‘Chew.’ That single, seemingly simple command is the first word that passes my doctor’s mouth when I arrive at the newest outpost of the Vivamayr Clinic on picturesque Altaussee in Austria. It isn’t anywhere near as easy as it sounds, and I run into difficulty from the off; chewing each small mouthful of food the prescribed thirty times requires diligence – and patience. Given that by nature I’m rather short on both, I find myself counting the chews to make it to the hallowed thirtieth. Doing so is initially arduous – not to mention tedious – in the extreme.
The Vivamayr establish this rule at the beginning of a stay not to introduce said tedium, nor even to slow the intake of food and thus reduce the sum amount eaten (though this is a welcome side effect), but rather as a first step in reinstating healthy eating habits. The purpose of this laboured chewing is, as my doctor later explained, to reacquaint guests with the all-important first stage in digestion, where enzymes are allowed to coat the portions of food that have been manually torn apart (‘remember: from the mouth onwards your digestive system has no teeth!’, she told me). Doing so for long enough also allows the brain and intestine to start to communicate, forging a connection between the body’s needs and tastes.
As I’d promised myself to adhere faithfully to the clinic’s famously transformative week-long ‘Cure’ programme, chew I do at each of the modest – though delicious – meals placed before me thrice daily. I chew vegetables. I chew slightly stale bread (called ‘chewing training’ – the staleness makes it harder to break apart), I chew tiny grains that require a concerted effort to gain purchase on, and I even chew soup, trying desperately to ignore the alien sensation of clamping my teeth down on water as I do so.
After a solid thirty minutes of chewing a miserly portion of porridge maniacally one morning, I realise why there’s a sign at the entrance of the dining room discouraging conversation and the use of mobile phones – chewing is massively hampered by urges to communicate and, as masticating thoroughly is the primary order of the week, having a little chat is out the window.
Fortunately, that’s the only place where tittle-tattle doesn’t go on. In the reception-cum-tearoom (there is, of course, no bar for guests to mingle at), I meet other Cure enrolees eager to discuss the trials and triumphs of the regime. In the medical reception, the hum of gossip about treatments is a constant. The reclining area in which ‘infusions’ (drips containing supplements of anything from vitamin C to antioxidants) are administered is considered to be the watering hole of the Vivamayr, with most guests well-acquainted with others by the end of the first day. This is cheering – many are here alone and The Cure is well-documented as being punishing. New visitors like me find solace in the advice of seasoned regulars, who assure us that the first three days are the hardest ‘you’ll feel hungry, you’ll feel weak, but once that’s all over, you’ll feel incredible, I promise.’
Quite frankly, I also found it hugely reassuring that these returnees make up at least 50% of the clientele, coming from all over the world for everything from fine-tuning and digestive complaints to post-cancer rehabilitation. Their loyalty is noteworthy; a quick canvas of the guests reveals that most are in a position to jet into far flung wellness clinics less draconian than the Vivamayr, but they continue to choose to eschew so-so spa-cum-clinics in favour of the extraordinary results The Cure reaps. When word spread that I was writing an article based on my stay, many of these devotees sought me out to tell me about their abiding love for the place – how it managed to see off the bout of rheumatism that no pills had solved, how the diet had improved their ability to focus, their love lives, their skin.
In the pursuit of similar betterment (I was thinking rosy wellness and boundless energy would be agreeable), I threw myself into the routine prescribed by my doctor at the Vivamayr. The idea is that at the core of good health is a well-functioning digestive system and, more specifically, in the gut. Hippocrates wisely opined that ‘all disease begins in the gut,’ and the Vivamayr seems to have taken their cue from him, with the aim of the programme to reduce stress on the digestive system, offering your body a chance to redirect the amount of energy usually expended on processing food to healing ailments. In order to do so, food is limited, nothing raw is consumed after four pm (and nothing bar herbal tea and water after seven pm), the speedy passage of waste material out of the body is encouraged along by laxative Magnesium Citrates or Glauber Salts, and daily stomach massages are administered by a doctor.
Further salubrious habits are encouraged such as applying a warm, damp compress to the stomach at night to soothe the liver, rising at around 7am, going to bed at 9-ish, ‘Kneipping’ (a shower alternating between warm and cold water to enhance circulation), and oil pulling – which involves swilling a blend of oils around the mouth first thing in the morning in order to draw toxins out through the gums.
The late morning is spent seeing the doctor and having treatments. The range on offer is vast and comprises everything from having gongs placed on various points of the body before banging in order to stimulate relaxation (despite my initial amusement, it worked enormously well and I fell fast asleep during my session face down covered in the gongs), to nasal reflexology wherein cotton buds soaked in oils are placed in the three pressure points in the nose (again: bizarrely effective and reduced my nasal congestion and symptoms of hay fever), to vitamin drip infusions and the humble massage.
Between treatments, guests guzzle ‘base’ salts to improve the alkalinity of the body and take the edge off hunger while also drinking in the extraordinary view of Altaussee from the tea area. Let me pause the routine there to tell you a little more about the physical place. An hour from Salzburg by car (the Vivamayr have a dedicated chaffeur who cheerily advises me to ‘expect relaxation and hunger – you won’t be able to do any work while you’re here!’), the newest Vivamayr sits on this famously tranquil lake in the Salzkammergut region of Austria. Swans paddle around lazily as pines loll to and fro in the breeze. It is the Austria of childhood fairytale books, complete with wooden houses with heart-shapes carved into the front doors clustering around the lake. The Vivamayr reflects its surroundings, with those who’ve visited the older clinic on lake Maria Worth telling me this newest addition is brighter, breezier, more beautiful.
The lake provides respite from the regime, and, in my experience, the fresh air helped to distract me from the horrors of day three, which is infamous for requiring the most willpower as the last vestiges of caffeine, sugar and nicotine make their way out of the blood stream. Once over that hurdle, I find myself bounding out of bed at the crack of dawn feeling, as promised by Cure aficionados, brilliant – fizzing with energy, clear-eyed, cognisant to details my sugar-addled mind would’ve missed.
The final word in this (rave) review must go to the weight loss element. Many come here to shed the kilos, though the Vivamayr strictly emphasise that this is a byproduct of tweaking health and caring for the digestive system. They are justifiably proud that their approach has longevity, with the healthier habits the clinic installs outlasting the drudgery of calorie counting or omitting food groups. I lost a couple of kilos during my stay but the real proof lay in the pudding – or lack thereof – once I returned to London: sticking to three meals a day without snacks hasn’t taxed me overly and I’ve therefore continued to lose weight (a total of around five further kilos and counting). I also suspect this favourable outcome is in no small part down to the chewing thing. While doing so thirty times has fallen to the wayside, I have certainly stopped gulping down my food greedily, with Dr. Eysn’s final words to me before leaving ringing in my ears whenever I move a spoon towards my mouth: ‘chew – it is the single most important thing you can do for your health.’