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Hollyhock Blends Salt air and Spirituality Lite

The Georgia Straight
Shannon Rupp

Holistic retreat’s soothing massages and welcoming woods make for a blissful rest – just don’t ask too many questions

Cortes Island – A dozen of us are stretched out on the floor like spokes in a wheel, inside a round cedar-log building at Hollyhock, a holistic centre on Cortes Island on the Strait of Georgia about 150 kilometres north of Vancouver. Rain drums on the skylight that crowns the seven-metre-high ceiling while Torkin Wakefield, a 40ish therapist from Colorado, leads us through a relaxation exercise.

We’re assembled in this healing circle for the fall version of Hollyhoock’s biannual Wellness Week. Hollyhock bills itself as a provider of healing holidays, but it might be more accurate to call the business New Age tourism. The 21-hectare site offers a wide range of workshops designed t satisfy the tastes of the human potential move, with seminars titled Tantric Loving: Exploring Sacred Sexuality, Soul Retrieval, and Making a Shamans Drum. But there are also corporate retreats and conferences for Go players, and visitors can enjoy sea kayaking, rowing, hiking, and forest-and-seashore walks with naturalists. The 25 shareholders who own and manage Hollyhock – a for-profit business – are anxious to raise the retreat’s profile so they’ve been inviting journalists to sample Hollyhock’s “magic,” which is how I came to be stretched out on the floor visualizing my body’s flaws.

As any read of Jane Austen’s tales of 18th century Bath will tell you, the wealthy have always congregated in places alleged to have healing properties, and Hollyhock certainly attracts the modern-day North American equivalent of gentry. About 1,800 people visited the retreat during its eight-month spring-to-fall season in 1995, spending from $432 for a getaway weekend (a package that includes a direct seaplane flight from Vancouver harbour to Cortes Island) to $874 for a Wellness Week seminar. The price includes accommodation, meals, and tuition (but not transportation). Guests stay in a whimsical collection of cabins, but the social centre is a large, renovated farmhouse that looks out onto the Strait of Georgia. Even in October, the dining room is bright with natural light, a cheerful fire, and the patina of hardwood floors buffed by thousands of socks. The hum of voices has a high pitch: out of three dozen people attending seminars, only one is a man, and most of the guests appear to fall in the Hollyhock demographic of white, middle-class, well-educated females, aged 30 to 50.

Many are facing serious illness or are drained from caring for others who are sick, and all of us are hoping this holiday will live up to its promise to revitalize us. Doris Bjorkland, a Vancouver nurse who is making her second visit in a year, describes these retreats as tune-ups for body and soul.

“It’s a contemplative time. You can just let all the stressors in your life fade away,” she says.

Most of the dozen participants in my workshop seem enthusiastic about what seminar leader Wakefield calls her smorgasbord approach to wellness. Anyone can call herself a therapist, so her title offers no clue to her background. But she includes smattering of eastern philosophy and Native traditions, with some art therapy, meditation, and massage thrown in for good measure. She makes references to the Goddess and commands us to get in touch with our feminine side.

At the beginning of each session, someone lights candles at the centre of our healing circle; at the end, we finish by saying “Ho!” and a Native prayer that translates as “all my relations” – and allusion to humanity’s connection with the natural world.

I’d call this eclectic combination spirituality lite – some of the taste but none of the substance of a spiritual discipline – but no doubt my fellow participants would admonish me for using my rational mind. (Everyone here seems to think the mind is sliced up like a pie and we use one wedge at a time.)

Given their dislike of rational thought, I’m tempted to ask if they’ve come here hoping to achieve irrational thought, but I have warned-off thinking like a journalist. After 24 hours, I’ve already asked too many nosy questions.

Skepticism notwithstanding, I have to admit that Hollyhock’s fresh air and trees-by-the-sea setting are inherently restful – I haven’t slept so well in years – and the vegetarian food is some of the best I’ve ever eaten. Coming back from an hour-long bodywork session -- a soothing combination of different massage techniques -- I am so blissfully relaxed that I get lost on of the trails that connect the cabins and workshop sites. The delicious humus smell of damp earth is mixed with the salty tang of sea air, and the quiet is as safe and welcoming as an embrace. In the distance, I can hear someone playing a flute, which gives this wood a haunted, supernatural quality that is enhanced by the occasional birdsong. I probably walk about an hour, but it’s hard to tell – time seems to lose its meaning here.

After three days, I’m willing to accept almost everything. After all, my fuzzy-minded new friends are pleasant, they aren’t hurting anyone (except, possibly, themselves) and if New Age thinking fills a niche in their lives, I’m happy for them. It’s probably no worse than taking Prozac, and I suspect it fills a similar need.

But I’m not about to be bullied, and that’s what seminar leader Wakefield (who is also a Hollyhock shareholder) seems to be attempting. We have a chat over a breakfast of fresh fruit, muffins, and whole-grain cereal during which she “shares” her concerns about what I may write. She is having second thoughts about inviting a reporter in their midst and wants me to promise not to write about her workshop.

I point out that I came to Hollyhock – at their invitation – to write about a typical experience, and Wellness Week is often described as one of their most popular offerings. We’re at a stalemate so Wakefield tries a personal attack. She talks about how unhealthy it is for me to identify so strongly with my job and how I need to experience the healing powers of Hollyhock. And she adds, “Anything you write, of course, could have implications for karma.”

I can’t be certain, since Wakefield’s tone is so smooth, her words so even, but I feel I’ve just received my first New Age threat. And as they say here, trust your feelings.

Back in the workshop, I’m still worried about my karma, but I have more pressing problems. The other participants readily come up with the correct response to questions such as, “What did you see when you did a visualization on the health of your body?” My responses, when they surface at all, are suspect, but Wakefield insists I participate. Desperate, I invent some red and yellow stars spilling out of my solar plexus. Like a fortuneteller who has finally cracked a disbeliever, Wakefield pounces on this, telling me it’s my “power chakra” and that I need to have my chakras balanced. Quick to pick up on the idea, one of the other participants comes over to tell me how important this discovery is. She sounds envious. I feel guilty.

By the fourth day, I’ve really got he hang of this listening-to-my-feelings stuff: I’ve dropped out of group therapy. I just couldn’t stand the endless pressure to share. (Before coming to Hollyhock, the only people who thanked me for sharing were being sarcastic; I miss sarcasm.)

But the last straw was when one of the other participants led a chant. I won’t chant. Don’t ask me.

I’m still attending sessions involving yoga, relaxation techniques, and naps. That’s right, we have a group nap. We’re stretched out on the floor in our healing circle, and Wakefield comes around and tucks us in with a blanket before reading us stories. Okay, they’re self-help fables from Chicken Soup is Good for the Soul, but it’s nice to be read to. If the intent is to return us to childhood, it’s quite effective. Actually, it’s more like entering an artificial golden age of childhood in which family neurosis is unheard-of, parents are nurturing, and we never have to spend statutory holidays together.

I assume this artificial feeling of love and acceptance is what people are paying for, but I have to admit I find these get-togethers oppressive. Perhaps the most annoying aspect of Hollyhock is its culture of conformity – Goddess forbid anyone should question anything. After five days here, I’ve found Hollyhock is really two places: the site itself is delightful, but the half-baked spiritual and psychological concepts it peddles make me uneasy.

So the next time I go – and there will be a next time – it will be as a holiday guest rather than a seminar participant. Since most of the accommodations are shared, it would be fun to bring a group of friends, rent a cabin on the beach, and spend the week hiking, kayaking, and picking up facials and massages a la carte -- with no one poking at my psyche.

Of course, I’ll probably have to register under a pseudonym, or there’s no telling what could happen to my karma.

Reporter’s postscript: Hollyhock and its founder Joel Solomon have since gone on to be a force in Vancouver and B.C. politics and media, as detailed in this VanMag piece. 

28 Mar 1996
p. 31