A Quest for Peace of Mind, Body and Spirit

ST. JOHN, U.S. VIRGIN ISLANDS — She’s drinking pink rum punch. The sailboat lights are twinkling and the steel-drum band is clinking. Alison Leeds, 38, a full-time mother on an anniversary getaway, came to listen to the waves and to unwind.

“Your phone,” says Robert, 43, her hedge-fund husband, in a voice that’s tight. Their kids, 5 and 8, were calling from New York. It was bedtime. Could their parents please come home?

Relaxation is elusive for Robert and Alison, which is why they’ve hired a shaman. Shamans believe in healing people by balancing their spirits with their bodies and minds. They practice an ancient art that is enjoying a new vogue. Once limited to places such as the rainforests of Australia and the tundras of Siberia, shamans now cater to aging boomers and the urban spa class.

“I’m not –” Robert says, “what’s the word?”

“Human?” his wife says.

“I’m fairly cynical.”

“You’re not what I would describe as introspective,” Alison says. In fact, she had described him as “your total, banking-in-New York, totally-wound-up, not-introspective person.”

Yet, there was Robert, climbing a dirt path overlooking Honeymoon Beach, treading past the sign “SILENCE PLEASE,” to the Self Centre at Caneel Bay. Rob had signed up for a $150, 75-minute session called “Shamanic Healing.” Alison had tried it, and he was intrigued. The ad said: If you feel drained, low energy, lack of focus or confusion, a Shamanic healer can help you retrieve your life essence. Robert had heard that shamans communicate with spirits. He thought it was “hogwash.”

The shaman, wearing Tibetan beads carved from yak bone, greets clients with an unhurried hug. His name is Larry Ford and when he isn’t in a trance or in a sacred state of consciousness, he works as CEO of his own investment and financial services firm. He worked on Wall Street until he discovered healing power in his hands.

“I denied it for a while,” says Ford, 43, a six-foot, athletic blond, who had a wife, two children and lived in Connecticut. “I didn’t ask for this strange gift. It certainly doesn’t pay the bonuses of Wall Street.” But the energy in his palms bubbled through his skin, he said. Welts appeared in a circle. “I finally just surrendered.”

Ford got a divorce. He studied energy medicine and moved to Caneel Bay to work at the Rosewood Resort. “All the things I thought were crazy — I realized have been around thousands of years. They’re just misconstrued by our culture.”

Last summer, Ford trained in Nepal with Ama Bombo, a female shaman who pulled patients’ hair and kicked away evil spirits. Under a full moon, Ford danced through the village wearing peacock feathers on his head. He adopted Kali, the Hindu goddess, as his deity. “Kali is one mean chick,” Ford says, pointing to a Tibetan mirror. He uses the mirror in a ritual to trade his soul for hers.

To start a session, Ford picks up a conch shell and blows it like a trumpet. Tears flow from his eyes. Some shamans enter altered states by drumming, fasting or taking psychotropic drugs. Ford says he opens his heart so “the souls can shake hands.” The client lies in a hut painted ocean-mist green, listening to the finches chirp and the liquid rustle of leaves.

“I help people find — and live — their life’s purpose,” Ford says.

Part medicine man, part masseur, Ford places a rose quartz on a client’s heart, burns sage, sprays lemon-grass essence on a clear crystal and places it on a client’s head. The rituals are meant to heal energy imbalances.

In Robert’s case, Ford told him he had a lot of energy but that it was trapped in his neck and his shoulders. “He tried to pull the energy down into my body,” Robert says, by tugging on his ankles.

Almost half of his clients are men, Ford says, “top guys on Wall Street, multimillionaires.” Robert asked: “How does my energy compare?”

“I’m not here to be judgmental,” Ford solemnly replied.

It’s all in a day’s work: Ford contacts the soul of a woman’s lost child. Another client experiences such psychic cleansing, he throws up. A third, “the quintessential Euro-male, who hadn’t cried in 15 years, was sobbing like a baby for half an hour because his father’s soul was there.”

Robert’s wife, Alison, says it felt like psychotherapy. “There’s a loving part of you that you don’t always trust,” Ford told her.

People are drawn to shamanic healing, says Jan Kinder, 51, the center’s founder, because, “they did the home, family and career. ‘Now what about me? Who am I?’ ” Shamanism is one of the center’s offerings, along with “Tuning the Body,” for which Kinder sticks a vibrating tuning fork between vertebrae.

“It chills me out right away,” says Marian Kraff, 40, a psychologist on vacation from Bethesda.

Alison opts for another shamanic session. She emerges from the hut, her cheeks flushed, her brown eyes so bright they verge on gold.

“Rocked out,” she says with a detached smile.

Alison knows some people think it’s flaky. “I’ll go back and tell my friends. And they’ll say –” she rolls her eyes. ” ‘Jesus Christ, what is she doing now?’ But I feel empowered. I feel so good right now.”

She heads off to snorkel at Honeymoon Beach. Another round of pink rum punch?

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