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Last Updated: Saturday, 25 February 2006, 13:14 GMT
Destination detox

By Caroline Wyatt
BBC News, Germany

There is nothing, it seems, that European women would rather spend a great deal of money on than getting away from it all at a spa or health farm and as correspondent Caroline Wyatt discovers, the bill is often as painful as the rather intrusive treatments.

Maharishi Ayurveda spa, Bad Ems, Germany
The health centre boasts more than 10,000 satisfied customers

The brochure had a photo of a luxurious hotel, and all the buzzwords: revitalising, rejuvenating.

A detox. Well, I was not sure about a detox.

I like to tox, and I think my liver and kidneys do an admirable job, considering the challenges.

Apparently, the Maharishi Ayurveda spa offered daily full-body massages, with hot oil dribbled over the entire body, rubbed in by two people simultaneously.

I booked straightaway.

The name Maharishi rang a vague bell, but I could not think why.

The brochure had a picture of the man himself - the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi - an Indian with a serene other-worldly expression and a long white beard.

I began to suspect all might not be quite what I expected when the health check questionnaire arrived from the spa a few days later.

It seemed utterly fixated on matters of a deeply personal nature. Namely my digestion.

More specifically, the exit.

How often? What did it look like? Colour? Consistency?

The questions were all of an equally personal nature.

I discovered that many Germans were rather obsessed with these matters when I worked as a geriatric nurse in Munich in my early 20s, and to my horror found out why German toilets had ledges.

So that each production could be examined in detail.

Rebalancing act

A week later, despite some qualms, I arrived at a solid 18th Century spa building in Bad Ems, on the banks of the River Lahn.

In a spotlessly white consulting room, the German doctor gripped me firmly by the arm and fixed me with a steely eye.

Chernobyl, it seemed, had nothing on the toxins I was harbouring

This was no ordinary diagnosis but an ayurvedic diagnosis, taken from the pulse and consisting of a vocabulary entirely new to me.

"Your doshas are out of alignment," she said.

"Your kapha is excessive, and as you're a mixture of pitta and vata we're going to need to do a lot of work on rebalancing your doshas."

She wrote down my treatments, and I could tell that rebalancing my doshas was going to cost me.

A lot of dosha.

Chernobyl, it seemed, had nothing on the toxins I was harbouring.

Recipe for seduction

Someone being massaged
There was something almost blissful about surrendering oneself entirely to people in white coats who claimed to know better

The cure was to eat only vegetarian food.

And, as well as no meat, no tea, no coffee, no milk, no sugar and above all, no alcohol.

Oh, and no sex.

Well, after all that detoxing I could not imagine having the energy.

The treatment plan appeared to consist of several days of deprivation, followed by two days of rice soup, then - several massages later - an explosive grand finale of enemas.

And yet... there was something almost blissful about surrendering oneself entirely to people in white coats who claimed to know better.

Cocooned indoors, in rooms that smelt of sumptuous oils and scented candles, where soothing Indian music wafted down the corridors, I was slowly seduced.

Yogic flying

Every day, in a warm white dressing gown, I was led down solid marble steps to a gleaming white treatment area.

There, behind doors that creaked heavily shut, two young, long-haired women in white cotton dresses awaited me each afternoon.

The Beatles
Singer George Harrison (far left) introduced his fellow Beatles to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi

Silently, they would lead me to a white room, to a wooden bench, where, for hours at a time, soundlessly and wordlessly, they would pour hot oil onto me and gently massage it from head to toe.

The ritual was always the same as the honeyed, spicy sesame smell of the oil mingled with the candles.

And whole hours passed in seconds.

Only occasionally would the women speak, but when they did, they had the faraway look and the gentle voices of the saved.

As my mind drifted, it dawned on me where I had heard of the Maharishi before.

In a newspaper piece about the Beatles and their Indian guru. That same serene, white-bearded man.

And then I remembered a general election campaign in Britain a few years back.

Maharishi posters featuring a public promise that his devotees would save the world with an act of yogic flying.

It was perhaps the ideal holiday for a hedonistic masochist

So on the appointed day, the sceptical British media turned out to witness this mass levitation.

And after much fanfare, the devotees of the Maharishi turned out for something that resembled not flying but bouncing.

Some admirable yogic bouncing in the lotus position.

It looked eye-wateringly painful, but it definitely was not flying.

The zen factor

But their pain was nothing to what I felt when I got the bill at the end of the week's massage and starvation, even though it was perhaps the ideal holiday for a hedonistic masochist.

The bill was even more eye-watering than the enemas, although they did prove less traumatic than expected.

But as I left, via Frankfurt airport, I had to admit that I did feel better.

I was more relaxed.

So zen as I checked in that I may even have had the beginnings of that enigmatic smile.

I mused on it all as I absent-mindedly sat down at a cafe to order a cappuccino with plenty of sugar... to go with my hot-dog and coke.

And they were so good that I ordered another.

And another.

And by the time I got on my flight home I was feeling quite normal again.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 25 February, 2006 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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