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The death of yoga student Ian Thorson – and the 'wall of meditative silence' that met police

Body of man expelled by Buddhist retreat in Arizona discovered 7,000ft up mountain
  • @guyadams

Police in rural Arizona are investigating the mysterious death of a yoga student who spent two months living in a desert cave after being expelled from a nearby Buddhist retreat, where he had agreed to meditate silently for more than three years.

The body of Ian Thorson, 38, was discovered by rescuers in late April, 7,000ft up a mountain outside the remote town of Bowie, roughly 60 miles east of Tucson. His wife, Christie McNally, 39, was lying nearby, dehydrated and in a critical condition.

They'd ventured into the wilderness after being forced to leave the nearby Diamond Mountain University, a New Age facility where residents forego conversation for three years, three months, and three days in pursuit of spiritual enlightenment.

Like most "courses" at the so-called "university", which has no traditional academic accreditation, Mr Thorson and Ms McNally's silent retreat was run by the institution's leader, a charismatic self-styled "Geshe", or monk, called  Michael Roach, who has written several yoga manuals.

It had begun at the start of 2011. But relations between the university-educated couple and fellow students appear to have started to seriously deteriorate this year. Efforts to establish what occurred are being hampered by the refusal of the 36 remaining individuals on the silent retreat to talk. According to written notes and statements posted on the internet, Mr Thorson and Ms McNally were expelled after a domestic confrontation in which he was stabbed with a samurai sword.

The intrigue has been heightened by revelations that Ms McNally was previously married to Mr Roach. Their relationship was kept secret from students at the University and ended by divorce in September 2010, a month before her wedding to Mr Thorson.

Mr Roach, a former diamond dealer who advocates yoga and meditation as a path to financial prosperity, has uploaded a lengthy statement to Diamond Mountain's website alleging that couple were expelled for "serious incidents of mutual spousal abuse".

He said: "Lama Christie [McNally] described what sounded like repeated physical abuse of herself by her husband, and also an incident in which she had stabbed Ian [Thorson] with a knife, under what she described as a spiritual influence."

Mr Roach did not acknowledge his previous marriage to Ms McNally in the statement. Although they had shared a yurt at the 960-acre retreat in previous years, he had insisted to students that their relationship was platonic and she was his "spiritual partner."

The New York Times yesterday detailed "bizarre initiation ceremonies" at the retreat. An alumnus called Sid Johnson alleged that one ritual involved "kissing and genital touching". Another former student, Ekan Thomason, recalled having blood drawn from her finger by a samurai sword.

In a recent open letter, posted online, Ms McNally said that after being told to quit Diamond Mountain, she and Mr Thorson decided to "go camping in the co-herding land". Their condition began to deteriorate after they contracted a mysterious illness and became unable to collect water, she claimed. Authorities do not suspect foul play in Mr Thorson's death. But the case, which remains open pending a coroner's report, has raised questions about the New Age clinics in Arizona.