As Nina Collins approached the sprawling country mansion, she could already feel the stresses of her highly pressured city life fall away. Set in an acre of landscaped gardens near Stroud, Gloucestershire, Vaikuntha, meaning - she'd been told - 'the place where there is not a flutter of fear', was a spiritual retreat for burnt-out high fliers.
And after more than ten years on the corporate treadmill, in her high-powered role as head of marketing for the Body Shop, that was exactly how Nina felt.
There to greet her on the doorstep of the eight-bedroom mansion was Mojdeh Danesh, the Iranian-born self-styled healer who founded the retreat. A small, neat woman in traditional Punjabi dress, Danesh led Nina past the communal dining room, group workshop and treatment rooms.
That same day, Nina's ' treatment' began with a religious session where she and more than a dozen fellow professionals learned chants to release tension and were encouraged to feel Danesh's spirit 'moving within'.
'When Danesh spoke to me, she made me feel I was the most important person in the world,' says Nina. 'She said she had trained as a psychologist, but what stood out was her charisma.
'She said she was very concerned for me and seemed to want to help me.
Her worry for my welfare was very touching.
'I was very successful in my career, and financially very secure, but I felt something was missing, that I was somehow unfulfilled.
'Vaikuntha seemed a very spiritual place and the sense of calm and contentment I got there was what I was looking for.' Nina was encouraged to indulge her creative side by painting and writing poetry and attended workshops on the deleterious effects of money.
At the end of her introductory afternoon, Nina returned to her house in Kingston-upon-Thames, Surrey, feeling energised by Danesh's instructions and determined to return.
In the long run, however, that visit proved to be far more sinister.
Indeed, it marked the beginning of a destructive relationship with Danesh and Vaikuntha which left Nina nearly bankrupt after losing, she estimates, in the region of Pounds 300,000, her marriage destroyed and her peace of mind shattered.
While her traumatic experience is a salutary warning against the modern-day obsession with New Age mysticism, it is also clear the longing on the part of Nina and scores of other professionals for something more 'fulfilling' in their lives led to a breathtaking degree of naivety.
It's only now, after years of exhausting legal battles in which she sought to recover some of the money she has lost, that Nina, a 43-year-old divorced mother of one, feels able to speak out about how she allowed herself to be so blatantly exploited.
'Danesh is an extremely manipulative character, who uses counselling to control people,' says Nina. 'She finds out your innermost secrets and uses them to humiliate you. She knows exactly which buttons to press.
'The irony is that she initially makes you feel as if she is empowering you, but in reality you actually become dependent on her to the point where you obey everything she says.
'With the benefit of hindsight, I can't believe how easily I was taken in, how stupid I was. But she was so convincing and came across as such a genuine person.
'She told me my spirit needed to be healed and that only she could do it.
Perhaps I was influenced by the presence of so many other highfliers like me, but I fell for everything she said.' TODAY, sitting in her comfortable home in Stonehouse, Gloucestershire, it is difficult to imagine this charming and articulate blonde could have allowed herself to be so manipulated.
Yet like many hardworking career women, Nina had, by her mid- 30s, become trapped in a cycle of disillusionment and boredom and, as such, was easy prey for a woman like Danesh.
'I had worked for a succession of blue-chip companies and then in 1997 I was appointed head of marketing at the Body Shop, with a salary of Pounds 70,000.
'It was exciting and I had what many people would think was a dream job,' she recalls. 'I also had a lovely house in Kingston, dozens of friends and family and a lovely boyfriend. Yet I wasn't happy. The only way I can describe it is as a big hole inside of me that I was looking to fill.' On the recommendation of a friend, Nina visited a counsellor to chat through her problems.
During the hour-long session, the counsellor recommended Vaikuntha, describing it as a calming environment where Nina could reassess her priorities.
Nina was quick to learn that at Vaikuntha, Danesh liked to be known as 'Padmavathi' which she boasted meant: 'At the feet of the divine mother.'
After her first afternoon at the retreat, Nina returned again, this time for a weekend. One weekend was quickly followed by another, and soon Nina was spending every weekend at Vaikuntha, sometimes with her boyfriend James Collins, a handsome 6ft 1in retail consultant.
They met on a management training course shortly before Nina first went to Vaikuntha, and almost immediately fell in love.
Months after she had discovered the centre, Nina was invited by Danesh to attend a spiritual retreat in India, in December of that year.
Eager to experience more of what she perceived to be the power of Danesh's teaching, she agreed, and convinced James to accompany her. In India, Nina was told repeatedly by Danesh that her relationship with James would fail if they were not on the same spiritual path.
The couple, with Danesh's blessing, were married in a spiritual ceremony conducted by a Hindu priest.
'It was a very powerful and emotional experience,' recalls Nina.
'Danesh told us we had been married in the eyes of God.
'Looking back, I realise that one of Danesh's tricks is to make you suspend your intellect by focusing on the emotional side. I was so bowled over by my feelings of love for James that I didn't question Danesh's motives.' The couple affirmed their spiritual vows when they were formally married at Cirencester register office early the following year, but the marriage quickly became embroiled in arguments over Nina's increasing devotion to Danesh.
'Danesh exploited my existing unhappiness with the business world and convinced me it would be better for my spiritual development if I gave up my career in the "material world",' Nina says. 'Because I was already having doubts about what I was doing, this started to make sense.' Nina resigned from her job at Body Shop, to work first for a fair trade organisation and then as a fulltime volunteer at Vaikuntha, running the retreat's website.
'Now I don't know how I could have believed her, but I was so convinced that she knew best for me, I resigned.
'She told us that if we were to advance spiritually we had to display respect for her at all times and obey her without question, and I did.' By late spring of 1998, Nina was spending an increasing amount of time at Vaikuntha, consulting Danesh over numerous decisions. Meanwhile, James remained more sceptical, and the resulting tension between him and Nina led to Danesh asking Nina to stay away from the centre.
'She said our arguments were interfering with the spirituality of the place and that it would be better if we did not come. I was in shock because I thought it was my spiritual home.
'I pleaded with Danesh but she would not listen. I was devastated, and moved back to Kingston.' What Nina did not realise at the time was that her apparent rejection was part of the psychological ploys used by Danesh to build up her dependency.
Just a few months later, Nina was invited back. This time, however, it was on the understanding that she helped to raise money. Grateful and relieved, Nina readily agreed.
'I had set up my own marketing business, but Danesh told me she had special therapeutic aromatherapy essences to sell and this was far more important spiritual work. Stupidly, I was so grateful to be allowed back to Vaikuntha that I agreed.' But there was a catch: Nina had to buy her own stock of essences, Pounds 29,000 worth to be exact, to sell at Pounds 27 a bottle.
'People have asked me how a marketing expert was be taken in by this, but I was blinded to reality,' Nina admits bitterly. 'I believed I was helping Vaikuntha to help the world. I was still living in Kingston, but I gave up all my other work to concentrate on my task. James was worried, but I convinced him I knew what I was doing and he agreed to support me.'
Two months later, however, she had only sold Pounds 3,600 worth of essences over the internet and by word of mouth.
'When I mentioned this to Danesh, she just told me I had to try harder,' Nina recalls. 'She made me feel a failure.' Danesh was also undermining Nina's other relationships. Like so many brainwashing victims, Nina found found herself increasingly alienated from friends and family, who had become concerned about her devotion to Vaikuntha and its founder.
'Whenever friends tried to warn me about Danesh's motives I would just withdraw and not see them again.
'But it didn't alarm me that I was losing touch with my friends. Danesh had told me to expect this. She told me I was part of an elite group, and I was to expect criticism and attack, even from those trying to help me.
'She said people outside the group could not understand our values. It was a very powerful argument when it was repeated over and over again.'
Nina had all the more reason to become dependant on the woman she now saw as a second mother when she fell pregnant in the summer of 1999.
'I was thrilled to bits, as was James, but Danesh even managed to take over that. From the moment I told her I was pregnant she became very possessive about the baby, constantly saying I was just the 'carrier' and that the child would have two mothers.
'She then told me that she would be present at the birth, that as our friend she wanted to help James and I.' In fact, this 'friendly' service was to cost Nina Pounds 3,000, which involved little more than 'spiritual support'. Nina paid after another disciple put pressure on her, saying Danesh was offended that she hadn't offered a donation.
Nor was the 'holy mother' satisfied with this intervention. On discovering that Nina had asked her mother to be with her for the birth, she launched into a tirade of abuse.
'She was furious,' Nina recalls. 'She had told me constantly that my mother did not love or care for me and insisted I stay away from her. I was so under her spell and desperate not to upset her that I did as she asked. My mother was very, very distressed.' After a stressful pregnancy and emergency Caesarean, Nina gave birth to a son in Kingston Hospital, whom Danesh insisted she call Arya Samuel.
'She told me that the name "had come from a divine source in her meditation", and that he was a true child of Vaikuntha,' says Nina. 'I was too in her thrall to disagree.' Exhausted and emotional from coping with her new baby, a fragile Nina found herself even more under the power of Danesh.
At the start of 2000, Nina was told she and James had to buy yet more stock.
'I told her we could not afford any more, but she just turned on me,'
says Nina. 'I was told not to argue with her and that I was a negative influence on the sales.
'Even after 16 successful years in business, if you are told that you are a failure often enough, the chances are you start to believe it. I left feeling very distressed and said that I wanted to talk it over with James.' Nina returned home to Kingston, arguing with her husband, who said they should not purchase any more.
The following morning, however, another Vaikuntha 'student' appeared at the couple's front door.
'She looked as if she was going to be physically sick,' Nina recalls.
'She told me she had been given Pounds 13,600 worth of essences and that we had to buy them from her. I was terrified of the wrath of Danesh and in the end we paid, but James was furious.' By the end of 2000, Nina and James had bought a total of Pounds 56,000 worth of essences, and sold only Pounds 9,700 worth.
The financial security Nina had previously enjoyed was now shattered.
Massively in debt, their financial circumstances were putting enormous strain on the marriage, particularly when, in spring 2001, James was made redundant. Of course, Danesh had her own 'solution' for the couple's problems - one-to-one counselling, at a cost of Pounds 53 per 30 minutes.
Many sessions would last two hours.
'Looking back, of course, it is desperately ironic,' says Nina. 'The woman who created the problems was taking more money off us, pretending to help but actually making it worse.' Indeed, by September 2001 James told Nina their marriage was over. His announcement sparked an unpleasant and at times bitter divorce battle.
Bewildered and lonely, Nina made the mistake of turning to Danesh, who suggested that Nina and her son move into accommodation at Vaikuntha.
'Danesh talked us into moving into the bungalow opposite, demanding we pay Pounds 2,000 a month,' says Nina. 'It was extortionate, but as part of our separation agreement James was paying. He was furious, but I was so vulnerable I wouldn't listen to reason.' But her move to Vaikuntha was to mark the beginning of the end for her suffocating relationship with Danesh.
Over the next few months, subjected to increasing verbal abuse from Danesh and her 'disciples' for her failure to sell her essences, Nina became increasingly isolated and vulnerable.
In April 2002, after a particularly unpleasant encounter with Danesh, something snapped.
'Danesh told me I was a failure because the business was not doing well enough. Then she turned to another student and said: "I can't break the bitch, let's go." Something inside me snapped. I decided enough was enough. I left the same day.' It was to be only the first step in Nina's bid to break free. Though still emotionally bruised, she resolved to recover some of the money she had lost.
After enlisting the help of solicitor Clare Kirby and Graham Baldwin, an expert in cult activity who has set up a charity to help victims, she launched a high court action to challenge Danesh.
It was to prove a lengthy and uphill battle, but, earlier this year, Nina was awarded a very substantial lump sum - though not the full figure she has lost - on the eve of a High Court hearing, as compensation for Danesh's 'undue influence' on her life.
Several other former Vaikuntha members are, she says, poised to launch their own actions. Last night Danesh said: 'This is something that is settled. I have nothing to say.' For Nina, the settlement draws to a close this sinister chapter of her life and she has now started again in Gloucestershire with her son, whom she has renamed Aaron.
She no longer sees James, but is slowly putting her life back together.
At the moment she is in the process of setting up a photography business.
'It has taken me two years to get to the point where I can even begin to function normally,' she says. 'And it is not just me who has been affected emotionally. With Aaron there is massive insecurity because Danesh's followers would take him away from me when I was being verbally disciplined.
'Even now, if he does not know where I am he will panic. It is impossible to know what long-term scars there are for him.
'It has taken me a long time to be able to trust others, but I am slowly recovering. I hope that now I have won this settlement I will finally have closure, and both of us will finally be able to look to the future.'