The scene: A well-lit, comfortably appointed auditorium on the second floor of an office building. Cheery, clean-cut people, all sporting name tags, are discussing such lofty topics as goal-setting, childhood trauma, and "giving back to the community" as soothing sitar music plays in the background.
If you thought this was a moment from a New Age gathering somewhere in California, think again. The meeting is taking place in a working-class eastern Moscow neighborhood. And the organizers, Avatar Consulting Center, are not pitching pyramid power but an intensive three-day group therapy process that will help clients "reunite with the power, passion and joy in their lives" as they confront their most deep-seated fears and self doubts.
"All kinds of people come to us," said Natalya Tikhonova, Avatar's director. "Many of our clients are businessmen who want to earn more money, but we also get students, housewives, even pensioners."
According to Tikhonova, a good chunk of the Avatar philosophy can be summed up in two words: taking responsibility.
"People, especially here in Russia, often blame someone or something else for their own misfortunes," she said. "We teach them to take responsibility for their own actions, to draw an ideal picture of their lives and then work on making that picture a reality."
Avatar was formed in 2000 by Tikhonova and her husband, Roman, both graduates of Lifespring, a popular but controversial U.S. self-help movement that made its way to Russia in the early '90s.
A typical Avatar basic training course, which costs $275, is designed as a hard-hitting group encounter, lasting 12 hours a day for three days, usually with a follow-up session the same week. The course begins with a two-hour speech by Tikhonov about the basics of the group's philosophy and a briefing on the rules participants will be asked to observe during the session. At the end of the lecture, participants leave the room for a short break and are asked to come back only if they decide the course is right for them.
Avatar's organizers are reluctant to discuss what comes next, claiming that doing so would undermine the experience for those who have not been through the program. Graduates, however, relate a three-day emotional roller coaster, where lectures are combined with various partner exercises and closed-eye, or guided imagery exercises, in which the trainer lulls participants into a trance-like state and brings them back to their childhood to confront long-standing issues.
Ideally, basic training ends when participants, drained but exultant, are greeted by friends and family members (many of whom are also Avatar alumni, having recommended the program) who have come to see "graduation." Rock music blasts over the loudspeakers as members dance wildly, pump their fists in the air and endlessly hug one another.
There is no shortage of Avatar and Lifespring devotees, who attest that the groups provide an extremely beneficial experience that has helped them drop the burdens of the past, actualize their personalities and affect positive changes in their lives. Critics, however, have accused Lifespring of "brainwashing" its members. The company has been on the receiving end of more than 50 lawsuits in the U.S., many of them charging psychological damage.
While the Tikhonovs acknowledge that Avatar's courses are, in fact, similar to those employed by Lifespring, they are also quick to point out that their program, which involves a rigorous, often psychologically exhausting therapeutic process, is not for everyone.
"Those with pre-existing psychological problems might respond negatively to the course," said Tikhonov, adding that Avatar tries to minimize that risk by screening its clients and having a licensed psychologist on hand during seminars.
Some of those who have completed basic training describe the course as one of the most positive experiences in their lives.
"I felt like I was sleeping my whole life, and only woke up after I took the course," said Tatyana Struyeva, 37, who completed basic training in 2002. "It definitely opened my eyes to who I am and why I'm in this world."
In addition to the basic training course, Avatar also offers a six-day advanced course, as well as a three-month "leadership program," where participants work in teams to accomplish three goals -- one personal, one within a group, and a third benefiting society in general. While many members choose to focus on anything, from starting a new business to losing weight, others have more exotic aspirations.
"One of our graduates will be parachuting onto the North Pole in a few weeks," Tikhonova said. "He'll be wearing an Avatar T-shirt over his jump suit when he does it."