By John Dougherty
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.
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.”
For more on the subject, see New Age Sweat Lodge Kills.
Below: James Arthur Ray.