Winnipeg man recounts U.S. sweat-lodge tragedy

Winnipeg Free Press/October 23, 2009

Winnipeg - Sweating profusely in the 53 C heat, a Winnipeg man was barely conscious Oct. 9 when he looked around a Sedona, Ariz., sweat lodge and noticed fellow participants foaming at the mouth.

Moments later, he collapsed on the coals, burning his arm.

Somehow he got outside, and when he eventually regained control of his senses he saw paramedics attempting to resuscitate two people. They died shortly after and a third person died last weekend. Nineteen others were hospitalized for burns, dehydration, breathing problems, kidney failure and elevated body temperature.

Police in Yavapai County are treating the deaths at the Angel Valley Retreat Center as a murder investigation although James Arthur Ray, a self-help guru and inspirational speaker behind the retreat, has not been charged.

"I kept throwing cold water on them and telling them to fight," said the Winnipeg businessman, who asked that his name not be used because he is still traumatized by the incident.

On Thursday, the man offered an eyewitness account of the bizarre and tragic episode.

"There was a period there where I don't know what happened. I thank my lucky stars. I had some guardian angels working on my behalf. I don't know how I got out of there. I still have a good three minutes of my life that are a bit of a daze. I don't know what happened," he said.

The man, who was taken to a nearby hospital where he spent the night, was one of about 60 people crowded into a 415-square-foot tent-like sweat lodge for two hours at the high-end, new age retreat.

Participants were taking part in a five-day "Spiritual Warrior" program and had been fasting for 36 hours and entered the sweat lodge as part of a "vision quest." Fees for the programs are reported to be between $9,000 and $10,000.

A sweat lodge, similar to a sauna, is an enclosed space where water is poured on heated rocks. They are often used in aboriginal spiritual ceremonies and are intended to cleanse the body.

The Winnipeg man said the idea behind the personal development exercise was to obtain an altered state of mind and ultimately have a vision. But Ray "crossed the line," he said.

"His intention wasn't to hurt us, but he pushed us too far. I'm angry at him. I could have been one of the people who died. One of the guys who died was my roommate at the seminar," he added.

One of the victims was a woman from Minnesota who suffered multiple organ damage and was in a coma for nine days. She died last weekend and the family is pursuing a lawsuit.

The Winnipeg man said he still believes in the sweat-lodge concept and extreme spiritual experiences, but warns that people have to listen first and foremost to their bodies.

"If the heat is too much, get out. You've got to hydrate a lot, take care of yourself and check in all the time to see if you can handle it . . . If you get out of your head and work from your heart and your heart is wide open, you'll tune in and you'll know what's happening," he said.

News reports Thursday said Ray continues to offer the program.

James Ray International is reported to have made more than $9 million last year from weekend seminars entitled World Wealth Summit. In 2008, his book Harmonic Wealth: The Secret of Attracting the Life You Want, was a best-seller.

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