There Was a Bizarro Yoga-Cult Death in the Desert

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Photo: iStockphoto

Perhaps you remember reading, in 2008, a breezy article in the New York Times that described a kooky, blissed-out Buddhist couple of the unreconstructed hippie variety, who had pledged both to never be more than fifteen feet apart from one another, and also to be celibate. "They eat the same foods from the same plate and often read the same book, waiting until one or the other finishes the page before continuing," you may remember reading. Perhaps you thought ha, they're going to kill each other! and flipped idly from the "Home and Garden" section to "Sports" without giving it another thought.

Well, that couple has migrated now to the "National" section: Ian Thorson, the new husband to the female half of the couple, was found dead in the desert this April, apparently from exposure to the elements, with his wife Christie McNally hanging on but dehydrated to the point of delirium. The couple had been kicked out of the nearby Buddhist sanctum where they'd been living as part of a three-year-, three-month-, and three-day-long (!) silent yoga and meditation retreat run by McNally's ex from the NYT profile, Michael Roach. Initiation ceremonies involved "kissing and genital touching" and some sort of Samurai-sword blood-brother situation. There had also been, obviously, a love triangle.

When Ms. McNally and Mr. Thorson left the retreat on Feb. 20, after having participated for one year and one month, she had been its leading teacher. The monk who ran the retreat, Michael Roach, had previously run a diamond business worth tens of millions of dollars and was now promoting Buddhist principles as a path to financial prosperity, raising eyebrows from more traditional Buddhists.

He had described Ms. McNally for a time as his “spiritual partner,” living with him in platonic contemplation. What the other participants did not know is that before she married Mr. Thorson, Ms. McNally had been secretly married to Mr. Roach, in stark violation of the Buddhist tradition to which he belongs.

There's not much detail about how exactly the relationship switcheroo happened, but not all was well in the new marital permutation, either. Before they left the commune, or retreat, or whatever it was, McNally "revealed" (but how!? wasn't this a silent retreat?) that Thorson had been abusive, and that she'd retaliated by stabbing him with a knife that had been a wedding present, at their 2010 wedding in Montauk a month after McNally's divorce from Roach. (In a letter posted online, she said it was a martial-arts accident.)

None of that violence sounds terribly Buddhist, but moving along! To the desert, where the couple went after being kicked out for their less-than-peaceful ways.

[McNally] said they simply were not ready to go back into the world, so they decided to “go camping in the cow-herding land” next to Diamond Mountain “to get our thoughts settled.” When people came looking for them, they clambered uphill, she wrote, to the cave where Mr. Thorson would die. Some of the retreat participants would leave water for them, knowing they were still around. She told the authorities that at some point, she fell ill, he fell ill and they grew too weak to fetch it.

Police don't suspect foul play in his death. We, meanwhile, are chomping at the bit to read about 20,000 words on this, but until that long-form profile emerges, read the whole Times account.


Previously: Yogis Continue to Be Remarkably Contentious for People in Search of Inner Peace