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When it comes to alternative medicine, I place myself squarely in the camp of scientific-evidence-based skeptics. Over the years, I've tried acupuncture and visited a chiropractor a few times. Eventually, I concluded that the results were felt most acutely in my checking account.
Similarly, I've never warmed to "energy healing," especially those disciplines that freely intermingle medical and pseudoscientific terminology, e.g., "electromagnetic meridians," "biofields" and "quantum energy." I'm as curious as any science nerd about string theory and particle physics. I'm just not convinced that anyone can use them to recalibrate my qi.
Still, when I received an invitation from Wendy Halley, owner of Lucid Path Wellness in Montpelier, to test-drive her "Life Vessel," I was game. Having already reported on sensory deprivation tanks, smartphone-based placebos and healing tuning forks, I'll try anything once. Especially if it's noninvasive, painless and free.
When I arrived at Halley's State Street office, she wasn't draped in the New Age trappings one might expect from her online bio, which describes her 20 years as a clinical psychotherapist and shamanic healer. In fact, when I stepped into her waiting room, she was cleaning a motorcycle spark plug.
"Can you tell if this thing is shot?" she asked abruptly, holding it up for my perusal. I'd read Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in my twenties but pled ignorance on the finer points of both Buddhism and small-engine repair.
The Life Vessel, I learned later, was invented in 1998 by Barry McNew, a former horse breeder with no medical or scientific training. According to Todd Strane of Life Vessel Advanced Wellness, the San Juan Capistrano, Calif., company now licensed to manufacture and sell the vessels — at $89,000 apiece — the patented technology is designed to "assist the body with its innate abilities to self-regulate and self-heal."
As Strane explained by phone, the vessel induces natural relaxation states that alter everything from your brain waves to your autonomic functions, thus allowing your body to "rebalance and detoxify" itself.
"In layman's terms," he added, "it's almost like a forced state of meditation."
Similarly, Halley described the Life Vessel experience as "mega-sleep in a really condensed period of time."
Halley, a New York native who served four years in the Air Force before entering the healing arts, saw an interview with the inventor of the Life Vessel in September 2013. Intrigued, she searched for a Life Vessel in Vermont but couldn't find one.
"Within 48 hours of watching that interview," she recalled, "I had my flight to Colorado booked and my session [in a Life Vessel] scheduled, which happened to be the closest one to us at the time."
Halley claimed she experienced both physical and psychological effects from her sessions, including the off-gassing of bodily toxins, a reduction in allergic reactions, and the elimination of longtime infections in her tonsils and sinuses.
"I have never been as altered as I have been in the Life Vessel," she said. "It was profound right off the bat."
Halley purchased her own vessel in October 2014 and now operates one of just 16 Life Vessel centers nationwide, according to Strane. People have come to her with a variety of health and relaxation goals. Some seek relief from symptoms related to cancer, Parkinson's and Lyme disease. Others are longtime meditators or consciousness-expanding thrill seekers. According to Halley, several of the latter compared their experience in the vessel to ingesting the powerful hallucinogen ayahuasca, "minus the vomiting."
"I pretty much say, 'I have no idea what's going to happen for you,'" she said when I asked her what to expect. "When your body gets a chance to heal itself, it does some pretty amazing things, but I don't make any claims or guarantees."
Halley walked me into the dimly lit back room where her Life Vessel resides. Basically, it's a horizontal pine box about the size and shape of a tanning bed, with a thin mattress pad inside but no pillow. At one end is a high-end digital sound system that pipes music through a series of speakers lining the vessel's walls.
As in a tanning bed, the occupant lies inside, face up. Inside the lid, directly over the occupant's face, hangs a single multicolored light bulb surrounded by six mirrors. Although the original, U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved Life Vessel contained an infrared lamp, this model features a normal, rainbow-colored incandescent bulb, which likely explains the snarky moniker one online skeptic gave it: "disco coffin."
The FDA certified the Life Vessel as a "medical product" that "provides sound and light for a form of relaxation therapy" — a description that would seem to apply equally well to my television set/bong/La-Z-Boy combo.
Before climbing aboard, I asked Halley if there were any contraindications to using the Life Vessel. She said she doesn't recommend its use for patients with congestive heart failure, because users are advised to drink at least a gallon of water per day for three days after each session. (Four sessions in the Life Vessel normally cost $355, and a single session is $95; "summer wellness special" prices are $295 and $75, respectively.)
Otherwise, Halley insisted that the Life Vessel is safe for any age or medical condition. I could wear any clothing I preferred inside, but no metal, jewelry or belts. Metal objects inside my body, such as surgical rods, screws and plates, were OK. Lying down, I realized that my jeans had metal rivets, but since this wasn't an MRI machine, I figured, What could go awry?
Finally, I asked how the music was selected.
"The inventor hasn't revealed why he chose the music he's chosen," Halley explained, and clarified that the rhythms aren't the kind meant to entrain your brain waves to specific frequencies. "The music is meant to be therapeutic, so if you don't like it, sorry," she said.
As I reclined for my chakra-shocking hour in the surround-sound sauna, Halley lowered the lid, closed the side hatch and turned on the tunes. I soon heard a mix of relaxing and ethereal melodies — tinkling piano keys, jingling wind chimes, noodling pan flutes, blowing breeze — that I could feel reverberating through my body.
I had expected the colored bulb over my face to flash, spin or change colors, but it remained steady throughout the session. Nevertheless, my breathing slowed as I drifted off into a meditative state. At one point, I caught myself snoring.
Researching the Life Vessel later, I understood why the FDA had weighed in on its therapeutic value. The testimonials on the official lifevessel.com website, many of which are anonymous, will raise eyebrows among medical professionals. Several users claim it relieved symptoms related to lupus, multiple sclerosis, migraines, Parkinson's, PTSD, depression, infertility and anxiety, among other ailments.
One woman, the mother of 16- and 18-year-old daughters, asserts that the Life Vessel greatly relieved one daughter's attention deficit disorder and the other's asthma — plus, it made her warts go away. Another mother says her autistic son's behavior and communication skills improved.
Yet another user, from Newport Beach, Calif., claims he's "cancer-free" and owes his physical well-being to the vessel. "I know the Life Vessel didn't cure my cancer," he clarifies, "but I wouldn't be here today without it."
Strane acknowledges that some testimonials were problematic enough for the Life Vessel's manufacturer that they had to be removed or edited, given that making unproven medical claims will quickly draw the attention of federal regulators. Indeed, the Life Vessel homepage includes a disclaimer stating that claims made there "are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease or illness" and that sessions in the Life Vessel "are not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment."
"Sometimes there are misperceptions and miscommunications," Strane told me. "We try really hard to make sure everybody follows the letter of the law when trying to attempt to explain the Life Vessel."
Couldn't people just as easily lie down on a couch, drop in a CD of Windham Hill classics, turn their stereo up to 11 and get similar results?
"Quite honestly, I've said to people before, 'If you're a good meditator, you don't need the Life Vessel,'" Strane said. "But only one in a thousand people are good meditators."
Personally, I emerged from the vessel feeling rested, refreshed, hungry and slightly buzzed. Though Halley had warned that I might experience minor discomfort at old surgical sites, I felt none. Then again, I once fell asleep during a CT scan.
When my session was complete, Halley handed me a cup of unsweetened electrolytes to replenish those I'd lost during my vibraphonic nap.
"You don't realize it," she said, "but your body is working really hard right now."
Overall, my trip in the Life Vessel was calming and meditative. I communed with no spirit animals, but I didn't vomit, either. And Halley was right when she said, "It's such an intense dose of relaxation that your body gets to do a lot of stuff it ordinarily doesn't get to do." Such as lie flat on its back, listening to music, on a workday.
I can think of far worse ways to spend an hour in Montpelier, especially when the legislature is in session.
The original print version of this article was headlined "Bliss in a Box"