May 2011

Essays

Robyn Davidson

Tide of improvement

Panchakarma, an Ayurvedic enema treatment. © Luca Tettoni/Robert Harding World Imagery/Corbis
Health retreats

Sometimes fortune gifts you things you did not know you needed. Tyringham Clinic was one of those. Out in the luminous green, motorway-laced flatlands behind Milton Keynes, England, it was a Palladian pile that had known better times. At the front was a gravel drive circling a fountain that no longer spouted; out the back was an extremely long pool with two domed follies at the end, designed by Lutyens and disintegrating at a stately pace. Canvas deckchairs lining the poolside were sucked in and out by sleety winds. The interior had been through several transformations since its glory days, including a turn as a nursing home for pilots maimed during World War II. They had left hundreds of books on flying stacked behind the library’s glass cabinet doors. Tyringham’s current avatar was a rest home for the worried well, of which I was one.

It was a ‘naturopathic clinic’ and, where once there had been vaulted bedrooms with fireplaces, now there were cream-painted dormitories containing heaters and narrow, uncomfortable beds. The ground floor retained some of its original loveliness (the library, for example) but the drawing room, with floor-to-ceiling bay windows, was blighted by acres of chintz covering Victorian furniture. Still, it was comfortable: a fire roared away during winter, the piano was more or less in tune and in an adjoining room there were two ping-pong tables, baize covered desks for jigsaws and card games, and more bay windows through which one could gaze out on greenness splotched with black and white cows, tails turned to the rain.

The food was execrable, of course (lots of raw shredded cabbage and carrot, prepared with the English palate in mind), but as you weren’t supposed to be eating much, that was all right. It was in the days when no one expected too much purity of purpose. So for those who would have found it far too stressful to give up smoking, a smoking room was provided. It contained outsized ashtrays and a television, and there was no window that I remember. If you were giving up, you could go and sit in that little room and get enough nicotine from its acrid air to make cigarettes redundant. That was also the room where, occasionally, an old duchess went to swig her champagne. She was tall and doughty and ordered the staff about by pointing her cane at them. She checked herself in to Tyringham every few months, always bringing a box full of Bollinger and cartons of fags, which she stashed under her bed.

The treatments were based on the old-fashioned principle that the body knew how to take care of itself, if you just gave it a chance – naturopathy being a fancy word for common sense in the field of medicine. If you had been living for years on tension, coffee, red wine and meat, naturopathy told you that you would feel better if you substituted yoga, fruit juice, vegetarian food and massage. So, the drill as laid out by the ‘doctor’, would be some degree of fasting to clean out the gut and various treatments designed to push volumes of blood around the body to flush out its neglected corners. Hot packs beckoned blood to selected areas; cold packs sent it back whence it came. Hot showers, cold showers; hot hipbaths, icy hipbaths. Every now and then you’d get a vigorous salt scrub on the back (known as Scottish douche) and, the pay-off, an oil massage. You could skive out of these treatments if you felt like staying under the covers in your room, or finishing a game of euchre with the Duchess.

Tyringham wasn’t for everyone. I went there only with select friends. We took pictures of each other painting our toenails in our rooms and shivering by the pool. In the photos we look like recovering rock-chic junkies. One of those friends was ultra-famous, but it was the sort of place where everyone affected not to notice, and that was part of its delight. It was, in short, singular, ridiculous, decent and daggy in the English style; it was very cheap and, like everything wonderful, doomed to improvement. Asbestos was discovered in the ceilings – a financial blow from which Tyringham as we knew it could not recover. It got modernised.


Years later, I found myself walking around the deserts of north-west India with nomads on migration – black wool clad women, men in white, 5000 sheep and a few camels. I was ill, they were ill. Even the sheep were ill. I had discovered levels of exhaustion I had not thought possible short of the grave. Back in Delhi, Indian friends recommended a clinic in Bangalore. It had come into being before Tyringham was thought of (indeed, it was the template used to create Tyringham) courtesy of one Mr Jindal who had made a lot of money in aluminium extrusions. The Jindal Naturecure Institute of Naturopathy and Yogic Sciences was his reciprocal gift to kind fortune.

It is hard to find the right descriptive tone for Jindal Naturecure Institute. Language cannot always bridge cultural chasms. So, think boarding school meets that seaside village where the ’60s British television show The Prisoner was shot, meets farmland paradise of gardens and orchards, coconut palm glades and zinnia beds, peopled by farm workers in coloured saris carrying fresh produce on their heads. ‘Improving’ signs were placed along walks around an artificial lake. “Money can buy you best doctor but not good health, fine bed but not sleep, big house but not happy home, desirables but not happiness.” “He who has no time for health must soon make time for illness.” “More people die of eating too much than eating too little.” But the best thing about Jindal Naturecure Institute was the staff – tireless saints who did everything from slapping mud packs on your tummy to administering enemas, to slathering you in oil and, with their little iron hands, pushing the blood around your body for you, 13 days a fortnight from dawn to dark for a secure but pitiful wage without ever, once, becoming grumpy or unkind or self-pitying or, even, it appeared, fatigued. Such people shame you into good humour.

You did not come across the top echelon much at Jindal Naturecure Institute. They ran the clinic on the assumption that patients, if given the chance, would behave like children. Warning signs threatened expulsion for breaches of conduct such as alcohol or chocolate smuggled into rooms. Each time I visited I got so cross with the regimentation I swore I would never return. Inevitably I left feeling so well that I wanted everyone I knew to go there.

But it’s a difficult place to explain, to sell. According to naturopathy – in fact, to most ancient medical theories – all diseases begin with some malfunction of the gut. Hence the unembarrassable Indian attentiveness to its productions. I have already mentioned the enema, so there’s no need to go there again. There were also yogic asanas to get at the same problem from the other end. For example: swallow six glasses of warm water containing a little rock salt whilst in a squatting position, then perform five particular yoga poses. Half an hour later, watch out. The gut has been ‘cleansed’ in a fairly explosive manner. Other orifices (noses, mouths, throats, tracheae, stomachs) were similarly dealt with in what were called “yogic kriyas”. At 6 am you could walk into a large white-tiled room where about 50 ladies (usually fat, rich and from Mumbai) were hawking, spitting, vomiting and slowly swallowing long ropes of muslin – or tugging them back out.

As I said, not for everyone.

When I first went there, I performed these operations out of a refusal to let squeamishness rule curiosity. But I scoffed too, displaying the tolerantly contemptuous scepticism of my scientific culture. The idea of cleansing the body at a cellular level – the ‘detox’ – is all nonsense. So I believed then and so I believe still. The problem is, it works. You walk through the entry gates a sluggish, depressed, grey-skinned, stiff, paining, exhausted, moribund product of modern life and you bounce out of there bursting with vitality and hope, your skin glowing like a mango and your clothes hanging off you the way they used to do a decade ago. Out with the valium, fish oil and antidepressants. Out with the ibuprofen and knee support. You come in 60 years old and leave decades younger.

Initially, the highs of wellbeing would last a year; these days, the effect wears off sooner. Still, as the years pass, I don’t bother with the scepticism, it gets in the way of gratitude.

Alas, Jindal Naturecure Institute is also undergoing improvement. A new generation of the Jindal family has taken over from the old autocracy, making it more chichi and expensive. If it improves too much it will lose people like me. Then where will we go to get off the booze for a while? To shed the 5 kilograms that somehow accumulated when we weren’t watching? Where will famous actresses go to schlep around in woolly slippers without make-up or self-consciousness, away from the possibility of paparazzi?

Will we be forced to go to one of those unspeakable spas that smell of boiled lollies, that have not an atom of testosterone in their gloopy atmospheres, that are concerned not with health but with fat, that have no reading material other than women’s magazines, that are peopled by older women recovering from face lifts or younger rubbery women in Brasilfit Activewear, ponytails swishing aggressively as they exercise like gladiators, or credulous evangelists of every crank health product on the market, or people who think smokers should be arrested and punished but who drive SUVs?

No. We will run ahead of that tide of improvement, finding the last of the Tyringhams, the last of the Jindal Naturecure Institutes until we reach the end that no health farm can cure.

Robyn Davidson
Robyn Davidson is a non-fiction writer. She is the author of the award-winning books Tracks and Desert Places, and the editor of The Best Australian Essays 2009 and The Picador Book of Journeys.

Cover: May 2011

May 2011

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