Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Is Russia Ready for Self-help?

hush falls over the large hall as music fills the room. The melody to signal the beginning of training will become familiar over the next few days: Richard Strauss' "Also Sprach Zarathustra" -- more popularly known as the theme from "2001: A Space Odyssey."

A neat, well-dressed, blandly handsome young man strides to the stage and greets his audience of approximately 200.

For the next four hours he lectures, the pace broken by the first exercise:

The hall divides up into partners, who face each other in the "open position" -- feet on the floor, hands at one's sides, close enough for knees to be touching. The partners stare into each others' eyes for 90 seconds, while first one and then the other talks about their goals for Lifespring. Audience members then "share" their impressions and feelings with the entire group.

Vanya, the "trainer," immediately assumes a confrontational manner: "What do you mean you don't know?" he taunts one eager "sharer," who confessed that she could not explain her exact motivation for attending Lifespring. "Who knows, if you don't?" The woman, confused, attempts to sit down, but is hounded until she mumbles an answer that Vanya finds acceptable. He then leads the hall in applause.

The response in the audience was uneasy. "No one will ask questions if this keeps up," murmured one participant.

People trying to leave the room were questioned: "Where are you going? What is wrong?" Some turned back; others, more determined or more desperate, managed to run the phalanx of helpers at the back of the room for a much-needed cigarette or bathroom break.

The session culminated with Vanya's explanation of the nine rules of behavior for the five-day course of training: participants had to promise to complete the course, to be on time, not to talk about others' problems, not to smoke, eat, or chew gum in the hall, not to talk to the people next to them, not to indulge in alcohol or nonprescription drugs during the training, not to take notes or tape the sessions, to wear name tags at all times, and to take care of their health during the course.

Questions were permitted, but answers often added to the confusion.

"What happens if I am late?" asked one woman.

"Do you intend to be late?"

"No, but all sorts of things can happen."

"Asking the question means you can conceive of circumstances that are stronger than you are. Are you not bigger than any circumstances?"

The woman finally acknowledged that she was, indeed, bigger than any circumstances, and was allowed to sit down.

Eventually everyone ran out of questions, or the courage to ask them, and participants were told to stand to signal their acceptance of the rules. Those who remained seated were asked to leave.

"Now," said Vanya, "the training can begin."


Lifespring is an American transplant, the brainchild of John Hanley, 48, a self-help entrepreneur who started the company in 1974 and has since become a very wealthy man.

It is billed by its devotees as a life-transforming experience that will help a person shed the burdens of the past, actualize untapped energy resources and attain undreamed-of heights.

Its opponents call it "brainwashing," a dangerous cult that turns its followers into robots.

"We are offering you a way of life," Vanya tells the group. "Lifespring can transform the world." Transformation does not come cheap, however. In Moscow, the Basic Course costs $170, and the Advanced Course, $350. While the prices are lower than in the United States, where the courses cost $400 and $900 respectively, they are astronomical for Russia, where the average wage is just over $100 per month.

The basic program is rigorous, lasting approximately 12 hours a day for three days, with a follow-up session a day or two later. Lectures are interspersed with partner exercises, and closed-eye, or guided-imagery, exercises, where participants are soothed into a trancelike state and brought back to their childhood.

Emotions run high: sobbing, elation, even physical violence is common, as participants are encouraged to "feel" instead of "think," to act "from the heart, not the head."

Graduates of Lifespring's Basic Course typically describe the training as one of the most valuable experiences of their lives.

"They were the happiest days of my life," said Marina Krupinina, now training coordinator for Lifespring's Moscow center. "If I had not gone through Lifespring, I would still be living at less than 100 percent, just putting in my time until my pension."

Marina Kukuliyeva, a psychiatrist who went through Basic Training in 1993, was similarly positive: "I never expected it would have such an effect on me," she said. "I tried to maintain my professional objectivity, but I could not." Kukuliyeva said she would recommend Lifespring for all of her patients except those who are severely psychotic, and therefore might disrupt the proceedings.

But American specialists who have dealt with the less positive aspects of Lifespring tell a different story.

"They tell you, 'Come to us and life will be wonderful,'" says Kent Burtner, a counselor for the Cult Resource Center in Portland, Oregon. The center provides information and referrals for people who feel they have been harmed by groups like Lifespring.

"But Lifespring has an unacceptably high number of casualties," continues Burtner. "Some people go into long-term depression, and there have been cases when people who have gone through Lifespring have had to be hospitalized. People have even died during or immediately after the training."

In one prominent case, in 1979, a young woman, Gail Renick, who had severe asthma, went into a coma during a Lifespring training course, and later died. Press reports stated that she was denied treatment for her condition, and was criticized for disrupting the training.

The woman's relatives sued, and Lifespring reportedly settled out of court.

Such cases, though rare, have troubled Lifespring from the beginning. Since its inception in 1974, the company has been sued approximately 55 times, according to Margaret Singer, a retired professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley. Most of the suits involve personal injury claims, she said, from people who were functioning perfectly well before Lifespring training but who required hospitalization or psychiatric care afterward.

In a 1984 suit against Lifespring, a young woman was awarded $800,000 in damages for psychological harm sustained during the training. According to press reports at the time, Deborah Bingham, who had no prior history of psychological problems, was hospitalized for one month following the Advanced Course, and had severe psychological troubles for years afterward.

"Lifespring claims that it is an educational program, but does not tell people how intense the psychological impact of the various exercises is," said Singer.

She has testified against Lifespring in many of the court cases against it. According to Singer's figures, Lifespring has settled the majority of cases -- 43 or 44 -- out of court. Of the cases that have come to trial, Lifespring has won only two, she said.

Lifespring's History

The background of Lifespring's founder, John Hanley, is as controversial as is his movement. He is, as The Washington Post reported in 1987, a convicted felon, found guilty of six counts of mail fraud in 1969.

He is also a product of the Leadership Dynamics Institute, a training program that has been described as forcing students to undergo bizarre and brutal practices in order to face their fears. A fellow graduate, Werner Erhardt, also became a self-help guru, going on to found the controversial EST movement.

The Lifespring movement, despite its legal troubles, has been enormously popular in the United States. It has trained approximately 500,000 people over the past 20 years, according to literature published by the company.

Now it is expanding into Russia.

The idea for a Russian Lifespring center arose during a 1987 river trip in Siberia, according to Candice Hanley, John's wife and head of the Lifespring Foundation, a nonprofit arm of Lifespring, Inc.

"It was during Project Raft, which was funded in part by the Lifespring Foundation," she recounts. "One of the Russian participants looked at me one night when we were sitting around the campfire and said, 'I want you to bring your work here.'"

The Lifespring Foundation agreed to sponsor a Russian center, and two years later Lifespring ran its first basic training in Moscow, with approximately 150 participants.

It was, says Candice Hanley, a big success.

"Russia is a country in transition," she says. "This course gives people an opportunity to look at choices, at possibilities. It gives them the chance to find the freedom in each of us."

Lifespring has caught on in Russia; according to Hanley, there is constant demand for more services."The Moscow center is just now starting to bring in a profit," she said. "The Lifespring Foundation has over $250,000 invested in Moscow. Right now about 75 percent of the money brought in stays in Russia, with the other 25 percent going back to the head office."

Over the past five years Lifespring has trained over 5,000 people in Russia and the former Soviet Union, according to Svetlana Chumakova, director of the Moscow Center. There are now centers in St. Petersburg, Riga, Odessa, Yekaterinburg and Naberezhnye Chelny, and plans are being developed to extend the program even further.

The Moscow center also runs various workshops and is now expanding into schools, in a program known as "Partners in Education." Billed as "humanitarian aid" by Lifespring trainers, the program is offered to the schools in Russia for a nominal sum.

So far there has been only one running of the "Partners" program in Moscow, but Chumakova says there are plans for further expansion. The program has been run successfully in the United States, said Candice Hanley.

But Berkeley's Margaret Singer tells a different story.

"There has been tremendous resistance to putting Lifespring into the schools in the United States," she said. "Educators are starting to look into the philosophy, into what is under all the hype."

What exactly is "under all the hype" is a question that specialists have been asking for two decades.

"Lifespring is a dangerous movement," says Kevin Garvey, who has spent the past 20 years counseling people who have problems stemming from Lifespring and similar programs. "It is imposing theological and mystical concepts that people are prepared to embrace because of the psychological techniques used."

Lifespring is not education, Garvey insists. "It is a religion, it is political movement, and it is certainly a cult." Cynthia Kisser, director of the Cult Awareness Network, in Chicago, says that the network receives regular complaints -- about six calls a month -- about Lifespring.

Morton Lieberman, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California at San Francisco, is a champion of Lifespring. In a 1985 study sponsored by Lifespring, Inc., Lieberman found there was no evidence of psychiatric harm from Lifespring courses, and that subjects showed statistically significant improvements in self-confidence and self-esteem, and lowered job stress.

"In our careful studies of risk," he said in a recent telephone interview, "we did not find evidence of psychological damage. We did find positive benefits. People felt that they were different."

The Russia angle

The Lifespring program has been carried over to Russia virtually unchanged. "We knew we had a good product," says Candice Hanley.

Lieberman accompanied Hanley to the first training in Moscow.

"I was impressed by the response," he says. "Russians seem to have a problem with individual responsibility -- issues that Lifespring addresses."

So far there do not seem to be any reports of Lifespring casualties in Russia. There are no counseling centers for Lifespring victims, and the program has not attracted the negative exposure in the press that it has in the West.

Chumakova insists that no one who has completed the Basic Course has ever been dissatisfied.

The secret to Lifespring's success seems to be its enrollment policy: Participants are usually brought to the training by friends or family members. Once they complete the Basic Course, students are pressured by trainers to go on to Advanced.

From there they are channeled into the Leadership Program, one of the main goals of which is to encourage participants to enroll others in the Basic Course -- and so it continues, in ever widening circles.

"It is a very hypocritical approach," says Burtner. "One of the come-ons Lifespring uses is that it will help you communicate with others. But what it really does is cut people off; they cannot talk to anyone who has not been though the program."

On the last evening of the Basic Course, people grabbed the microphone over and over to say that they would do everything possible to get their spouses, children, friends and co-workers to go through the course.

"We have our own language now," said one man, to loud applause. "My wife will never understand."

Self-Help as Pathology

On Day Two of the training, several participants come in late. They are forced to stand, and Vanya, the trainer, roams the room, thrusting the microphone into people's hands.

"So what was more important than your word?" he asked a timid young woman. "What was so important that you were willing to sell your word, to stomp it into the ground?"

"My mother became ill," the woman began.

"I am asking about you, not your mother!" thunders Vanya.

"I had to get her some medicine," the woman pleaded.

"If your mother were here on this stage, and I had a gun to her head, and I told you I would pull the trigger if you were not here at 10:00, you would be here, wouldn't you?" he asks.

The woman refuses to submit.

"I would if it were physically possible."

"You'd be here, wouldn't you?" he bellows.

Cowed, she nods. He makes her promise to keep her word in the future, and she sits.

The second evening of the Lifespring Basic Course culminates in the "hug line," in which the group breaks into two rows facing each other. Vanya demonstrates proper technique: The Lifespring hug is a full-body, "peepee-to-peepee" maneuver.

As music plays and Vanya talks, participants must make eye contact and "vote" on whether they want to embrace. Most do. Then Vanya calls for everyone to step to the left, and repeat the process with another partner.

The embracing continues for almost 90 minutes, by the end of which nearly everyone is in tears.

The benefits appear to be short-lived. A few weeks after the training, the effects begin to wear off for participants who do not undertake further training.

"It's already starting to pass," sighed Nadya, a young woman who came to Lifespring to improve her relationship with her husband. She did say that she felt she had changed for the better, and that even strangers had noticed the transformation.

Asked how her home life was developing, she sighed again.

"It's just more conflict," she said. "My husband just cannot understand what it's all about."