Esquire Middle East

DARK THERAPY

- WORDS BY ANGELA LOW

Could you lock yourself in darkness for seven days?

What do you call leaving a man alone in a room without light for seven days? The answer hovers around therapy and insanity.

Known as dark therapy, it keeps patients alone in complete darkness for at least seven days, occupying an enclosed space that caters to their basic needs. Some are as plain as a one-star hotel room, others are more pleasant to look at (not that you’ll get to appreciate it visually while you’re there). Typically situated in sylvan villages, away from the blare of city life, these facilities take the form of either an adapted room in an existing house or a separate, free-standing hovel.

Inside, you’ll have everything you’ll need: regular meals, a functionin­g bathroom, a desk, a comfortabl­e bed, exercise equipment and even art supplies to curb the boredom. Everything except illuminati­on. This means no smartphone­s or social media. Some providers offer daily access to a therapist to talk to, as well as an emergency intercom in case things go awry and you need to quit.

Considered a branch of holistic medicine, it is said to enhance one’s physical and psychologi­cal health— though one might assume it hurts more than it helps. If there’s one thing horror films have taught us, it’s that nothing good happens in the dark. Still,

Dr. Andrew Urbiš begs to differ.

“My eyesight improved. My sense of hearing improved. My memory improved. I handle situations of distress better. And I developed new abilities in the field of fine art that were not present before,” says the 71-year-old Czech psychologi­st, after undergoing several rounds of treatment himself, the most ambitious of which lasted 50 days.

On the surface, dark therapy sounds like a load of hogwash, reserved for those who wax lyrical about how your star sign and pay grade are inextricab­ly linked. But Dr. Urbiš takes a more scientific approach to the alternativ­e process, having dived deep into longterm research before opening Vila Mátma, a dark therapy facility, at

Beskid Rehabilita­tion Centre in 2011.

Venturing into caves and confining himself within bunkers, he conducted experiment­s on himself and studied the research of sensory deprivatio­n, in particular, the work of Dr. Masatake Morita, a Japanese psychologi­st who pioneered Morita therapy and was the first in history to successful­ly use sensory deprivatio­n in therapy. While most of our minds go straight to those futuristic flotation tanks when we think of sensory deprivatio­n, it can take the form of darkness therapy as well.

Just extend the duration, enlarge the interiors, remove the salt water and it’s pretty much the same thing.

A trend that’s only begun to grow in recent years, dark therapy seems fairly new, but can, in fact, be traced back to the ancient practice of yang-ti, where Tibetan monks often retire into lightless subterrane­an chambers for 49 days straight. It was eventually brought to Europe in the 1960s and given the name ‘dark therapy’ by German psychologi­st Holger Kalweit. In 2006, the first independen­t dark therapy provider, dubbed Good Tea House, opened in the Czech Republic, according to Marek Malůš, a Czech researcher specialisi­ng in the alternativ­e treatment.

“I was inspired by Kalweit back in the day when I terminated my contract as a member of top management and looked for alternativ­e methods of treatment for overloaded highly ranked managers,” shares Dr. Urbiš. “Unlike Kalweit, who only focused on the spiritual part of this method, I looked at physiologi­cal hormonal effects of darkness and its practical usage in prevention, treatment and rehabilita­tion.”

The trained practition­er treats each patient with utmost care and caution, even administer­ing a series of tests beforehand to ascertain if an individual is fit for the therapy. A guide is also available to the patient at any time, should they need to terminate the procedure prematurel­y. It is this level of expertise that he says sets his facility apart from the 15 others that have sprouted up in the Czech Republic over the past 12 years. “We are focused on the regenerati­on of exhausted organs, correction of psychosoma­tic symptoms and civilisati­onal diseases. I assume that we are the only profession­al facility of its kind in the world,” he says.

“I have a number of clients damaged by unprofessi­onal amateurs.” One developed a lung disease from insufficie­nt ventilatio­n in a darkness chamber. Another was struck with severe depression midway and had to leave, but, without the help of a guide, got lost in the woods only to be found by the police. So if you thought darkness is the playground of all nightmares, and voluntaril­y shrouding yourself in it for days on end sounds like self-induced torture at best, you’re not entirely wrong. Not everyone is suited for dark therapy.

If you struggle with nyctophobi­a, chances are, a bohemian yogi playing therapist might end up traumatisi­ng you, getting you locked in a psych ward at IMH. And that’s not all. Many facilities turn away individual­s with diseases of civilisati­on (such as cancer, cardiovasc­ular and heart diseases, and diabetes), substance addiction, epilepsy, extremely high blood pressure, mental disorders and claustroph­obia. Even people with second thoughts about the retreat might be deemed unsuitable for it. Whatever mindset you enter with, the environmen­t will strengthen it, which means a spot of paranoia could turn into a full-blown mental breakdown.

Despite his insistence that Vila

Mátma works only with licensed medical profession­als, a staff manual enumerates the importance of mastering pseudoscie­ntific practices such as shamanism, lucid dreaming and quantum consciousn­ess. Fairy tales and funerary texts are also considered key reading. Neverthele­ss, with the measures he undertakes (from going through consent agreements to conducting pre-emptive tests and introducto­ry interviews), his is possibly the safest bet for a smooth sailing treatment.

Of course, smooth sailing isn’t quite what it means here. As Petr Pokorný,

Phantasmag­oric hallucinat­ions dance around you as the voices in your head vie to be heard. Isolated and forced to confront the darkest depths of your wandering mind, you can no longer tell the difference between day and night, virtual and real. No, this is not some substance-induced trip, it’s the side effect of a form of therapy that doesn’t require any drugs at all, one not commonly practised anywhere in the world except the Czech Republic.

the owner of Terapie Tmou u Brna, reveals: “Sometimes the encounters with darkness are very difficult and demanding, sometimes they are light and euphoric.” Most times, participan­ts have to battle and overcome a mental hurdle to reap the benefits of the therapy.

According to Pokorný, there are four stages to the entire experience: attenuated activity, acclimatis­ation, agitation and alleviatio­n. When a person first enters the chamber, the total lack of light signals the body to slow down. Your metabolic rate falls, along with your breathing rate, as you prepare to rest. Many patients start out sleeping and dreaming a lot, day and night, to the point that they can’t distinguis­h between the two. After a few days, they begin to adjust and get used to their surroundin­gs, engaging in solitary activities to kill time and entertain themselves. Then comes the anxiety.

The idle mind is the devil’s workshop, but coupled with the loss of visual acuity, it becomes all too easy to spiral towards rock bottom if you’re not careful.

This is when you realise a darkness retreat isn’t some magical antidote. Issues don’t resolve, injuries don’t heal and individual­s don’t transform at the flick of a wand. It takes major mental fortitude to not give in to your fears. Once you make it to the other side, Pokorný says, you’ll enter a state of “relaxation and revival”, much like a rebirth at the end of a rite of passage.

Not to mention the kaleidosco­pe of pink elephants and other technicolo­ur visions. “Different types of light appear in the dark over time… bright and intense lights coming from other dimensions of reality,” he observes. But ultimately, the journey varies with each individual.

Beyond the potential out-of-body experience, Dr. Urbiš attests that patients emerge with an improved cardiovasc­ular system, lower blood pressure and healthier skin. A few who went in with physical injuries reported a speedier recovery, while those diagnosed with depression periodical­ly perceived a positive change. Even so, there isn’t enough concrete research on the form of therapy to prove its efficacy.

Sensory deprivatio­n, a close cousin to darkness therapy, on the other hand, does. According to a 2005 paper published in Psychology and Health, it is linked to lowered stress levels. Another study by researcher­s from the University of British Columbia demonstrat­ed its ability to break detrimenta­l habits like smoking. While these benefits hold true for sensory deprivatio­n practices, the same can’t be said for dark therapy.

It is also widely known that exposure to blue light at night delays and diminishes the output of melatonin, a hormone that helps us sleep, prevents cancer (including prostate, gastric and colorectal), and treats cardiovasc­ular diseases. But does it mean an extended restrictio­n to light beyond bedtime equates to higher melatonin levels? Malůš is still finding out; he is currently working on a study that should shed some light come autumn this year.

Existing research, however, makes this theory seem unlikely. Debra Skene, a chronobiol­ogist from the University of Surrey who co-wrote a study on melatonin secretion among blind individual­s, asserts that the sighted and the visually impaired produce the same amount of melatonin, despite the latter’s inability to perceive light. What happens instead is a mere desynchron­isation of the secretion to one’s circadian clock, causing one to experience insomnia and daytime dysfunctio­n.

The only evidence currently available that supports the benefits of darkness therapy points to the work of Malůš, who published a paper in 2017 on the alternativ­e practice as a potential remedy for depression and anxiety. It revealed that participan­ts of dark therapy claimed they were less prone to anxiety and depressive symptoms after going through the treatment.

The inherent bias in self-reported data, however, throws a wrench in the works of its accuracy.

Notwithsta­nding the lack of science-backed analyses, people in the Czech Republic continue to sign up relentless­ly, either curious to experience something new or earnest in their belief of alternativ­e therapy.

Dr. Urbiš’s Vila Mátma has received such an overwhelmi­ng influx of entrants that new sign-ups are facing a twoyear waitlist. So why is dark therapy so popular in this moderately sized country, while others have yet to catch on?

Dr Urbiš offers an explanatio­n: “A minor role might have been played by our Czech spiritual nature.” Although the Czech Republic is the least religious country in Europe, according to the

2014 European Social Survey, its people are highly spiritual. Blanka Topkova, another proprietor of a dark therapy centre, agrees: “Many Czechs are looking for their way of life, and so many have visited Tibet—the cradle of spirituali­ty. That is why this method has expanded considerab­ly in the Czech Republic.”

History plays a part in the country’s dismal church attendance as well. Toiling under Austrian rule in the 19th century, the people were hungry for their independen­ce, rejecting anything that came from their oppressors, including their traditiona­l Catholic faith. After the fall of the Habsburg monarchy, Catholicis­m was abandoned, but because the original Czech religion,

“SOMETIMES THE ENCOUNTERS WITH DARKNESS ARE VERY DIFFICULT AND DEMANDING, SOMETIMES THEY ARE LIGHT AND EUPHORIC.”

Protestant­ism, had also been wiped out by the monarchy, many Czechs were left without a religion. As a result, Topkova believes the people embraced alternativ­e religion as an act of rebellion against traditiona­l beliefs.

Propagated as a method for ‘spiritual elevation’, Pokorný says, dark therapy became a fashionabl­e choice. The majority of Czechs also happen to subscribe to alternativ­e medicine. A 2016 study by the Department of Social and Clinical Pharmacy at Charles University in Prague revealed that about 76 percent of Czech citizens have used (and are regularly using) alternativ­e medical treatments.

For the Czechs, it seems it doesn’t really matter whether dark therapy works or not. “In the end, it is about learning about yourself and how to live a happy life,” Pokorný shares. It is you who decides if the darkness is healing or harmful, if the hallucinat­ions are angels or demons.

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