Buddhist Yoga Retreat Death Raises Questions on Ariz. Monk's 'Enlightenment' Preaching

PHOTO: A photo of Ian Thorson and Christie McNally taken in spring 2012.
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An Arizona man who was a member of a Buddhist yoga retreat that his family compared to a cult was found dead in a mountain cave in Bowie, Ariz., Tuesday, weeks after being asked to leave the sect with his wife.

When rescuers found 38-year-old Ian Thorson, he was dead, apparently from exposure and dehydration, and his wife, Christie McNally, 39, was delirious.

The two were followers of the controversial spiritual leader Michael Roach, a Princeton-educated Buddhist monk, and they had entered a mysterious descent into darkness in recent weeks that would change their lives forever. In Dec. 2010, Thorson, McNally and about 35 other people hugged their families goodbye and entered into a three-year silent meditation retreat. Thorson's family never saw him alive again.

This strange story starts more than a decade ago when Thorson, then a recent Stanford graduate, found his way into the orbit of the charismatic Roach, who made millions in the diamond business and then became a Buddhist monk.

Thorson's mother Kay and his sister Alexandra said they were immediately suspicious of Roach. Kay Thorson said she believes Roach's group is a cult and that he promised her son "enlightenment in one lifetime," asking for "total dedication" in return.

"He always seemed a little creepy to me," said Alexandra Thorson.

Roach is a highly-trained monk in the same tradition of the Dalai Lama. However, in recent years, the Dalai Lama and other Buddhists have been very critical of Roach's decisions, such as living with women when he was supposed to be celibate, growing out his hair when monks traditionally shave their heads, and building a global following of adoring acolytes.

Under the sway of Michael Roach, Ian Thorson changed dramatically, losing weight and his spirit, his family said.

"He was not his person anymore," Kay Thorson said. "He was a very independent and deep, good thinker before and he was tending to follow the group think, which is what happens gradually in a cultic situation."

"I felt like I lost a brother," Alexandra Thorson said. "He was totally changed. Before he was a frat boy, he was a surfer, he was a partier, he had jobs, he was a student. His focus just changed, I guess, like even his hugs weren't hugs. They were like shells of hugs."

Thorson's family said they called in cult deprogrammers to work with Ian after he had been with Roach's group for several years, but he ultimately returned to Roach.

Then in 2010, Thorson married Christie McNally. It was a tricky romantic decision for him because McNally was formerly Roach's spiritual companion.

"There are so many women, why would you take that one?" Alexandra Thorson said of her brother's relationship with McNally. "That was not, in my opinion, a smart move."

McNally and Roach were profiled in the New York Times, talking about how they lived together in a yurt for years and were never more than 15 feet apart at all times. They said their relationship was platonic, but public records show they were married.

When McNally and Roach later split up, Roach was reported to have been distraught.

In her relationship with Thorson, McNally continued some aspects of the extreme intimacy she had shared with Roach. For starters, she and Thorson wrote a book together about partners yoga.

"Once we do this kind of yoga together, then the next day, when we try to do a series alone, it's really, really lonely," Ian Thorson said in a 2010 video posted on Youtube.

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