THE DARK SIDE OF SELF CARE The un­told story of well­ness re­treats gone bad

More of us than ever are trav­el­ling in search of en­light­en­ment, but do we re­ally know what we’re get­ting into? KATE GRA­HAM in­ves­ti­gates what happens when re­treats go rogue...

Cosmopolitan (UK) - - Contents -

The soar­ing sand­stone cliffs of Se­dona in Ari­zona are mag­i­cal. When the morn­ing rays hit the tow­er­ing rock for­ma­tions at just the right an­gle, they seem to catch fire, flick­er­ing from red to ochre, orange to um­ber. Lit­tle won­der, then, that thousands of devo­tees come to this city ev­ery year in search of spir­i­tual en­light­en­ment, lured by the dozens of cen­tres and re­treats that have sprung up over the past 10 years. New Yorker Kirby Brown, 38, was one of them. She came for a re­treat she hoped might un­lock her po­ten­tial as an entrepreneur. By the time that re­treat was over, 18 peo­ple were in hospi­tal and three, in­clud­ing Kirby, were dead.

“We called her Hur­ri­cane Kirby. She was drunk on life,” says her mother, Ginny Brown. An ad­ven­tur­ous spirit, Kirby loved to climb, cy­cle and surf, al­ways grab­bing op­por­tu­ni­ties with both hands. So, when she wanted to take her paint­ing busi­ness to the next level, she went all in, blow­ing her life sav­ings on a five-day mo­ti­va­tional re­treat led by the charis­matic James Arthur Ray. The mil­lion­aire guru promised to help her and more than 50 oth­ers “push past their self-im­posed borders” to bet­ter their lives.

What that in­volved was fore­go­ing sleep for a 36-hour food-and-drink fast and shav­ing off all her hair. Fi­nally, in the sti­fling heat of the Ari­zona desert, she en­tered a crowded ‘sweat lodge’ made of wood, plas­tic and blan­kets. As the tem­per­a­tures soared, peo­ple started vom­it­ing, but they were told to stay and push through the pain. They were told it would feel like they were dy­ing. Two hours later, Kirby died from acute heat stroke.

We’re in the mid­dle of a well­ness boom. We live in an age where a £46 egg-shaped crys­tal for your vagina, touted by Gwyneth Pal­trow, sells out. Fes­ti­vals at which you swig cider and sing along to in­die bands are on the de­cline, while fit­ness fes­ti­vals are flour­ish­ing. The multi-day Wan­der­lust event has grown from a one-off in the US in 2009 to some­thing held in 10 coun­tries world­wide. The en­tire well­ness in­dus­try is said to be worth roughly £3tril­lion.* The fastest-grow­ing sec­tor within that? Well­ness tourism. Worth around £350 bil­lion,** it saw a 10% rise last year alone. And its main con­sumers? Ex­pe­ri­ence-thirsty millennials. Spafinder’s State Of Well­ness Travel Re­port re­vealed that not only are millennials the core well­ness tourism de­mo­graphic, but also that our goals are ‘ad­ven­ture’ and ‘en­light­en­ment’ rather than ‘fluffy robes.’


If it’s deep en­light­en­ment and an ex­pe­ri­ence-un­like-any-other that we’re look­ing for, then ayahuasca seems to of­fer it. The hal­lu­cino­genic plant, taken pri­mar­ily in Peru, Brazil, Colom­bia and Ecuador, has been used in South Amer­ica for cen­turies as part of re­li­gious cer­e­monies within tribes. How­ever, of late, re­treats of­fer­ing it have seen a rise in young peo­ple, women in par­tic­u­lar, ea­ger to ‘dis­cover’ them­selves through the drug. Taken in tea, ayahuasca gives a high that can last up to six hours – it causes strong hal­lu­ci­na­tions, with those who have tried it say­ing they’ve had vi­sions from their past and ad­vice given to them from de­ceased loved ones, or even God. Some claim that they’ve left with a deeper un­der­stand­ing of their life.

In the UK and US, its ac­tive in­gre­di­ent, dimethyl­tryptamine (DMT), is an il­le­gal, class-A drug. And with good rea­son. Side ef­fects in­clude seizures and res­pi­ra­tory ar­rest, and there have been at least five deaths at re­treats in re­cent years. “Ayahuasca puts peo­ple in touch with their deep psy­ches and mem­o­ries,” ex­plains an­thro­pol­o­gist Jeremy Narby.“It’s pos­si­ble not to know how vul­ner­a­ble you are un­til you take it. By then, it’s too late to turn back.” That’s some­thing Ju­lia, a 29-year-old ad­ver­tis­ing man­ager, ex­pe­ri­enced first­hand. She tried iboga, an African plant with sim­i­lar hal­lu­cino­genic prop­er­ties, at an un­der­ground re­treat. “Be­fore I took the drug, I was asked to sub­mit a his­tory de­tail­ing my life’s emo­tional events. That in­cluded the fact that I was at­tacked, raped and nearly mur­dered at 17,” Ju­lia says. The re­treat leader’s ad­vice shocked her.“He said I should re­live the event. It was the most ter­ri­fy­ing ex­pe­ri­ence of my life. The vi­sions were more real than the ac­tual mem­o­ries – it was like al­low­ing some­one to rape me again.”

At first it seemed to help: “I re­mem­bered dif­fer­ent parts of the at­tack and saw that I just couldn’t have fought back. It helped with my guilt tremen­dously. I was told I was cured. Three months later, I re­alised I wasn’t fixed at all.” Vi­o­lent vi­sions sud­denly ap­peared; she con­stantly felt peo­ple were at­tack­ing her. Ju­lia was re­ferred to a men­tal-health pro­fes­sional and treated for ex­treme de­pres­sion and post­trau­matic stress dis­or­der. Iboga didn’t cre­ate those is­sues, she ex­plains, it just brought them to

the sur­face. But with­out proper med­i­cal guid­ance or af­ter­care, she wasn’t equipped to cope with the psy­cho­log­i­cal im­pact. There’s also the dan­ger that while trapped in a high, you’re also trapped in tight con­fines with strangers, who may not have your best in­ter­ests at heart. That was the ex­pe­ri­ence of Per­rie, a 32-year-old PA who was sex­u­ally as­saulted on an ayahuasca re­treat in Peru last year. For days, her shaman touched her re­peat­edly. “The only way out was by boat,” she says.“I played along with his game be­cause I had no other choice. On the fi­nal night, the shaman yelled at me for not stand­ing up when he told me to. At 1.30am I got up, put my pass­port and money in a zip-lock bag, walked to the river and slipped into the wa­ter, pre­pared to swim to safety. I wasn’t afraid. Sur­vival was my only thought.” Fi­nally, she man­aged to flag down a boat and paid its crew to take her to Iquitos, the near­est city.


It can be easy to think that, were some­thing to go wrong, you would be strong enough to deal with it. But at the ex­treme end of the well­ness­re­treat scale, of­ten you’re pushed so far out of your com­fort zone that you’re not your­self – even when there are no drugs in­volved. Lauded re­treats of re­cent years in­clude the Ayurvedic cleanse – eat­ing ghee (that’s clar­i­fied but­ter) for three days, be­fore spend­ing a day drink­ing milk, mixed with salt wa­ter, un­til you throw up – or colon hy­drother­apy, where wa­ter is pumped into your in­testines. Even less ex­treme prac­tices tend to in­volve early rises and re­stricted di­ets. And when your body is de­prived of sleep, wa­ter and food for pro­longed pe­ri­ods of time, your abil­ity to think clearly is dis­turbed. Away from home and sur­rounded by like-minded peo­ple, it’s easy to be swayed into ques­tion­able ways of think­ing.

And those in place to take care of you dur­ing this time are of­ten not qual­i­fied to cope should some­thing go wrong. When teacher Laura, 37, went on a week­end med­i­ta­tion re­treat, she didn’t know she had an un­di­ag­nosed bipo­lar dis­or­der. The re­treat lead­ers did no men­tal­health screen­ing at all.“I med­i­tated for hours ask­ing, ‘Who am I?’ over and over,” she says. Days later, Laura was com­mit­ted to a psy­chi­atric ward. She’s clear the re­treat didn’t cause her dis­or­der, but ar­gues that med­i­ta­tion is a pow­er­ful prac­tice that should be taken se­ri­ously by those run­ning re­treats.

Clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gist Dr Rachel An­drew agrees: “If peo­ple have suf­fered trau­matic events in their past, they of­ten cope by block­ing them out. Sud­denly hav­ing to think about these mem­o­ries can lead to be­ing re-trau­ma­tised. Men­tal-health pro­fes­sion­als work slowly and care­fully to en­sure ther­a­pies are help­ful, not harm­ful. Some re­treat teach­ers are sim­ply not qual­i­fied or skilled enough to do this prop­erly.”

Nurse Louisa, 24, tried out the now-fa­mous Vi­pas­sana silent med­i­ta­tion re­treat. Her ex­pe­ri­ence was night­mar­ish. For­bid­den from go­ing out­side, given very lit­tle food and de­prived of sleep, she quickly be­gan to feel dis­ori­en­tated. And that was be­fore the lead­ers turned off her wa­ter to keep her “punc­tual”. By the fourth day, she’d de­cided to leave, which was trick­ier than ex­pected due to ex­haus­tion and con­fu­sion.“I saw peo­ple com­ing down the stairs like zom­bies, their eyes blank and their mouths open. They walked so in­cred­i­bly slowly, their faces com­pletely dead,” she says.


These sto­ries, of course, don’t re­flect an en­tire in­dus­try. But what they do high­light is a prob­lem with the ever-ex­pand­ing mar­ket: that al­most any­one can set up a re­treat. There are no qual­i­fi­ca­tions needed to call your­self a ‘guru.’ And there’s no de­fin­i­tive list of vet­ted, safe re­treats. Throw into the mix the mind­set of peo­ple who might book them­selves onto a re­treat: vul­ner­a­ble peo­ple, search­ing for clo­sure af­ter a break-up or be­reave­ment, or those like Kirby – go-get­ters, ea­ger to push their lim­its, re­gard­less of phys­i­cal or fi­nan­cial cost. When these peo­ple are put in the wrong hands, the re­sults can – and have – proved deadly. Af­ter the Se­dona deaths (James Shore, 40, died upon ar­rival at hospi­tal and Lizabeth Neu­man, 49, passed away af­ter more than a week in a coma), Ray was con­victed of three counts of neg­li­gent homi­cide and served 20 months in prison, but he’s now try­ing to re­build his self-help ca­reer. Ginny Brown has ded­i­cated her life to speak­ing on her daugh­ter Kirby’s be­half, set­ting up Seek­ to of­fer ad­vice to self-help re­treat at­ten­dees. They ask those run­ning re­treats to fol­low the ‘Seek Safety Prom­ise,’ agree­ing to a list of prin­ci­ples and prac­tices to keep par­tic­i­pants in­formed and safe.

The key, Brown says, is the way that re­treats are run. Find one that’s safely or­gan­ised, with qual­i­fied ex­perts on hand, and it can be a won­der­ful ex­pe­ri­ence. “Kirby isn’t here, so I can say this on her be­half: don’t stay away from things. Just walk into them with open eyes as well as an open heart.”

“Any­one can call them­self a guru”

20 Ray served James Arthur

More than 50 peo­ple went on the re­treat

The makeshift ‘sweat lodge’ desert

Kirby Brown at her home

mper­a­tures in e lodge hit 90°C

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