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...
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 Seeksafely.org 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