touch with your body, playing with your relationship with your physical self.
SECONDARY FOCUS: Starting to think about your life.
CHALLENGES: Introducing a healthy diet; starting to exercise; cleansing, toning the body, boosting the lymphatic system, becoming more flexible.
QUESTIONS: How mind I like to live my life? How do I want to treat my body? Am I willing to take responsibility for my health?
CHALLENGES: Dare to pamper yourself; dance to discover your emotions; try seemingly irrational exercises!
FESTIVALS AND CELEBRATIONS: Spring Equinox, Easter, Beltane
Everything seems possible in spring. This is the young year, the growing year, the season of buds and blossom, of lambs and all young things. It is, to my mind, the perfect time to turn over a fresh leaf, to start anew. Spring is the season of hope, of fresh life and new beginnings. It’s as if each year we get another stab at getting it right or, at least, getting it better.
After the darkness of winter, the days start to get longer and this change in light triggers a deep shift in nature – everything begins to come back to life and vigour. Catkins appear on hazel trees and pussy willow, bluebells cast a hazy sheen through dappled woods, primroses cling to steep mossy banks and larks soar and fall over the ploughed fields. Even within towns and cities, the onrush of spring can be seen in the bright cheery faces of daffodils and other spring bulbs and the frenzied nest-building of sparrows, pigeons and their other city friends. You don’t even need to see visible signs of spring: just stop and sniff the air, there’s something fresh about it, a new energy has arrived into the year.
Spring is pure physicality – it’s the season of the body and the perfect time to start a program to bring you into peak fitness. Take it slowly, one step at a time, and you can alter forever the way you look and feel. Spring is the time when we need to cleanse and detoxify our bodies, to clear out the debris that has accumulated during the relative inactivity of winter. It’s a time to start looking closely at how we feed our bodies; a time to decide on changes that will help our bodies serve us better. You can lose weight now but it’s not the best time of year to launch into a fully-fledged weight-loss regime. Your body has just come out of its winter hibernation and needs to be cleansed and then fortified, tonified. Far better to spend spring easing yourself into good, honest healthy eating, to cut out toxins and junk food and then launch into weight loss proper (if that is what you truly need) in the summer.
Equally, although spring might seem like the perfect time to change your entire life, it’s not a good idea to overturn it right now. Spring is great for deciding upon your focus for the year but it is not necessarily the best moment to kick in your job on whim or to make sweeping life changes. It’s the time to start thinking about what you want from life; to consider what you might need to change. But leave the implementation of those changes until that other dynamic season, autumn.
How would you like to see your body? How would you like to feel in your body? Really think about it. Do you know, in your heart of hearts, that you eat the wrong food, too much food, too much junk food, too little food, too little fruit and veg and fibre? Think about what you’re putting in your body. Think about how all your internal organs, all your bodily systems, pounce on the food you put inside you and try to obtain the nutrients they need to make you function properly. Do you give them a fair chance? Or are they scrabbling around trying to keep you going on a pile of empty calories, a sickly wodge of sugar and a dead weight of salt? This spring the aim is to make friends with your body so the least you can do is give it the bare essentials it needs. Try to follow the healthy eating guidelines given in the book.
What about exercise? Think about the muscles of your body – not just your pecs and biceps but your heart and your lungs. Exercise on a regular basis strengthens the whole body. Think about it.
What changes could you make right now? What changes do you want to make over the following year? Make a list of everything you would like to improve or change and give yourself a time scale. Also write down how you would do it. For example if you want to start exercising your list might read:
GOAL: improve physical fitness. Be able to run for the bus without gasping. Be able to play netball and go jogging again.
HOW? RIGHT NOW: walk up escalator every day on way to work. Look up gyms and sports centres in yellow pages and check out membership/facilities.
OVER THE NEXT MONTH: join gym and start regular workouts.
WHEN THE WEATHER IMPROVES: fix bike and start cycling to work. Get outside in lunch-hour – maybe start walking or jogging.
IN THREE MONTHS TIME/WHEN FITNESS LEVELS IMPROVE: join team for netball.
Again, don’t try to do it all at once. But do do it.
THE SEASON OF WOOD AND THE EVIL WIND
In the Chinese system spring is the season of the element wood and it is filled with the expansive, explosive energy of young yang. Young yang is boundless energy but can be reckless, impulsive, impatient. It is like an adolescent, straining at the bit, wanting to race out and make a mark in the world but not quite sure of his or her own limits. Wood makes us feel that we need free expression, to find our own way, to try new things and meet new people. It is open and energetic and can lead to great enthusiasm and new endeavors. However it can also become out of control and can lead to the feeling of “spring fever”, obsessive, undisciplined mania. It’s unpredictable – think of mad March hares, April showers, sudden heatwaves that vanish equally suddenly in squalls and sleeting rain, the sneaky frost that can devastate your garden overnight. Spring is also, quite naturally, the season of sex and sexuality. It is the season of procreation in the natural world and, just because we can mate at any time of the year does not mean we are not moved by the primal seasonal urges. Lust rises in spring – it is the time for starting relationships or recommitting to old ones.
The colour associated with wood is, unsurprisingly, green. The direction that governs the spring is east which also rules the beginning of the day, the morning. The secondary element the Chinese associate with spring is wind. Wind is the fresh air of spring, that whisks away the old and sweeps in the new. But too much wind can be harmful and the Chinese say that the great danger of spring comes from the wind “evil”. If we are balanced and healthy then the wind can do us no harm. However if our energy is low or stagnant then we might not be able to cope with the fluctuation in the external energies of wind and wood – the troublesome wind can invade the body and throw yin and yang into even more imbalance. The result is that we go down with colds and flus, coughs and snuffles, hot sweats or even more serious ailments. Some practitioners of TCM say that the wind evil is allowed free rein in our modern world through central heating and air conditioning because they shock our bodies and don’t allow them to adapt to the outside conditions. Microwaves and radiation equally come under attack but then no-one would suggest that radiation is particularly healthy.
Avoiding any of these evils is pretty difficult nowadays, unless you live in a cave up an isolated hill. But there are ways to minimize the damage:
* Fortify your body with good clean food. Avoid sweets, soft drinks and snacks made from refined sugar and steer clear of junk food, deep-fried food and over-processed foods.
* Take a daily good quality multi-vitamin and mineral supplement.
* As far as possible don’t shock your body by plunging from extreme heat to extreme cold. Wear a sweater or a vest rather than turning the heat up high.
* Install an ionizer in your home and office – particularly if you live in a large town or city.
* Keep a window open, especially at night. If you can avoid sleeping with air conditioners or central heating do so. Try using a fan to generate cool air. Time your heating so it comes on an hour before you get up rather than being on all night.
* Practice the techniques of good breathing. The Chinese recommend qi gong breathing exercises be carried out every day and say that twenty minutes of qi gong will re-establish your energy levels, enrich your blood, soothe the nervous system and the endocrine system and put your autonomous nervous system into the calming, restful parasympathetic mode. Practitioners of yoga would say the same for their practice of pranayama, which teaches the art of good breathing. There are plenty of vid clips on YouTube or, for best results, join a yoga or qi gong class and learn how to do it in absolutely the right way.
Read more in The Natural Year - now updated and available in Kindle format.
I also post seasonal tips and recipes on my Pinterest board here.
Middle Piccadilly has been on my ‘must visit’ list for years. About twenty years, in fact, as they have been running retreats and detoxes since 1986 – way ahead of the crowd.
I arrived in pouring rain and, I have to confess, my heart sank a little. My room was clean, warm and comfortable but small and somewhat suburban in décor (and when I peered out the window, I had a view of parked cars). The whole place seemed caught in a curious time-warp and my initial feeling was that MP needs to be given a serious shake and a stringent makeover. But, as I settled into the place, I found my mind changing. There’s something uniquely charming about the family kitchen with its rainbow decal on the window and its angel cards in a little pot. The living room could have benefited from a cosy fire but it’s not anodyne – every shelf and corner has something worth investigating. Yes, you have to dodge through the rain to get everywhere (it’s all housed in various converted outbuildings) but hey, so what?
What you need to know is that Middle Piccadilly is not a bijoux spa; it’s a home and you’re treated somewhat like an old friend of the family. So you might have to forage a bit to make your own breakfast and there’s no timetable of classes and organised activities. You just do your own thing. It’s a retreat in the old sense of the word – a place you go to escape the outside world, to go within without distractions.
I’d come straight from a week’s juice fasting so I opted for the raw food diet but, given it was January and freezing cold, I wondered if I’d made a mistake.
Far from it. Owner Dominic is a keen raw food chef and somehow manages to make it comforting and, magically, warming. I know that sounds odd but truly, it was delicious. Meals are taken in the family kitchen (it’s like sitting in a Hobbit house – all beautiful old wood, stained glass and rows of herbs, spices and earthenware pots) around a shared table. It’s a nice chance to chat with fellow guests (when I was there I met a sports nutritionist on her third visit, doing a juice fast) and two teachers from London on a girly weekend break (eating the full vegetarian option). I’m not sure I could have sipped a juice while people were scoffing nutburgers and curry around me but I guess you could take your juice away to your room if you felt it was too much.
Everyone has a consultation when they arrive, to ascertain what they hope to get from their stay, and co-owner Lisa ran through my health and wellbeing and suggested a treatment plan. This kicked off with a therapeutic massage with remedial sports therapist Angela which was seriously impressive. She worked deep into the fascia, unravelling tension and getting to the root cause of a back twinge and shoulder pain. Once my body was relaxed and receptive, it was time to meet Claire, who took me on a gentle, opening journey with a Hands on Heart session. First she smudged me (clearing my aura with white sage) and then lay me down on the couch with crystals placed around my body. She worked on my hands and feet, moving clockwise around the body, stimulating pressure points and balancing the chakras. It was a gentle, comforting treatment and, when it came to a close, she ushered me next door to my room and tucked me up in bed with a chamomile tea and firm instructions to ‘rest’. I only just overcame the urge to say ‘Yes, Mum.’
So, by the time I came to have my shamanic healing, I felt wide open. I’d heard reports of therapist Maya’s work. ‘It’s incredible,’ said a fellow guest. ‘But it’s wild, right out there.’ I’ve had a fair amount of shamanic healing before so thought I knew what to expect. I was wrong. As a shamanka, a female shaman, Maya works quite differently from the male shamans I’ve met. The process is more inclusive – more interactive – you are included in the journey, every step of the way (rather than just lying inert while the shaman does all the work, as usually happens). I was totally blown away by how physical a process it was. I felt pressure in my body, as if I had a large stone lodged, first in my solar plexus, and then in my womb. As Maya helped me breathe out the blockages, my abdomen began to convulse, as if it were giving birth to something. It was an incredible experience and, at the end of the session, I felt almost reborn, as if I’d had a huge weight removed from my psyche. And I’ve felt lighter and brighter ever since.
I just wish I’d been able to stay longer and undergo the Emergence retreat (a dedicated retreat guided by Maya). It’s firmly on my wishlist.
I visited Middle Piccadilly to report for Queen of Retreats: full report will be on the site soon. http://www.queenofretreats.com
Middle Piccadilly also host Shamanka workshops and trainings in contemporary women’s shamanism. Highly recommended. See the website here: www.shamanka.com
Some things the doctors and websites simply won’t tell you. In the course of writing a feature for the Irish Daily Mail, I talked to several breast cancer survivors for their honest, straight-from-the-hip advice on what to do, what to avoid and what to look out for if you get a diagnosis of breast cancer. This is what they said…
- Look abroad. Foreign medical websites are often better than homegrown ones for up-to date information . Breast Cancer Online (www.bco.org) is aimed at healthcare professionals – ignore the bit that says it’s ‘not suitable for nonprofessional readers’ – why shouldn’t you read what the doctors are reading? Breast Cancer Network Australia www.bcna.org.au is a patient website but it has good resources and is not as cloying as many sites. Their Messages of Hope and Inspiration download is great.
- Prepare for lymphoedema. It’s pretty common after surgery or radiation treatment and if treated early can be better contained and controlled. Ensure someone who knows that they’re doing measures the volume of both your arms before surgery and records the results (keep a record yourself too). It’s done by measuring at 4cm intervals from wrist to armpit. Some hospitals do this routinely but some don’t.
- Move. Advice on movement after surgery has changed. Use minimal movement for the first week to aid healing and then start gentle physio exercises.
- Check out MLD. MLD (manual lymphatic drainage) can be of enormous help if you do get lymphoedema. A trained practitioner can also teach you how to do it yourself . See www.mldireland.com
- Do exercise. Exercise is great for breast cancer because it helps you sleep, it cheers you up, it helps control your weight and it gets you into a new exercise habit after your life has been disrupted. They used to say you shouldn’t do much exercise – and certainly not lift weights – but that’s now been overturned.
- Kinesiotaping is amazing. You may have seen athletes wearing strange brightly coloured bands on shoulders or legs –it’s known as kinesiotape and can be of enormous help if you develop lymphoedema following radiation or breast removal. www.kinesiotaping.co.uk can put you in touch with practitioners.
- Think ahead. Make sure your hospital keeps the cancerous tissue they extract from you. As treatments are developed and refined for specific genetic versions of breast cancer, in the future you may need to know precisely which type you had to get tailored treatment.
- Keep records. Insist on keeping copies of all your test results and notes. Many hospitals are still poor at record keeping and important information could get lost.
- Check your tests. If you go private for your care, make sure they aren’t doing unnecessary tests and treatments (they’re like the garage – will do everything, even if you don’t need it). If you’re in the state system, check the opposite – that you aren’t missing out on the best or latest treatments.
- Watch your immune system. Chemo destroys your immune system. There is a very expensive drug called Neulasta (Pegfilgrastim) which (if given after each chemo) protects you from infection. Make sure you’re offered it. Bear in mind that many cancer patients on chemo die from ‘underlying medical conditions’ if there’s an outbreak of flu or legionella.
- Invest in soft front fastening bras. They are easy to put on, comfortable and great when you’re not moving much. But once you start exercising, get a very good sports bra. Run Ireland (www.runireland.com) has good choices.
- Crop it. Chemo inevitably means hair loss (within the first three weeks of treatment). It’s much easier if you get your hair cropped very short before it starts to fall.
- Be wig-aware. Wigs are a waste of time if not properly fitted. Theatrical wigmakers are better at this than orthotics suppliers (who are not real hairdressers). Real hair wigs are very expensive and you will need two – bear in mind they need as much styling and washing as your real hair. Theatrical wigmakers recommend acrylic wigs with a monofilament area to make the wig look more natural.
- Go a bit crazy. Buy them longer than you need and have them cut and styled on you. Don’t buy it when your hair is long – it won’t fit when you’re bald. Either buy two wigs the same or choose one that’s a bit wild – in colour or style. Breast cancer gives you the chance to be a crazy cancer lady if you want!
- Choose caps and scarves. Chemo makes you feel very hot and if you have breast cancer before your menopause the sudden loss of ovarian function (chemo kills them) will give you raging hot flushes. So find alternatives to wigs for those times (plus exercising and at night – heads get cold at night). Muslim shops online sell great cotton caps or invest in a range of pretty scarves. Turbans are another option but you may need to use padding underneath to make them look okay.
- Bald heads burn. It may be tempting to just bare your head to the world but bear in mind that chemo makes skin photosensitive so you can burn easily. Up the SPF.
- Ask for Als. The majority of breast cancers are hormone positive – either oestrogen (ER) or progesterone (PR). After surgery and sometimes after chemo and/or radio you will be offered anti-oestrogen drugs to prevent recurrence. These tend to be Tamoxifem and Als (aromatase inhibitors). Tamoxifem can cause other cancers. Als are very effective but do have side effects – joint pains, UTIs and vaginal atrophy and hair thinning. It wrecks your sex life!
- Demand silicon. You can get burns during radiotherapy and you should demand Mepitel silicon dressings. They make a massive difference to pain levels burns cause and how well the skin heals.
- Invest in Bio Oil. Bio Oil is brilliant for scars. Chemists stock it or buy online from www.inhealth.ie MLD can also reduce scarring.
- Don’t blame yourself. So many women beat themselves up if they get breast cancer. They feel guilty; like they’d done something wrong. Yes, there are things that increase your risk but mostly it’s just down to luck. Shit happens.
The Body Retreat’s Stress Re-Set retreat is a four-night retreat that aims to balance body, mind and emotions through an immaculately thought-out programme of diet, exercise, mindfulness and behaviour modification. Plus oodles of fun and tons of big warm-hearted bonding.
It’s such a smart concept. You’re kept pleasantly busy all through the day (so you don’t have the chance to start worrying about anything) and, come night, you’re so blissfully tired, you can’t help but fall into a good sleep pattern. Days start early: there’s a gentle knock on your bedroom door at 7am, accompanied by a cheery ‘Good Morning’ (no need for stressy alarm clocks) and you toddle out in your bath-robe to pick up a glass of hot lemon. Our bedrooms are grouped around a central sitting area so it has the feel of a grown-up boarding school (of the nicest kind) as we all emerge, tousle-headed, mutter greetings and then retreat back to our rooms to sip our juice and do some skin brushing. Then it’s downstairs for a quick burst of circuits (exercise here is generally low intensity or short sharp blasts as apparently more than 45 minutes of intense exercise can boost cortisol levels and stress the body, twenty minutes in the sauna and a quick splash in the pool before breakfast.
Food is delicious here and surprisingly plentiful. It’s all about balancing hormones and blood sugar levels, so there are three main meals a day and three small snacks in between. Admittedly some are very small and portions are never exactly huge, but you don’t really feel hungry.
The days pass in a blur of activity – there’s usually a hike around the local countryside (sometimes with Nordic walking poles, sometimes without) and there are plenty of classes (yoga, fitness Pilates, fitball, kettlebells, bands). In between there are talks on nutrition, mindfulness and stress in general, including a visit from nutritional therapist Kate Delmar-Morgan. When we do have the odd hour or two free, we all (without exception) fell asleep. The idea is that you never have to worry about what you’re doing or where you’re supposed to be. There’s no frantic checking of schedules. If you’re not there, someone will come and find you.
The retreat is purposefully kept small (never more than six) which gives a very safe, intimate feel to the retreat. My fellow retreaters were all absolutely lovely – professional women with stressful lives who needed to step off the gas and regroup. Come day three we all had a touch of the ‘mehs’ – lacking in energy, barely able to summon up the energy to move. ‘It’s the hump,’ said Juls, clinical hypnotherapist and NLP practitioner who runs the retreats with Julie Brealy, fitness trainer and weight management specialist. ‘Everyone gets the hump on day three. You’re nearly over it, and then you’ll feel good.’ And she was right. I felt better as the day went on and, come the next morning I felt bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, powering off up the hills with my Nordic poles.
The Body Retreat uses several venues but our base was set down miles of winding tracks in the middle of the Somerset countryside. It was ridiculously quiet and, come nightfall, the sky was completely black. We toyed with the idea of opening up the outdoor Jacuzzi to watch the stars but wimped out and hung out in the sauna instead. The house itself is immaculate, maybe a little bland in décor but, in its way, that helped the feeling of serenity. My bedroom was lovely, fine cotton sheets on a vast bed with a view of fields. I arrived to find a goodie bag of t-shirt, natural bristle brush (for body brushing) and notebook – a really nice touch. The bathroom was total heaven with a walk-in shower with piping hot water and a huge free-standing bath with a TV screen at the end. Ideally you’re supposed to try a digital detox here but it was just too tempting to watch television with my nose just floating over the bubbles.
Local massage therapist Pippa comes in on a couple of evenings for treatments (the first is included in the price and you pay for any subsequent sessions). Her aromatherapy and remedial massage was excellent.
What’s not to love here? Well, the Vini yoga wasn’t really my bag – the idea is that it’s kept very simple so you can concentrate on being mindful throughout, but it felt a little wishy-washy and half-hearted somehow and I craved a deeper practice. But really, that was my only quibble. The rest of the classes were great – simple, straightforward, effective. If you’re an exercise novice, this is a great way to ease yourself into movement. If you’ve ever felt too shy about trying out a class or joining a gym, this really could get you over your reticence – you’ll try out circuits, kettlebells, fitballs, gymsticks, bands and rebounding. Most of the workouts use minimal equipment and you will go home with plenty of ideas of how to incorporate mini workouts into everyday life. The team also pack you off with a booklet of recipes for the meals you ate – and a ‘homeward bound’ snack box so you aren’t tempted by sandwiches or pies en route home.
Best of all was at the end when I had my parting consultation with Julie. She takes measurements at the start of the retreat and re-weighs and measures you at the end. I’d lost an incredible eight pounds in weight; six inches in total from hips, waist and chest and two percent body fat. And I’d only been there for three full days (as I had to leave early). No doubt about it – I’ll be back!
The Body Retreat also runs dedicated weight loss, detox and fitness retreats, in various venues around southern England and also in southern Spain. For my full report and details on all the retreats see Queen of Retreats.
If you fancy a DIY home detox, I give full details of both a month-long programme and a weekend cleanse in my book The Detox Plan, now available to download RIGHT NOW to your Kindle.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from Clinique La Prairie. The clinic is renowned for treating the rich and famous with total discretion, and the fees are so lofty they aren’t even mentioned on the website (think around £17K for a week on their famous Rejuvenation package). Yet, actually, it’s surprisingly normal and not remotely glitzy. People don’t waft around in robes (apart from in the spa) yet, equally, they don’t dress up to the nines. Although it’s a five star hotel and top-notch medical centre, it isn’t overstated and the look is very much of a smart clinic – cool, collected, classic, constrained. Yet the feel is warm – from the moment I was welcomed at the airport by the lovely limo driver to the moment he left me on my departure (making sure I was at the right check in), I just felt supremely cared for.
I wasn’t on a specific programme so I didn’t go for the usual initial doctor’s appointment and battery of tests. But, soon after my arrival, I met dietician Emmanuelle. Menus are tweaked and tailored to your individual needs and when I told her I was vegetarian and didn’t exactly see eye to eye with gluten and a few other things, she didn’t even blink. We talked through the day’s menus (you choose your meals a day in advance – adding to the hospital feel) as she made notes for the kitchen on my menu sheet. The food really is excellent here – given the strictures on my diet, my meals were imaginative and looked as good as they tasted. The smoothies and juices from the Spa Café are pure heaven.
The spa itself is brand spanking new. It’s clean, calm and does the job immaculately – although sometimes style overwhelms function. I slipped and slid my way into the Jacuzzi and couldn’t find a comfortable way of staying put. I was a little surprised they hadn’t opted for an indoor/outdoor pool (given the fabulous lake and mountain views) and the relaxation area is a bit underwhelming.
CLP never forgets it’s a clinic first and foremost, so don’t expect the wow factor as far as decoration goes and don’t look for exotic ‘journeys’ and ‘rituals’ – everything here is designed to do a serious job, rather than just make you just feel nice. The facials and body treatments I had all included both high-tech and what CLP calls ‘high-touch’ elements. All are good but the facials really are quite excellent. Parva has been with the clinic for 15 years and she took a close considered look at my face and nodded. ‘Your skin is in great shape but those eyebrows…I fix them, yes?’ What could I say? Before I knew it they were waxed and plucked and she’d moved onto the Radiance signature facial treatment – I lost track of the steps – some were pure heaven, some of the more high-tech elements less so. My skin looked a bit red and shiny directly afterwards but that swiftly faded and it was definitely softer and maybe even tauter and more toned. The Cellular Exclusive Lift Concept facial, although shorter in length, was even better – quite honestly one of the best facials I’ve had.
Yet CLP will use ‘old-tech’ when it’s tried and trusted and my ayurvedic abhyanga massage with Alessandra was a revelation, quite literally. I’ve had abhyanga many times in the past but it’s rare to find a massage therapist (rather than an ayurvedic doctor) who will read your pulses. Not only did Alessandra pinpoint my exact medical issues (down to the problematic left knee) but she also gave me a bit of on-the-spot fortune telling. A total surprise – oh, and the massage was great (far more individualised than most abhyanga).
My session with psychologist Fatima was equally revealing. A small, neat woman who has that unnerving ability to ask exactly the most pertinent questions, she gave no quarter and we packed so much into the hour that I came out feeling as if I’d been in analysis for a month. Part talking therapy, part Sophrologie (a sort of mindfulness meets visualisation with added pranayama), part hypnotherapy, I came away feeling much more ‘sorted.’
I was equally impressed by my one-to-one with personal trainer Emilie. She ran some tests and broke into a smile. ‘The good news is that you’re really fit,’ she said. ‘And the bad news?’ I asked, as I pedalled faster. ‘You have to work even harder to get results,’ she said with a rueful grin. She printed me off a new training schedule to take home and gave me a series of rehabilitation exercises for my dodgy knee. She got me over my fear of the TRX (a pair of straps hanging from the ceiling that we used for upper body work) and also checked out my technique for conditioning and abs. Again, I felt as if I’d learned masses in a very short period of time.
I didn’t think I’d love La Prairie but I did – every single member of staff was delightful, the lakeside setting is beautiful (although less isolated than I’d imagined) and the spa treatments and facilities are all immaculate. My room was supremely comfortable with a large patio looking out over the lake to the mountains beyond.
If I had any serious health concerns (and particularly if they required the input of a variety of consultants) I’d be there like a shot (funds allowing). La Prairie does joined up medical thinking seriously well – and I really like their open-minded and pragmatic approach that combines high tech with holistic thinking.
However, it is very quiet and, while the other guests are perfectly friendly, it’s hard to strike up conversations so, if you aren’t fond of your own company, you might run the risk of feeling a bit lost and lonely, especially in the evening. But for me… it was heaven. I arrived feeling jaded, fat, frumpy and fatigued, all out of sorts in both body and mind. When I left, after just three days, I felt as if I’d got a whole new focus. I’d lost a few pounds (while eating more than I do at home), got a whole new mindset around work and workouts and my skin has never felt so clear and soft. Now if I could just stay for a fortnight…
I visited Clinique La Prairie to report for Queen of Retreats website. I also reviewed it for Harper’s and the Irish Daily Mail.
Yes, it’s freezing out there but, while it’s tempting to turn up the heat and huddle by the fire, maybe we’re missing a trick. There’s been a sudden plunge in temperature in the world of health and beauty as therapists, doctors and surgeons are increasingly discovering the therapeutic power of cold.
Actually it’s nothing new. People have believed in the health-giving properties of cold temperatures since classical times. Plato, Hippocrates and Avicena all recommended cold water treatments as a vital part of medicine. In Russia and northern Europe, the therapeutic use of snow, cold and ice are legendary. There is even a specific word in Russian – which translates as tempering – which means to toughen and strengthen the body through the use of cold and ice.
‘Cold makes skin and blood vessels contract,’ explains Alla Svirinskaya, a medically trained healer and a firm advocate of cold and ice therapy. ‘Cold is energizing, reducing fatigue, both mental and physical. It also gives an emotional boost because our blood receives increased levels of endorphins. Cold can help repel toxins and even prevents the desire to overeat. It’s also known to improve memory and concentration.’
In northern Europe it’s common practice to go straight from a hot sauna to a freezing plunge pool or even to roll in snow. Sports therapists commonly use ice packs and cold spray as well as heat, and many cutting edge facials and beauty treatments are now combining heat and cold to gain maximum benefits.
Heat brings blood to the surface of the skin while cold sends it to your organs. Shifting between the two (as many of the following treatments advocate) acts like a pump to your heart, increasing blood flow. This, in turn, boosts circulation and helps to clear the complexion – some say it can even help reduce cellulite. In addition, cold temperatures stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system (responsible for rest and repair) and can trigger the release of feelgood chemicals.
So what’s cool in the ice-cold world of health and beauty? We look at the latest chills – from high tech, high end treatments to simple treatments you can do at home for the price of…an ice-cube or two.
Whole body cryotherapy: the rejuvenator
Whole body cryotherapy (WBC) involves marching around a cold chamber (basically a giant freezer) at body-numbing sub-zero temperatures. It is touted as a highly effective form of pain relief – particularly for chronic degenerative conditions and is widely used by doctors in Poland, Germany and Austria. ‘Cold therapy has profound analgesic effects,’ says Dr Georg Kettenhuber, who has treated many top athletes (including international footballer Fabiano) at his clinic in Austria. ‘I use it to treat sports injuries, inflammatory rheumatic diseases, degenerative diseases and all manner of chronic painful conditions.’
Sportspeople find recovery time from injury can be halved and sporting performance enhanced. Given that localised cold treatments (sprays, packs and baths) are already common in sports therapy, it’s perhaps not so surprising. What is surprising is that it’s said to affect the mind as well as the body. ‘There are huge psychological benefits,’ says Dr Kettenhuber. ‘It can ease depression and insomnia, and has good effects on stress, partly because it raises endorphin levels.’
It’s not a pampering treatment. I tried it out at the “Ice Lab” at the Alpen Hotel in Seefeld Austria (www.alpenmedhotel.com ). I cut a ridiculous figure in swimming costume, trainers, gloves, headband and a face mask but it’s important to keep the extremities covered and breathing the freezing air without a mask would be uncomfortable. My blood pressure was checked, medical history taken and I was given clear instructions. You go in the chamber alone (or in small groups) but are watched all the time by a therapist.
The chamber had three sections – you acclimatise at a relatively balmy -10 degrees before a brisk turn in the next segment at -60. Then you tug open a heavy door to the main chamber. Icy fog billows out and a large part of your brain balks at voluntarily walking into -110 or below (bear in mind the average home freezer is only -20C). Curiously, because it’s dry cold, you don’t shiver and it’s not particularly uncomfortable. The major hurdle is purely psychological, as you try to forget the fact that you’re turning yourself into the Sunday joint. I did star jumps and jogged on the spot, more for the need to do something to pass the time – which seemed to stretch out unfeasibly slowly. But you’re in control all the time and, if you feel uncomfortable, you can leave at any time. I stayed for the full three minutes and, strangely, could have done more. When I came out, my blood pressure was tested again, I was bundled into a robe and sent to lie down to relax. My skin was alarmingly vampiric to the touch (rather like touching marble) but I felt fantastic – high as a kite, to be honest. More importantly, I was amazed to discover that a painful Achilles injury had noticeably improved.
So, does it work? Yes. It’s a shame it’s not more widely available for use in sports injuries and to help regulate chronic pain.
Pukka Herbs Refresh Tea: the digestion soother
A hot drink that cools you down? Ayurvedic medicine teaches that our bodies comprise three bio-energies (combinations of the elements fire, earth, water and air). If fire (known as Pitta) falls out of balance, it’s common to find our digestion starting to play up; we become prone to ulcers and also tend to fly off the handle easily. Pukka Herbs Refresh tea is blended specifically to cool down fiery Pitta, with cooling peppermint, fennel and rose, balanced with nourishing liquorice. The hot-cold effect is strangely delicious.
Mail order from: www.pukkaherbs.com
So, does it work? It’s delicious and refreshing but not a surefire cure.
Zerona: the fat melter.
Cold is being increasingly used for non-invasive cosmetic surgery procedures. Zerona uses cool laser beams to target and stimulate fat cells. Unlike other fat busting laser treatments, your fat cells are not destroyed but rather pores are created in the cell walls, allowing fat to be released into the body where it is burned off naturally. The cells are then returned to their natural smaller state. Mr Christopher Inglefield, cosmetic surgeon, says: ‘This laser functions at just the right wavelength to create a natural biological reaction in the cell.’
Zerona helps reduce stubborn fat from difficult to target areas such as the waist, hips, thighs and arms – the kind that, no matter how much you diet and exercise, never seems to budge. The number of treatments needed depends on your weight and age but usually averages around six. The treatment is non-invasive and does not require any downtime.
See http://www.findzerona.co.uk for more information.
So, does it work? Apparently so but for best results you will require a course of treatment and at €200-€300 per treatment, it’s not cheap.
Ice Turban: the headache banisher.
An ice turban is made by soaking a large, light towel in ice water and winding it around the head. Place crushed ice in another small, porous towel (or use an ice pack), and apply over the turban to the top of the head. Dian Dincin Buchman, author of The Complete Book of Water Therapy (Keats) says, ‘Short applications excite mental activity, as well as helping to decongest the head.’ He recommends using the turban to prevent and control headaches, to soothe anxiety and depression and to help control faintness. He also suggests putting on an ice turban to ease tiredness caused by overwork.
So, does it work? The jury is out. Some swear by it; others say that just the thought of an ice turban is enough to bring on a migraine.
Aromatherapy Associates Soothing facial: the skin soother.
The latest facial from this highly respected aromatherapy company uses cold to cool and calm irritated or inflamed skin. A hydrating cleanse is followed by an instantly cooling serum to reduce redness and help to restore the skin’s natural barrier. The skin is massaged with a blend of soothing chamomile oils. Cold stones are placed around the eye area and cooling masks are then applied to the skin while your shoulders, scalp and neck are massaged. A pleasant, relaxing and totally feelgood application of cold.
So, does it work? Yes. It’s not a permanent solution to irritated skin but it certainly cools it down in the short-term.
Fire and Ice facial: the skin brightener
Beloved of Hollywood celebrities such as Halle Berry, Gwyneth Paltrow and Evangeline Lily, this intensive facial combines heat and cold to resurface and brighten the face. The core of the treatment is two masques – the heating one (containing glycolic acid and retinol) which resurfaces and the cooling one (containing hyaluronic acid, aloe vera and herbal extracts) which soothes, hydrates and rejuvenates. It’s a clinical facial so don’t expect it to score high on the feelgood factor – but it’s worth it as results tend to be seriously lookgood.
Contact www.isclinical.ie for more information and your nearest clinic.
So, does it work? Some people swear by it. I found it actually inflamed my (very pale) skin in the short term but, when the redness calmed down, my complexion did look brighter and clearer.
Cold shallow bath: the stomach trimmer.
Naturopaths commonly use a sitz or shallow bath (immersing only the buttocks, thighs and lower abdomen) for a toning effect on the body and, in particular, on the abdomen. ‘This bath can be used every day to increase abdominal tone,’ says Buchman. ‘Because the bath promotes internal intestinal movement, it also helps to overcome constipation.’ Fill the bath with 6-8 inches of cold water (it should be around 50-70 degrees F). Splash your face, neck and hands with cold water before getting in. You only need to stay in the bath for around two minutes. For additional abdominal stimulation, rub the abdomen in an inverted U movement, clockwise. This bath may also help regularise periods and has been known to help impotence. Czech research found regular cold baths increased production of testosterone (in men) and oestrogen (in women).
So, does it work? The research suggests it could. But whether anyone is actually tough enough to endure a daily cold bath is another thing entirely.
Ice swimming: the immune booster
It’s known as ‘walrus swimming’ in Russia – jumping into freezing cold water or even knocking a hole in the ice for a quick plunge. Insanity? Not so. Scientists from the Czech Republic found that being immersed in cold water for an hour, three times a week, caused an increase in white blood cell count – the immune system was given a serious boost. Endorphins, the body’s feelgood chemicals, are increased, circulation gets a boost and energy levels soar. If you can’t bring yourself to jump into the sea around our shores, then try a cold shower. Tim Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Body (http://fourhourbody.com) says freezing cold showers can also improve your sex drive as well as leading to healthier skin and hair. Need to ease your way in? Have a few minutes of warm water first then go for it!
Or try the thermal suite at Parknasilla Spa, Sneem, Co.Kerry. Alternate warm and hot rooms with cool foot spas, a cold thunderstorm rain shower and end up with a bracing splash at the ice fountain. www.parknasillahotel.ie
So, does it work? Both research and anecdotal reports indicate yes. Unpalatable but true – those hardy winter swimmers aren’t so crazy after all.
Lava Shells Glacial Detox Massage: the natural colonic
A few years ago, it was all about heat in massage: hot stones and lava shell massages were sizzling. Now it’s all about the deep chill as Lava Shells turn cool. This latest massage treatment combines heat and cold to target the stomach and legs. The therapist uses one heated lava shell and two chilled glacial shells to massage the legs and stomach using long flowing movements. The combination of hot and cold pressure is said to help the breakdown of fatty tissue. It can stimulate sluggish circulation and acts as a natural colonic to help shift backed up waste in the bowel. Water retention is also relieved, leaving you feeling less bloated and with a flatter stomach almost instantly.
The treatment also stimulates the lymphatic system, encouraging the body’s natural detoxification system. It can be helpful if you’re trying to lose weight (combined with a healthy eating plan and exercise) and people also report it can help ease IBS, menstrual cramps as well as soothing stress – it’s surprisingly relaxing.
For more information see: www.sharedbeautysecrets.com.
So, does it work? It’s a feelgood salon treatment so don’t expect miracles – but the emphasis on abdominal massage will activate the gut while the gentle stimulation of the lymphatic system will improve skin tone and immune function.
Chillicious: the air conditioner in a bottle
A lightweight gel-balm that instantly cools the skin and then slowly and gently lowers your body temperature. It works by activating cold receptors in the skin’s nerve endings and contains dandelion extract which helps to reduce swelling caused by heat. Ideal for women going through the menopause or for anyone who gets a bit hot and bothered after sport (or generally) and needs to chill (in all ways). Not only does it help to eliminate sweat and stickiness, refreshing the skin, but the blend of cooling aromatherapy oils (lavender, chamomile) also helps to calm down anxious feelings. Just rub onto touch-points (back of neck, wrists or behind the knees) whenever you need to chill out. Comes in a neat travel-sized bottle to fit into handbag or sports bag.
Mail order from www.victoriahealth.com
So, does it work? A gel can only do so much but, yes, it cools the skin and the scent is calming (providing you’re a lavender fan).
Note: If you have any health conditions or concerns, please consult your doctor before using extremes of temperature. Some treatments are not suitable if you have a medical condition or are pregnant.
A version of this feature first appeared in the Irish Daily Mail
For more seasonal health and beauty tips check out my book, The Natural Year…now updated and available for Kindle.