One week at Viva Mayr, a five-star health spa and hotel on the southern shores of Lake Wörth in Austria, will set you back about $4,000—and you won’t even find a bar on the premises. And yet, you will find Russian oligarchs (or their wives, mistresses, and daughters), Vogue editors, fashion designers who dress Kate Middleton, and stars from Hollywood and Bollywood like Chelsea Handler and Deepika Padukone. They’re all there, voluntarily crapping their pants induced by daily morning ingestions of Epsom salts, and eating stale bread in silence for dinner. Last October, I was there, too.
As a former beauty editor in New York City, I had heard about Viva Mayr before. In 2013, Plum Sykes wrote about her week there in Vogue, complete with a Mario Testino photoshoot at the spa starring supermodel Karlie Kloss. “I felt utterly incredible when I got home,” Sykes wrote. “The Mayr clinic has not just detoxed my body, it’s cleansed my mind.” At Viva Mayr, the mantra “Health is Wealth” is taken literally.
I was encouraged to go try a rehabilitation week at Viva Mayr by my own doctor earlier this year. We were going over my annual physical examination results; I was always fatigued, bloated, getting severe food poisoning at least twice a year, and had high cholesterol. I was also seeking therapy for my anxiety, depression, and body dysmorphic disorder. The blood tests were clear: I was not well, but not even my own doctor could figure out why. “If you weren’t obese before, I don’t have an explanation,” she told me.
So I found a subletter for my apartment and booked a trip to Austria. I wanted to feel better, and no matter what the food bloggers were telling me, no amount of “clean eating” and running was working. At age 25, I was one of the youngest “patients” (that’s what they call hotel guests there) at Viva Mayr, and I was able to afford my trip there by being relatively well-off. I don’t have any student loans or any dependents (other than a dog). After I got laid off from my well-paying job at Yahoo (where I built up a decent amount of savings), I started freelance copywriting for brands and corporations, which pays decently and gives me the flexibility to work wherever and whenever. The trip to Viva Mayr was a substantial investment for me, much more than it would be for a Russian oligarch, but I’ve spent the past few years quietly watching my mother refuse therapy for her increasing physical ailments, and I’m convinced it’s worth it.
As a baby in smoggy China, I spent much of the first year of my life in the hospital for my respiratory problems. On her second try, my mom received a visa to America, and she gave up her employment at one of China’s best medical schools to move with me to the States, where her medical license was not accepted and her career was over. Now, there are totally legitimate reasons to critique Gwyneth Paltrow, but I can understand why she said that she became overcome with paranoia with “detoxing” after her father died in front of her eyes. Because when you’re sick—whether you’re a coughing baby with tubes up the nose or that former baby’s aging mother with back aches—you hurt (inadvertently, of course) the people who love you.
Austrian Empress Sisi, as noted by Kelly Faircloth on Jezebel before, had an aggressive daily exercise routine—you can view her pull-up bars at the palace in Vienna to this day—and was always on a diet. She’d go on aggressive hikes through the Austrian mountains, sometimes leaving her ladies-in-waiting wheezing behind. She also loved going to health spas and sanitariums for her many ailments, physical and mental, and this was a pastime shared by her fellow countrymen and neighboring Bavarians, propelled by nineteenth century bourgeoisie anxieties about excessive consumption in an age of rising industrialization and secularization. (Secretary of State Rex Tillerson also copes in this way.) Going to a medical health spa was a temporary nod to self-restraint, both morally and physically. In Mark Twain’s short story, “The Appetite Cure,” he describes an experience in an “Austrian health establishment” where the prescriptive medication was starvation: “Grape-cure, bath-cure, mud-cure—it is all the same. The grape and the bath and the mud make a trifle of the work—the real work is done by the surreptitious starvation.”
When I arrive, I am greeted by a young blonde Austrian woman named Sandra. She is wearing braids and she looks just someone Georg von Trapp might have an affair with. She gives me the grand tour of the resort, which looks like a hospital that converted into a resort to make more money. “Do you know about the Epsom salts?” she asks me. I pause. For bathing? “Oh, no,” Sandra laughs. “Every morning before breakfast, you must drink them. It’s a laxative.” She then points across the corridor to the tea bar, which is a wall fixture that dispenses hot water, vegetable broth, and 10 different types of herbal teas. “I recommend drinking the Organic Liver Tea, two cups, everyday,” Sandra explains. “It’s very bitter but it is good for detox.” I vow to dutifully drink the liver tea everyday because Sandra is glowing and this isn’t the first time I’ve been convinced to do unpleasant things for beauty by a blonde woman.
There’s also a dispenser for something called “Energised Drinking Water.” What does “energized” mean, I ask Sandra. “Oh, it’s just water,” she laughs. “I could explain it to you but… honestly, it’s just water.” Later, in my room, I discover crystals in my carafe of water. They’re supposed to be energizing, a fellow patient explains.
Now, I disagree with Sykes’ description of the rooms exuding “the style of a youth hostel.” I’m not quite convinced she’s stayed in a youth hostel before (have you toured her new English country house in the November 2016 issue of Vogue?). There’s freshly stocked glass bottles of mineral water, a flatscreen TV, a view of the mountains, and a comfortable bathrobe with matching slippers. I stayed in the standard room (€199 per night per person), which is the cheapest option—the most expensive option is the next-door villa, which you can rent out for €2,200 per person per night.
The next morning, I wake up at 6 a.m. and begin the “Mayr Cure” by drinking a glass of Epsom salts mixed with water, along with a heaping teaspoon full of something called “base powder,” which is basically baking soda and a few other minerals. The Epsom salts taste bitter while the base powder tastes like diluted seawater. I have never taken a laxative before and I gag the “cocktail” (that’s what Sandra calls it) down.
The explosive results are immediate—and I figure out why the guest room furnishings are so Spartan. All the money has gone to the toilet, which has a built-in motion-sensitive bidet with multiple spray angles, and an air-dry system with temperature adjustment. It is the most thoughtful touch to the room, and I’m smitten with it.
As I run out of my room for a class called “Morning Gymnastic,” I meet my housekeeper, who is a beautiful blonde woman resembling Jennifer Lawrence with a perfectly outlined cat-eye and manicured fingernails. I scamper back into my room to scrub the toilet myself because I’m ashamed of the mess I made in it, even after flushing twice.
I’m late to class, which is just seven middle-aged women and me doing gentle stretches for 30 minutes. I am finding the poses very difficult because my stomach won’t screaming, and I almost poop in my pants during child’s pose. I avoid any poses that encourage butt-cheek clenching. I can’t hear anyone else’s stomach and I’m not sure whether it’s because mine is so loud or theirs are so silent. There is a bathroom right next to the dining area, which Sandra dutifully pointed out to me the previous day. I now know why.
All three meals of the day are eaten in silence in the dining room, which sits on a patio overlooking the lake. You are assigned your own table, which is yours for the entire length of the stay. You should not be speaking, reading, or texting while you eat, and you are encouraged to chew each bite of food 30 times before swallowing. You are not allowed to drink water while you eat. I am served a piece of stale spelt bread, which Viva Mayr calls my “chewing trainer,” to teach me to eat slowly, and a choice of spread, ranging from buffalo mozzarella to smoked salmon to sheep to almond butter. I go for the piece of avocado and try to make a stale version of avocado toast. At Viva Mayr, every dish—even a breakfast of stale bread—is prepared exquisitely, served on proper china by beautiful waitresses with names like Isabella and Simone, and garnished with fresh herbs.
The “Mayr Cure” was invented in the early twentieth century by Austrian doctor Franz Xaver Mayr, who believed that overall health, mind and body, was dependent on the wellness of the digestive system. (The small but mighty intestine is about 23 feet long.) Mayr believed in the following principles for healing: eat slowly without distractions, allow at least four hours between meals for digestion, don’t drink water while you’re eating, and eat simply and seasonally. Viva Mayr is known for having an updated, slightly more modernized take on the original Cure diet, such as Instagram-ready spiralized vegetables. (Dr. Mayr lived to age 90, FYI.)
After I relieve myself (fourth bathroom trip of the morning, I count), I head upstairs to the medical clinic, where I am scheduled for a 30-minute examination (€170) with Dr. Werner Zancolo, one of six doctors at Viva Mayr. Dr. Zancolo does not examine me much. We sit down at his desk and I tell him about my physical and mental woes, and, to his credit, Dr. Zancolo diligently jots down notes in my new medical file. “The main intention for most people here is weight loss,” he tells me. But I’m not here for weight loss, and I can tell I’ve made his job a little more difficult. It is easy to starve someone. It is harder when they want psychological relief from their bodies. He suggests a variety of treatments, all of which cost extra, which I initially object to—herbal bath? Saline air chamber? Nasal reflex therapy? No thanks, I’ll just take a free walk by the lake. But all of this part of the detox, Dr. Zancolo explains to me, losing a little bit of patience with me, clearly not a Russian oligarch.
After my “examination,” I have a soothing 50-minute grapeseed-oil massage (€78). I rush back to my room afterwards to drink my mid-morning cup of base powder and warm water and to use the toilet. We are supposed drink the fancy baking soda mix four times a day to neutralize acids in the stomach.
Lunch is delicious—a pureed fennel-and-potato soup and fresh fish with roasted and creamed root vegetables. Viva Mayr believes in eating a lot of root vegetables because they’re more alkalizing. The table next to me sits a friendly Russian woman in her thirties named Kira. This is her second time doing the Mayr Cure. She looks so youthful and vibrant that I thought she was in her twenties. “You’re going to feel awful the first three days,” she warns me. “But just wait—the whites of your eyes will become so clear on the fourth day.” She loves it here, she tells me—she’d buy a room if she could, but she has a family in London to return to. She’s trying to lose weight, hence why she has a small bowl of soup for lunch. I run out in the middle of our conversation because I need to use the toilet again.
The next day, I begin my medical treatments. In addition to getting my blood drawn for a mineral analysis (€82), I have an herbal bath in a whirlpool tub called a hydroxeur (€39) in the hydrotherapy, or Kneipp, wing. Next, Dr. Zancolo performs an Applied Kinesiology Test (€170) on me, which is a method of muscle strength testing to diagnose illness invented by an American chiropractor named George J. Goodheart in 1964. I press on various organs of my body—my liver, for example—while Dr. Zancolo assesses any changes in strength to my leg muscle as I push against his arm. He also dispenses one-by-one various substances onto my tongue, like fructose and lactose and yeast. Dr. Zancolo had a diagnosis in mind for me: I have a Candida fungal overgrowth in my gut.
“Do you like potatoes?” he asks me. Yes. I hate both green salads and green juice, so I’m excited to be eating potatoes for breakfast, lunch, and dinner—for health! I’m forbidden from eating sweets, white flour, yeast, alcohol, fruit, or dairy products for the next four weeks. I don’t feel too worried because I can have potatoes, and I can think of at least eight ways to prepare potatoes for breakfast, lunch, and dinner—not including French fries. He then sends me to the medical reception desk, where I receive a vial of herbal bitters (€21.90), and a vial of Amphotericin B (€27.60), an anti-fungal drug to be ingested after each meal, which I later discovered looked and tasted like orange-flavored Pepto Bismol. “You need to get used to the taste of bitterness,” Dr. Zancolo explains.
Viva Mayr is like a luxury senior home, and I would love to die here. Upon my personal dining table, outfitted with a name tag on which I am referred to as “Miss Duan,” now sits a placard holding my doctor’s prescribed diet, forbidding me from eating any bread or from having dessert should I beg the serving staff for seconds, and my new medications. The Epsom salts drain you—Kira suggests that I ask for the slightly less taxing magnesium citrate as a laxative instead, but those cost an extra €19.50 while the Epsom salts are included in room and board. By the end of the week, I am exhausted, though I haven’t exercised much beyond a few 30-minute stretches and two self-paced hikes through the Eastern Alps (I regret both trips because there was no bathroom nearby). Eating in silence without distraction gets easier because I am too dizzy to multi-task. You’re not obligated to do any strenuous physical activity because you are probably too ill, or too close to pooping in your pants, to move. There is a fitness room with new equipment, but I never see anyone else in there. I use the pool every night and find myself swimming alone, too.
Every day at Viva Mayr, a doctor performs a 15-minute massage on your abdominal area (€80 per day), which is supposed to help with digestion, while you recline back into a chaise lounge. It is not uncomfortable at all—it’s a really expensive belly rub—but it is awkward because your two intestines, ravaged by the Epsom salts, spend the entire otherwise silent session chatting over each other. Lying down, I think about my mother buying foam rollers to massage herself instead of going to a physical therapist, and I feel my stomach getting heavier with guilt with each gentle pat.
I’m also signed up for a body fat analysis (€85) and breathing fit test (€160) with two of the sports scientists, Gabriel and Jürgen. To measure my body fat, I recline on a yoga mat while Gabriel attaches electrodes to my arms and feet, which are supposed to measure the amount of fat in proportion to my body and water weight. “The only method more accurate would be an MRI,” Gabriel tells me. “But only by one percent.”
I am not prepared for the 45-minute bike session, which is the breathing fit test, with Jürgen. This test will tell me what type of exercises I should do for maximum fat loss. “This is the same test that the astronauts do,” he tells me, and I am impressed, as he hopes I would be. I ride an exercise bike with increasing resistance nine times, until I am soaking wet with sweat, grunting with pain, and am unable to hold in my farts any longer—though Jürgen continues to cheer me on, pretending he can’t smell or hear my numerous orifices. Jürgen tells me that I am one of the fittest patients he’s seen all year, and I try to hold in my asthmatic wheezes because of my pride.
Because I have asthma, Dr. Zancolo also signed me up for two treatments back in the Kneipp, meant to help clear my sinuses and open up my lungs. First, nurse Roswitha pushes a q-tip dipped in essential oils deep into my nasal cavity six times. This is called nasal reflex zone therapy (€19), and it is a naturopathic practice developed by a Dr. Röder, meant to cure everything from colds to migraines to hormonal imbalances. I’m crying and I beg Roswitha to be gentle. To her credit, she has an excellent bedside manner and pats me on the cheek every time—as if she thinks I’m cute and not inconsolably weak and pathetic. My sinuses do not clear up afterwards, unfortunately.
After this treatment, Roswitha leads me into a sterile white chamber with a glass door for my SalinAir inhalation treatment (€27). For 20 minutes, a hole above me head sprays saline-infused air into the chamber. Eventually, it becomes so foggy and condensed that I can’t even see my own hands. In the salt therapy, I try to meditate for the first time in my life, but I’m worried about relaxing my body too much, just in case the diarrhea slips out.
The last treatment on my week’s schedule is the cranial-sacral therapy massage (€120). My masseuse, Christina, gives me a 50-minute head-and-neck massage that was meant to ease migraines and symptoms of anxiety. Back when I was a beauty editor, a masseuse told me that the head is always the last part of the massage—because they want to leave you with a good impression, no matter how uncomfortable the rest of the process has been. But, in spite of the soothing massage, I remember every part of my week, largely because of its mounting price tag.
On my last day, Dr. Zancolo analyzes my blood test. My blood is too acidic, he tells me. I am told that I have to keep up the potato-based Candida Diet at home for the next three weeks. He prescribes me three more medications (€103.60) that I must use at home, and another canister of the base powder (€23). Dr. Zancolo personally walks me to the prescriptions counter before I can ask whether I really have to buy the medicine.
Many of my fellow detoxers are pleased with their time here. A Kuwaiti royal tells me that he lost four pounds in four days. An Australian business magnate tells me that she lost 10 pounds in 10 days. Kira, my Russian friend, has lost eight pounds. I am enamored with a middle-aged rosy-cheeked British woman who is constantly glowing and smiling while the rest of us have bags under our eyes. It is her fourth time here! She tells me that she does a daily hyperthermia treatment (€125), in which her body temperature is overheated for 90 minutes. “That’s where my glow comes from,” she winks at me. I, on the other hand, feel and look exhausted at the end of the week. It turns out it’s a lot of work to do nothing but try to avoid shitting in your pants.
Because I have already invested significant time, money, and bowel labor into the Mayr Cure, I decide that spending a little more money didn’t matter anymore. From the kitchen, I order yeast-free veggie broth powder (€7.20), two pieces of flatbread (€1.90 each), one jar of sheep milk yogurt (€2.80), and the cookbook, Eat Alkaline, authored by the head chef Emanuela Fischer and the head doctor Dr. Harald Stossier (€29.90). I kept the flatbread and yogurt as snacks for my long flight back to America, because I wasn’t sure I’d find anything appropriate on the plane.
On my last day at the clinic, I speak to a grandmother from Texas, who is worried that she will never again feel as great as she does at Viva Mayr. She is stocking up on canisters of base powders (even though it’s basically just baking soda) and vows to return every year. She has made sure that she could even ship the base powders from Austria, should she run out before her return. We had met the first day when I needed validation that I wasn’t the only one worried about crapping her pants around European royalty, and I remind her that this was a lot of money for a week of treatments to distract from the laxatives. A bag of Epsom salts is, what, $5 at Target? “But you’re young,” she shushes me. “You are not scared yet.”
In total, including round trip airfare (€572), my week-long experience Viva Mayr cost €3,339 (around $3,550), which is on the lower end, considering I didn’t sign up for extra activities like cooking lessons (€90) or the most expensive treatments like hormone analysis (€445), and I didn’t do any treatment—other than the mandatory daily abdominal massages—more than once, even when it was recommended that I repeat sessions.
Upon returning home, I give my dermatologist, Dr. Sejal Shah, a call. My skin, blemished from hormonal acne and hyper pigmentation, has cleared up and I no longer feel like I have to wear concealer to run regular errands like walking my dog. “Sure, the diet works,” Dr. Shah says. “But not because it’s an alkaline diet. It’s just a healthy diet. You’re taking out processed foods and most meats. Your body is a very good machine—you don’t need to change your diet to maintain your pH level.”
I also give Dr. Daryl Gioffre, a New York City-based chiropractor who markets his own alkaline diet, a call to tell him the good news about my skin. Dr. Gioffre also sells his own baking soda-based powder for mixing with water and ingesting, and it is slightly more palatable because he includes dehydrated lemon peel into the mixture, but I still gag when I drink it. (Disclosure: Dr. Gioffre sent me a free sample a year ago when I was a beauty editor.) Dr. Gioffre agrees with the basic tenet of the Mayr Cure—that chewing your food is the most important part of digestion. He even recommends chewing your smoothies. “Your digestion starts when you put the food in your mouth because your mouth secretes digestive enzymes that you should take advantage of,” he tells me.
For two months after my trip, I kept up the Viva Mayr diet—lots of potatoes and leafy greens, no simple sugars (not even fruit), no caffeine, and creamy soups for dinner. I’ve gone completely sober, though the clinic is okay with drinking a glass or two of wine (they’re European!), and my friends didn’t suspect a thing—in a city of green juice shops on every corner, no one thinks you’re on a socially restrictive diet when you order a bowl of mashed potatoes with butter. I lost eight pounds this way. But I could not replicate the dishes I ate in Austria. The cookbook is better suited for Prussian princesses than a 25-year-old with a studio apartment kitchen. You’re not allowed to eat pork or most red meats both at the clinic and at home on your prescribed diet, but there are recipes for “Goat Cheese with Figs and Wild-Boar Ham” and “Saddle of Venison with Squash and Chestnuts” in the book, which are not accessible for anyone who doesn’t live in a place where wild boar hunts are a thing. But those are the sorts of food that you eat at Viva Mayr—and it’s a letdown when you go home and can’t do it yourself, even if you pack a suitcase full of muesli and flatbreads from their shop.
Still, even with all the precautions I took, living my life to the Mayr Cure extreme, dutifully drinking base powder between my meals at home, I couldn’t stop myself from getting sick for reasons completely unrelated to Viva Mayr. I was hospitalized or bedridden for all of January 2017, and kicked off February hunched over the toilet with copious amounts of vomiting alone on Saturday nights. (I’m fine now, though! My doctor found out that I had unluckily picked up three different, consecutive viruses in January!)
Though Viva Mayr claims to have figured out wellness to an exact science (or pseudo-science, if you consider the healing crystals), the body is not rational. You don’t cut out sugar and become perfect, though the lifestyle gurus on Instagram consistently tell me otherwise. I was so sick that I could not get on the subway at night to see friends, could not stay awake to push through a work deadline, could not wear anything but sweatpants and comfortable sneakers—I couldn’t do anything that an ambitious 20-something-year old in New York City might be expected to do. I lied to my mother, told her I was well and having fun with my friends and that I was totally on deadline with my writing, just so she wouldn’t worry about me. Most of the time, though, I stayed in bed, drinking Pedialyte and pooping, vomiting, sweating, losing weight—all for much less effort and money than what I had spent at Viva Mayr.