Shaman U.

Majoring in mojo at Carlos Castaneda workshop

"Can't you feel the weirdness?" asks Brandon Scott.
I'm in the grand ballroom of the Crown Plaza Hotel in downtown Phoenix, in the company of nearly 200 people who have gathered for a sorcerer's apprenticeship. A large percentage are 50ish, balding guys with ponytails, and 40ish women in oversize tie-dye. Most of them look more metaphysically inclined than either Brandon or his pal Miles Reed, who are the instructors, teaching us "magical passes" said to increase well-being.

The slight, boyish Brandon and the fit, handsome, jovial Miles, both of whom have thick Latin accents, wear matching tee shirts and black vests. The moves they demonstrate seem a lot like tai chi or a standup form of yoga, but we're told that with practice and repetition, these gestures will permit us to see "the force that pulls together the universe."

The technique was dubbed "Tensegrity" (tens-egg-ritee), a term borrowed from architecture that relates to tension and integrity, by mystical writer and '60s icon Carlos Castaneda, who claims it is a modernized version of a discipline developed by Yaqui shamans in ancient Mexico.

I'm doing my level, graceless best to reproduce the dancerlike moves Brandon and Miles are showing.

Yes, Brandon, I can feel the weirdness.
Castaneda isn't at this workshop--he rarely appears outside L.A.--but it's his corporation, Cleargreen, that produces it. And it was he who sent Brandon and Miles to the New Age hub that is Phoenix. "Carlos has specifically seen that these are the instructors who need to teach here today," we are told before they take the stage, smiling and clapping and whooping with enthusiasm.

They lecture for a while about how human beings consist of "zillions of energy fields that pull together all the universe. This force is called the binding force, and it goes beyond the boundaries of syntax." It's like hearing the lessons of Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back taught by Hans and Franz from Saturday Night Live.

Then it's down to business. After a short warm-up, we are shown the jabs, chops and waves that, performed in sequence, compose the first "series." I try hard to do as they do, and though I have roughly the poise and agility of George Kennedy, I have to admit that, before long, I'm feeling pretty invigorated. In fact, I'm feeling freakin' great--better than I have in months. I can't help but ask myself, though, if I might not feel just as good if I went to a low-impact aerobics class or a community-center stretching group, for considerably less than the $160 that these folks have paid to be here.

Of course, such modest classes rarely teach methods for "the redeployment of the energy which becomes encrusted on the periphery of our beings," as the Tensegrity workshop does. Brandon and Miles show us how to grab hold of the "rotational vortices of energy" around us, and direct them into our vital centers: the liver and gallbladder on one side, the spleen and pancreas on the other, and the kidneys and adrenals on the back. Then comes the stress-relieving "Release Series." "It's a very serious series," says Brandon, though his accent makes it sound like, "Eet's a bery serious serious."

This done, we are invited to sit down and watch as Brandon and Miles demonstrate a long-form series. Long-form it is--it lasts six or seven minutes, consisting of jabs, chops, waves, kicks, steps and body twists. At certain points, the two men shout the word "INTENT!" in unison. "Intent," we later learn, is a name which the Cleargreeners give to the universal binding force. The shouts punctuate the moments in the routine when this force supposedly becomes visible to the sorcerer. Their execution of this long-form series is such an impressive piece of performance art--such a contrast to my cloddish efforts--that I'm sorry to see them finish it. But they do, and then they begin to teach it to us.

At some point during the lengthy process of learning this complex routine, I find I can't concentrate anymore. I'm getting tired and, philistine that I am, a little bored. I slip out of the ballroom and down the escalators to the Crown Plaza's lobby. I find a Time magazine and read an article on the arc of Sylvester Stallone's career.

Ah, back in the real world.

In one of his lectures, Brandon asserted that the aim of practicing the passes is to make your "assemblage point"--a spot that floats about arm's length behind your back, at which your perceptions of the universe are assembled--more "fluid." When this happens, says Brandon, "We find we cease to defend ourselves." A local guy named Peter--a staffer for Scottsdale-based Mischka Productions, who brought the workshop to Phoenix--tells me something similar about the beneficial effects of Tensegrity: "You don't care anymore what somebody else says about you, or thinks about you."

Well, maybe. But this did make me wonder why Castaneda's Cleargreen organization asked me to sign a release before it'd grant me an interview.

The form the organization faxed would have forbidden me from recording a phone chat I had scheduled with shaman Kylie Lundahl. One of Castaneda's closest colleagues, Lundahl was originally slated to teach the Phoenix workshop, before Castaneda specifically saw that Brandon and Miles (normally a Spanish-speaking team) were just the guys for the Crown Plaza gig. I had no problem with honoring the request not to record her, but signing the document was out of the question. When I asked a PR flack at Cleargreen what all the caution was about, she told me that Castaneda and company were sick of getting burned in print.

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