From ‘Christmas retreats’ to gurus: Experts warn about the risks of pseudotherapies

These practices, which are often led by sect-like guides, ‘employ methods to recruit vulnerable people and profit from their suffering’

A reiki session.
A reiki session.Cristine Rochol (PMPA)

Connecting with your inner child. Attributing your physical ailments to an emotional cause. Putting yourself in the hands of a guru or a guide. Eating at scheduled times and not talking to anyone for hours. All in a dream setting, far from the mundane racket, away from other people and family. Experts from the Salud sin Bulos (Health without Hoaxes) institute, in Spain, warn about the risks of blindly trusting the tantalizing messages of these kinds of retreats, which experience a boom around these dates. According to Salud sin Bulos, an extensive network of collaborators that includes doctors, psychologists, pharmacists and even experts in sects, these organizations “employ methods to recruit vulnerable people and profit from their suffering.” These are practices with no scientific evidence – referred to as pseudotherapies – which in this time of uncertainty, crisis, pandemic and war have found fertile ground.

Not that trying to reconnect with yourself, even if it is your inner child, is negative. Neither are, in essence, some practices such as meditation, reiki or family constellations. However, they do pose some risks that should be taken into account, explains Carlos Sanz, a psychologist who collaborated in the “Christmas without pseudotherapies” report. “Everyone’s spirituality is valid. But they take advantage of legitimate things and make abstract promises. There are people who go to a retreat to meditate and learn more about themselves, but they find other elements mixed in there, like the control of carbohydrates and sleep, long hours of meditation [...] those who participate are being controlled.”

Sanz warns that the festive period is particularly fertile for these retreats. In the last two years, many people experienced traumatic Christmases due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and even if they want to celebrate, they are still grieving. And now they see everything returning to a reality almost like that of 2019. “They feel like they have to be on the same level as other people, and they are not ready. Cognitive dissonance ensues. They think, ‘I see that everyone is happy. I’ll find a way to get rid of my anxiety,’” points out the expert. “Many are unaware of the placebo effect of these types of therapies.”

The report presented by the institute does not seek to cancel these pseudotherapies, but rather ensure that people interested have all the information. Luis Santamaría, a collaborator of the institute and member of the Ibero-American Network for the Study of Sects (RIES), points out that it is very important that people “learn all about the group, what it consists of. And that throughout the activity they are aware of the causes for alarm, such as isolation and control, and to always have someone on the outside to compare and share what they feel, so they can have a second opinion.” The point is that people are well-informed so they can make free decisions and be critical.

One red flag that experts mention is the beginning of isolation. Santamaría explains: “You must pay attention when attendees are warned to keep certain contents and teachings secret. When they start to distance themselves from their family, from their usual environment, an initial strategy of isolation begins in order to achieve greater manipulation.”

Santamaría notes that this type of ritual usually has a healthy and positive appearance under the guise of the “Christmas spirit;” they are no longer the sects of people in robes and mass suicides. Still, “they remain instruments of magical thinking, alienating people and filling the pockets of those who offer them,” he warns. “Retreats have always been common in religious settings. But when you go to a Catholic one, for example, you know the contents, you know that there will be times of prayer, meditation, a Mass... while in these, they talk about a connection with nature, yoga... but the true purpose of many is to study those who attend to see which ones are more prone to indoctrination,” he says.

Some people end up hooked through WhatsApp or face-to-face groups and maintain close contact outside the retreats. Psychologists have detected cases in which people withdraw from their social environment and remain completely isolated; their relatives sometimes contact them to find out what they can do. These groups have multiplied, the experts agree. “Especially those who go along the line of esotericism, spiritual healing, new psychologies and all that, they are growing. We receive a constant trickle of requests for help and information from families that see that a member is being or has already been recruited, and they are very surprised to learn that what might seem like a group of friends is actually a cult. Everything leads to a radical personality change,” points out Santamaría.

The practices that most concern experts are those that have to do with a guide or guru, the so-called “channeling” and bioneuroemotion, which “holds the patients responsible for causing themselves a disease just because of how they felt emotionally,” summarizes Sanz. The guru or facilitator claims to be the channel through which a spirit, a divinity or an ascended master. “Often, these ‘channelers’ end up generating relationships of dependency for their followers, who accept anything they say or do because of their supposed supernatural authority. This is the seed of many different types of abuses,” warns Santamaría.


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