ČELADNÁ, Czech Republic—The Beskid Rehabilitation Center sits on a rolling plot of land in the boomerang-shaped Beskid mountain range, a stretch of the Carpathians reaching from the Czech Republic across Poland and Slovakia, fading into western Ukraine and the Transylvanian Alps. Full of “alternative” therapies, the BRC is the kind of place you might visit if you were feeling fine, but wanted to feel great, or if you were suffering from a low-level chronic ailment that standard Western medicine had failed to resolve. There’s a cryotherapy chamber kept at a brisk -184 degrees Fahrenheit. There’s an open-air “healing pyramid,” a bare-bones wooden-beam structure said to have healing properties. (“Research shows that pyramid energy, thanks to its deeply relaxing effects, harmonizes the psyche,” the website alleges.) And famously, there’s Vila Mátma, or “My Darkness Villa,” where clients spend seven days or longer alone and in complete absence of light.
Many modern-day practitioners of what Czechs now call terapie tmou, or “darkness therapy,” point to a 49-day Tibetan retreat called yang-ti as its most important forebear. In the modern West, the therapy was promulgated in the 1960s by the German anthropologist Holger Kalweit as Dunkeltherapie (literally: “dark therapy”). The concept has particularly taken hold in the Czech Republic, where darkness-therapy centers now can be found across the country to serve a population of just 10.6 million, according to Marek Malůš, a psychologist who researches the technique. Staff at the best-known of these centers, the Vila Mátma at the BRC, say that prospective clientele will now spend two years on its waiting list. On its website, the BRC alleges that darkness therapy is “very effective” in preventing “lifestyle diseases,” including cancer and metabolic disorders, and that it sharpens the senses, stimulates creativity, and most notably, “regenerates the psyche.”
There’s not much to do in the dark, at Vila Mátma or any other darkness-therapy center. And that’s more or less the point. Depending on the facility, clients sleep, exercise, and meditate. They eat and bathe in the dark. They sometimes write, draw, sculpt, or play an instrument, all in total darkness. Without access to their phones or to the internet—or even to a clock or calendar—they tend to spend a lot of time alone with their thoughts, and on occasion chatting with a therapist or “guardian.” Not infrequently, clients report intense audiovisual experiences, most likely vivid dreams or hypnagogic imagery (the sort of micro-dreams you experience in between wakefulness and sleep), which can be pleasantly mind-expanding or downright terrifying. At the BRC, the procedure costs 2,000 Czech koruna a day, or just under $100, and patients must reserve the one-person facility for a minimum of a week at a time.
Malůš, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Ostrava’s Faculty of Arts, considers darkness therapy a variation of restricted environmental stimulation therapy (REST), the procedure once known as sensory deprivation. (The technique got a rebrand in the early 1980s in order to shake a pervasive association with torture and brainwashing.) REST is commonly classified into two categories: flotation REST, familiar to a mass audience thanks to the emergence of commercial saline flotation tanks, and chamber REST, in which a subject usually lies alone on a bed in a dark, quiet room for 24 to 48 hours. In studies, flotation REST has been linked to a host of psychological and physiological benefits, from elevated mood to reduced stress to improved athletic ability and increased creativity, and chamber REST has been linked in a handful of studies to successful habit modification.
Malůš invited Peter Suedfeld, a pioneer of REST research, to visit a few of the facilities in Central Europe several years ago, and the two recently collaborated on a chapter for a book. As Suedfeld explains, however, the extended length of time that people spend in darkness therapy and the fact that they can move freely about the chamber and communicate with therapists make it a markedly different procedure than the one he studied, in which subjects were left in complete isolation. He says he urged Malůš and his colleagues to perform more research, an entreaty he repeated to me over the phone. “I think it’s very interesting,” he said of darkness therapy, “and I wish people would collect data so we know exactly what the effects are.”
I paid a visit to the Beskids on a balmy afternoon this April, to speak with darkness therapy’s proponents and to spend a night in the chamber myself. In his emails prior to our meeting, as well as in person at the BRC, Andrew Alois Urbiš, who runs Vila Mátma, took pains to distinguish himself as a medical professional and to emphasize the villa as an operation run by a team of accredited physicians, rather than the kind of amateurish moneymaking venture he said he sees across the country. Urbiš’s office, however, also indicates an omnivorous appetite for alternative therapies and mystical disciplines: Photos in the entrance hall show him in the BRC cryotherapy chamber and alongside a man he met in Christchurch, New Zealand, whom he calls a “wizard.” A collection of statues behind his desk includes a figurine labeled with acupuncture points and a dark-green statue with a giant phallus. A manual for Vila Mátma staff requires that guardians should have “extensive theoretical knowledge” of a long list of unscientific practices and beliefs, including “basic cosmic laws,” books of the dead, dreaming techniques, quantum mind, shamanism, and fairy tales.
Even in the Czech Republic, where this therapy is particularly popular, few doctors will prescribe their patients a stay at the villa. “In a way, they’re not very inclined toward us, they don’t like us much,” Urbiš says of the greater Czech medical community, “because physicians prefer those chemicals, you know, that medication. But on the other hand, there’s a string of doctors who come here and stay repeatedly.”
Whatever ails you, it seems there’s someone to claim that darkness therapy will cure it. One client suffered from a “very unpleasant” patch of nasal eczema for 20 years, Urbiš alleged, before a week in Vila Mátma supposedly cleared it up. Urbiš’s friend and sometime assistant Karel Černin told me that it was darkness that ultimately relieved him of an infection that several rounds of antibiotics had failed to knock out. And Urbiš himself says that his 50 consecutive days in the villa left him with improved sensory perception. “I started to hear better, my memory was significantly improved, I began to better manage various stressful situations,” he said. His pace of life has slowed down, he said, but his productivity has increased. “And as you can see,” he added, “I was rejuvenated.” (With no basis for comparison, I can confirm that, for a 71-year-old, he seems quite spry.)
There’s also a theory held by Urbiš and others within the community that spending an extended period of time in darkness will raise an individual’s levels of the hormone melatonin, which is linked to sleep regulation and a host of other physiological processes, including cardiovascular functioning, reproductive cycles, and the development of cancer. Malůš and his colleague Pavol Švorc are currently co-piloting a study at the Darkness Therapy Center in Kozlovice, another small town in the Beskids, to measure the effects of the procedure on melatonin and cortisol secretion, the results of which they hope to publish this fall.
Exposure to artificial light at night does indeed suppress the production of melatonin—a consequence of modern life that could, in theory, be avoided during darkness therapy. Existing research into REST procedures, however, shows no evidence to back up the notion that prolonged light restriction boosts the amount of melatonin that the pineal gland might otherwise secrete. For Švorc, the known unknowns in this field of research present an opportunity: “The funny thing is, we don’t know what should we expect,” he says. “Maybe there will be some changes in [melatonin and cortisol] production dynamics, or maybe there will be some changes in the concentrations. We don’t really know because no one did [darkness-therapy] research before."
David Blask, the head of the Laboratory of Chrono-Neuroendocrine Oncology at Tulane University School of Medicine, says the notion that exposure to darkness outside of nighttime could raise melatonin levels is “simply not true.” The internal clock that regulates melatonin rhythm runs autonomously without the need for alternating light and dark, although melatonin secretion can be suppressed by light exposure, and light and dark can synchronize that clock, Blask says. Spending time in total darkness won’t boost the amount of hormone produced by the pineal gland; it will only desynchronize the timing of secretion, so that people who come out of the procedure may experience its peak later or earlier in the day than they would otherwise. “You effectively are having a free-running [unsynchronized] melatonin rhythm, which is not healthy for you” in the long run, Blask says.
The chronobiologist Debra Skene, who studies circadian-rhythm sleep disorders in the blind at the University of Surrey, says that there’s no evidence that blind people produce any more melatonin than sighted people. “The only thing you could say is that when we sleep in our bedrooms, or when we get up to go to the toilet at night, [sighted people] are exposed to artificial light, and we know that that light can suppress your melatonin,” Skene explains. For that reason, people in darkness therapy may produce more melatonin than individuals in their own homes. “But I wouldn’t be putting my money on thinking that the little bit of extra melatonin you get there is really going to have huge health benefits,” Skene says.
In his office at the BRC, Urbiš explained that he needed to put me through a couple of tests to make sure I was fit for the darkness. He pulled up an image of eight different-colored squares on his computer screen and asked me to rank them in order of preference, a test he told me he had devised himself based on Chinese medicine. The results were unfavorable, if not exactly shocking: I work too much, Urbiš said, and I don’t take good enough care of myself. He then showed me a new set of squares, and, though I was careful to choose differently this time, things seemed to go from bad to worse. A pie chart on the screen showed that about 60 percent of my “energy” was consumed by stress (I have “very bad energy business,” Urbiš noted in English). Worse, something traumatic happened in my childhood, or perhaps in utero, that I still hadn’t processed, he said.
Then Urbiš looked at my palm. Was I angry a lot, he wanted to know? I didn’t think so, but Urbiš said my liver was on overdrive, probably working to process all my emotions. He pushed a pen-like instrument into my hand to read the flow of energy along the acupuncture meridians in my body. My living situation was unfavorable. My diet was out of balance. I ate the wrong thing for breakfast. This information was all gathered in order to find out whether I was fit for the villa, so I was surprised when, quite suddenly, Urbiš announced, “So! That would be good. We’ll go to the dark.”
And off we went to the dark.
Not surprisingly, the freestanding Villa Mátma is a no-frills kind of place, but it’s also perfectly cozy. Clients enter the building through a small kitchen area, outfitted with a sink and a shelf where fruit, bottled water, and a hot meal are kept for the client to consume at will. This first room is sealed off from the light by a double set of doors; once a day or so, when a staff member or guardian enters the space bringing fresh food or to visit the client, they ring a bell to alert them to retreat to the main chamber. Inside is a twin bed, a recliner, and an elliptical machine. There’s also a desk, stocked with paper, colored pencils, and a lump of clay. (Urbiš keeps a couple of sculptures made by clients in the darkness in his office.) A narrow hallway leads to a closet, including a lockbox for electronics, a toilet, and a washroom.
A week of sensory restriction, it may go without saying, isn’t for everyone. Vila Mátma’s prospective clientele receive a fairly lengthy list of contraindications, including epilepsy, claustrophobia, and severe hypertension. Some providers are particularly cautious not to admit individuals with a history of psychiatric illnesses. I went in with no medical complaints, but I did carry with me a history of depression and anxiety, which for some providers could disqualify me from the procedure. Suedfeld told me that over the course of his research, he found that only depressed subjects responded poorly to chamber REST. “If I were running a commercial enterprise or a therapeutic enterprise, I would make sure that before people go into this environment they’re in a good mood,” Suedfeld said. “Because to some extent I think the environment is a mood enhancer: Whatever mood you go in with, it will strengthen it.”
Malůš has studied the psychological consequences of darkness therapy since 2011, when it became the subject of his Ph.D. dissertation. Now he oversees University of Ostrava research performed at the commercial Darkness Therapy Center in Kozlovice. His work has indicated that people who undergo the procedure come out of the chamber with significantly lower self-reported levels of depression and anxiety than before the week of REST. But Malůš sees particular promise in the use of darkness therapy as an aid for psychotherapy. “In this condition, the mind is much [calmer],” Malůš explained. “You can concentrate more, you can consider almost everything more clearly.” He said he believes that the unconscious mind can be revealed “spontaneously” in the dark.
According to several people I spoke to who had been through the procedure, it takes a few days to get properly oriented—or disoriented, as it may be—to the dark. Malůš says that on their first day, clients can generally estimate how much time they’ve spent in the chamber, but after going to sleep and waking up for the first time, night and day become indistinguishable. This can be one of the most distressing phases of darkness therapy, Malůš says, and it’s one of the reasons that centers like Vila Mátma ensure someone is available via intercom 24 hours a day to talk to clients.
I wasn’t in the villa long enough to lose track of time completely, but I did stay long enough to feel bored, and then anxious, and then uncomfortably alone with my thought processes. Urbiš and his team brought me into the villa at around 6 in the evening and gave me a tour of the space with the lights on. After a brief test run, they switched off the lights for good and left me until the morning. At first, the darkness felt like a minor annoyance—I kept catching myself reaching out for a light switch, just for an instant, every time I moved from room to room. But I appreciated the chance to zen out, without the burden of email or the torment of the news. I had a nice session on the elliptical, ate the meal that was left for me (rice, carrots, soy sausage) and sang to myself to fill the silence. A Polish friend had recently taught me to make pierogi, and I folded a pile of little dumplings with the clay on the desk.
But moving about the lightproof space came to make me feel vulnerable and fearful, and the darkness itself soon struck me as somewhat sinister. With little else to capture its attention, my mind went to places I normally wouldn’t allow it the time or space to go—what (and who) wasn’t working in my life, what role I was playing in maintaining my own dissatisfaction, how seldom I was willing to go after what I really wanted. Hugging my knees to my chest in the recliner, I got choked up; before I knew it, I was weeping. And then, because there was nothing else to do, I got into bed and waited until the darkness of sleep overtook the darkness of the room.
At 7 the next morning, Urbiš, his assistant Martina Vortelová, Malůš, and Karel Černin opened the door to the villa and called me back to consciousness and into the light. All important life events are celebrated with a meal, Urbiš had told me, so all darkness therapy stays end with a breakfast with the team. Over coffee in the dining room of the BRC, they discussed funding possibilities for the construction of a second villa on the premises and a new raw-food regimen Urbiš wanted to create for clients. And back in his office, Urbiš presented me with a few souvenirs he gives to all his clientele: a certificate confirming my stay, a Vila Mátma refrigerator magnet, and an empty aluminum can. Contents: “Čeladná darkness.”
It wasn’t until later, in the psych department at Ostrava University, that I told Malůš how intense my brief experience had been. In the dark (and with my iPhone under lock and key) it was easy to see how the mind could make worthwhile connections in the absence of distraction—and also possibly drive a person mad.
Malůš told me about a student who took part in one of his studies, a high achiever who exhibited no signs of instability prior to entering the chamber. At first, he began to have what Malůš called “semi-hallucinations” of snakes, visual experiences that he was able to write off as unpleasant but purely imaginary. But over the course of his stay, the visual stimuli grew into increasingly intense bodily experiences. He didn’t share the experience with the researchers until after the study had ended and Malůš performed a series of crisis-intervention psychotherapy sessions with him. “He [didn’t have] the support he needed during the stay; he wasn’t wise enough to quit it, because his ego would suffer,” Malůš recalled. “And then he wasn’t wise enough to continue, even though I told him, ‘Well, I see very clear connections between your life experience, your earlier experience, and those hallucinations.’” Half a year later, he says, the student was still afraid of the dark, traumatized by his experience in the chamber.
Listening to Malůš talk, I couldn’t help but wonder if that kind of gamble was worth it. What Malůš describes is a therapeutic method powerful enough to reveal the unconscious, yet so powerful that it can only be applied with extreme caution. For someone with depression in remission, like me, it could provide a rich opportunity for psychological discovery; for someone suffering from an acute episode, it could make matters worse. Neither Blask nor Skene believed that the procedure was likely to be beneficial on a physiological level, but both conceded that it was unlikely to do healthy people any lasting damage. Psychologically, though, while it may be high-reward, it’s certainly high-risk.
It’s all a bit of a catch-22, and for now, there isn’t enough funding for Ostrava University to conduct research at a facility like the BRC, where subjects would receive the on-call support they need to remain safe for the duration of a study. But the potential is there, Malůš says. At the moment, it’s just hard to see.