An Arizona spiritual retreat has now caused the death of 3 people and the murky events have cast a spotlight on the modern-day popularity of an ancient Native American ritual designed to cleanse the soul and purify the mind.
Police in the spiritual center of Sedona are treating the deaths of three people who collapsed after entering a punishing "sweat lodge" as homicide, and are now probing safety precautions in the October 8 incident.
Roughly 60 people paid self-help guru James Arthur Ray 9,000 dollars to go on the retreat involved in the recent tragedy. As well as three fatalities, nearly 20 participants were hospitalized.
Now workers at some of Sedona's roughly 80 retreats, tours, and quests fear the tragedy will tarnish the reputation of sweat lodges, where participants gather around hot stones in a covered underground pit.
"That's one of my greatest fears," said Ed Preston of the SpiritQuest Retreat Center in Sedona. Legislation to regulate sweat lodges "would be completely inappropriate," he told AFP.
Sedona's red rock canyons are home to more than 80 spiritual businesses, according to the chamber of commerce, with names like "Earthstar Vortex Tours," "CosmicJaguar Lovevolution," and "Angel Lightfeather's Sacred Pathways."
Believers say the region is home to several "spiritual vortices", mystical channels of energy.
However, there aren't more than about six or seven sweat lodges in Sedona, and the surrounding area, according to Preston.
Within the spectrum of available spiritual activities, which range from yoga, hikes for "soul retrieval" and shamanic journeys, sweat lodges aren't high on the list for most visitors.
"On a scale of one to 10, it's a two," said Deidre Manson of Shangri-La Sedona, a spiritual travel company.
"People don't just come here for sweat lodges; they come here for a variety of different reasons."
Practitioners insist sweat lodges are safe, if led by trained lodge keepers, as they are called. Lodges are highly ritualized in how many rocks are used, how much water is put on them and how often the door is opened as well as many other factors including construction and the number of participants.
"A reputable retreat company would not be conducting the lodge themselves," Preston said. "In our case we use Native American practitioners because they use a format which has been established for centuries."
Lodge keepers who aren't native have "almost always" been trained by Native Americans, Preston said.
It's a complex process. Apprentices can train for one to two years just to tend the fire outside in which the lava rocks are heated.
"If someone came to us and said, 'It's our own thing,' that would be a huge red flag," he said. "There's some art to it ... (Native Americans) know exactly what they're doing, and they don't kill anyone doing it."
No safeguards have been put in place, before or since the three deaths, according to Johanna Mosca of Sedona Spirit Hiking and Yoga. Mosca, who has done more than 50 sweats since 1994, does not have a lodge on her property.
If her clients want to sweat, she calls local practitioners.
"The precaution we put in is knowing the person who is leading the sweat lodge," she said. "I would allow my 90-year old father to attend a sweat lodge.
"I totally trust the people I know in Sedona who are leading lodges as sacred practices. Things go awry when things are led for profit and people are not conscious. I think this was an isolated incident. I hate it that it makes Sedona people look like irresponsible woo-woo jerks."
Katherine Lash, co-owner of the SpiritQuest Retreat Center, said ritual participants trust the facilitator to watch out for them.
She questioned whether Ray was paying close enough attention to the condition of the participants. "There's no need to push someone beyond their limits to accomplish self-acceptance," she said.
Lash also said the lodge appeared to be overcrowded. "Having 60 people in there is absolutely absurd," she said.
A survivor of Ray's ill-fated lodge said Friday the guru had not been paying attention when tragedy struck.
"James Ray pretty much abandoned all of us. He left us there to figure out what was going on," orthodontist Beverly Bunn told "Good Morning America." "After the incident he never came back."
Manson meanwhile said Ray's lodge was not built according to traditional methods. "I understand the lodge out there was covered in plastic, not a natural fiber," she said.
"Once you convert it into a sauna, if you put 60-some odd people in an enclosed space, I'm not sure what goes on there. That's not the traditional way a lodge is built.
"My husband can build lodges from the ground up, but he does it in the traditional way, with prayer and right intentions."