Deaths at Sweat Lodge Bring Soul-Searching

The New York Times/October 12, 2009

Sedona, Arizona - Tucked into stunning red rock formations and canyons punctuated with splashes of green junipers, this town of about 11,500 has long been a high-end golf and tennis resort, the choice location for second homes of the well-to-do and a favorite destination for hikers, rock climbers, cyclists and sightseers.

It has also become world-renowned as a New Age metaphysical center, attracting seekers and followers of an assortment of spiritual pathways, many of whom believe healing energy is released from "vortexes" that are said to be scattered among the rock formations.

Scores of self-proclaimed mystics, healers, channelers of past life experiences (and aliens), sacred touch massage therapists, wind whisperers and vision quest guides offer their services, often for a hefty price. Many of these spiritual pathways are based somewhat loosely around Native American traditions, including the ceremonial sweat lodge.

But the deaths of two people in a sweat lodge last week at Angel Valley, a New Age spiritual retreat about six miles south of West Sedona, is causing more soul-searching among New Age practitioners and concern among town leaders.

"We are severely impacted by the fact that this happened," said Sedona's mayor, Rob Adams. "We need to get to the bottom of what happened."

Kirby Brown, 38, of Westtown, N.Y., and James Shore, 40, of Milwaukee, died on Thursday after collapsing inside the Angel Valley sweat lodge. Three other people were airlifted in critical condition to Flagstaff Medical Center.

"The people in the field will take a close look at their operations, absolutely," said Marcus, an intuitive counselor - a kind of spiritual guide - who goes by only his first name. "This is ridiculous, it shouldn't have happened."

At least seven other people have died in ceremonial sweat lodges since 1993 in the United States, England and Australia, according to news accounts compiled by Alton Carroll, an adjunct professor of history at San Antonio College who also moderates the Web site

James Arthur Ray, a self-help expert from Carlsbad, Calif., led what was billed as five-day "spiritual warrior" experience at Angel Valley, which concluded with a tightly packed sweat lodge ceremony. Participants paid about $9,000 each for the weeklong retreat, which included seminars, a 36-hour fast and solo experiences in the forest.

The authorities say that at any one time 55 to 65 people were packed for a two-hour period into a 415-square foot structure that was 53 inches high at the center and 30 inches high on the perimeter. Mr. Ray's employees built the wood-frame lodge, which was wrapped in blankets and plastic tarps. Hot rocks were brought into the lodge and doused with water. Mr. Ray, who conducted the ceremony, left the area on Thursday after declining to give a statement to the police.

Sheriff Steve Waugh of Yavapai County said a death investigation would continue for several weeks. Mr. Ray, the Angel Valley owners, Michael and Amayra Hamilton, and all the participants are part of the investigation, the sheriff said. The results from autopsies that were conducted Friday have not been released and results from toxicology tests are not expected for several weeks.

Dr. Carroll, who is partly of Mescalero Apache descent, said the Angel Valley sweat lodge was the "best example I have seen, sadly, in a long time of why it is extremely dangerous to conduct sweat lodge ceremonies without proper training."

Katherine Lash, a co-owner of Spiritquest Retreat in Sedona and a veteran of more than 100 sweat lodge ceremonies, said she had never heard of a sweat being conducted with as many people as were involved in the Angel Valley event. "In my experience it has been very rare to have more than 20 people," she said.

Limiting the number of people inside a sweat lodge is critical because the person leading the event is supposed to carefully monitor the mental and physical condition of each participant, experts said.

"It's important to know who is responsible for your spiritual and physical safety in that lodge," said Vernon Foster, a member of the Klamath-Modoc tribe who regularly leads ceremonial sweat lodge events in central Arizona.

Mr. Foster said native people would use only natural materials in the construction of a sweat lodge. "We would never use plastic to cover our lodges," he said. "The lodge has to breathe, that steam has to go someplace."

Sheriff's office investigators are conducting tests to determine whether any toxins were released during the ceremony. The authorities said sandalwood "was thrown on the rocks to give the effect of incense." A 2007 study by the National University of Singapore on the effects of smoke emitted by sandalwood incense published in the journal Science and Technology of Advanced Materials found that "continuous and prolonged exposure to incense smoke is of concern."

Ms. Brown, said friends in Cabo San Lucas, Mex., where she lived and worked as a interior house painter, was in excellent physical condition and regularly practiced yoga and enjoyed surfing. "She was very beautiful and a very, very exceptional and unique person," said Todd Clouser, a musician from Boston who met Ms. Brown three years ago.

Mr. Clouser said he was not surprised that Ms. Brown would attend a sweat lodge. "It was totally up her alley," he said.

Mayor Adams said that Sedona believed that people should be free to follow their spiritual path and that metaphysical services would continue to be an important part of the area's economy. But, he said he shared concerns of some Native Americans who complain that non-natives are, at times, exploiting their sacred ceremonial practices for profit.

"If it is simply to make money, then that's another issue," he said.

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