“Do you know Hippocrates?” a woman named Liz asked me between sweaty yoga sessions. We were on a Bikram yoga retreat organized by Liz in the glorious emerald mountains of Vermont.
I paused and racked my brain. Should I know Hippocrates? Is Hippocrates an exciting new form of yoga? Could this have anything to do with medicine and the Hippocratic oath?
“No, I do not know Hippocrates,” I stammered, very much wishing I did. Maybe I just needed a little prompting, or Liz was about to reveal some divine piece of yogic scripture that would forever change my life and relationship with Bikram yoga. In fact, none of my theories were accurate. She turned to face me and said, “You should go. You would love it. It’s a little extreme, but maybe that’s why I know you will love it.”
Two weeks after returning to Chicago and armed with a natural curiosity, a yearning for “wellness,” and Liz’s recommendation, I began the somewhat laborious process of securing myself a one-week stay at the Hippocrates Health Institute (HHI) in West Palm Beach, Florida.
The standard “Life Transformation” program is three weeks long, but I applied for an exception which was fortunately granted.
Prior to my arrival at HHI, I did very little research. Liz’s word seemed good, and I am keen on adventure. I was not worried at all. For me it was simple: I was very much looking forward to getting out of the cold Chicago air, eating some healthy food, and doing some yoga.
Founded in Massachusetts in 1956 by Ann Wigmore, HHI is a nonprofit offering a variety of programs intended to holistically prevent, combat, and solve a wide range of bodily ailments, including cancer. HHI offers classes on a range of subjects like sprouting seeds, meditation, Qigong, and yoga. The common thread in all HHI programs is adherence to a strict dietary regimen. The explanation for both the name of the institute and its approach is clarified on the HHI website, which claims, “As a fifth-century B.C. Greek physician, Hippocrates treated the body as a whole, not just a series of parts, and taught a natural healing process centered on a wholesome, natural diet.”
If I had done some research, I would have also discovered that the word “controversial” seems to best describe HHI and its inextricably intertwined current owner-operators, Brian and Anna Maria Clement. On the one hand, hundreds of positive testimonials about the place and its ability to reverse or manage disease has resulted in a large, international following of devotees. On the other, they have endured multiple bouts of extreme allegations over the years including promoting ineffective treatment and ethical violations.
Dissenters argue malpractice—that HHI promotes their healing services as replacement for more aggressive treatments, such as chemotherapy. Most notably, as reported by the Toronto Star in 2015, two young aboriginal girls left chemotherapy treatment and came to HHI looking for alternative treatment. One passed away six months after leaving the institute. In my experience, HHI does not insist clients abandon traditional, medical treatment, but instead proposes a natural reset, oftentimes in tandem with treatment from medical professionals. The opposing camps of supporters and dissenters seem to be extremely active and have elevated HHI and the Clements to celebrity status.
Welcome to HHI
Simply calling HHI a place would not be accurate. While its sprawling, 50-acre grounds are beautiful with meandering gardens and orchards, a brick-and-mortar explanation does not adequately capture the spirit of HHI. It is a phenomenon, a lifestyle, a religion, and to many people: magic. I was able to witness this magic first-hand: patients who arrived at HHI in obvious ill-health were suddenly glowing with vitality after a few short days. I couldn’t wait to see what HHI could do for me.
My first stop was Vida, the medical building where my first round of health testing took place. The room was chaotic: several patients in hospital beds in various states of health were situated haphazardly around the room. A vibrating platform, which I was told could “burn calories and eliminate cellulite” was humming near the door as its passenger jiggled away. Blood was being drawn in quick succession and wayward wheelchairs were being used as temporary seating. “Busy day at the office?” I jokingly asked one of the nurses seated behind a desk. She laughed. I believe it hit me then: many people in that room were sick… really sick… last-ditch-effort sick. I realized that, as a healthy person, I was in a staggering minority at HHI. An advocate of yoga retreats and wellness getaways, I quickly came to understand that HHI isn’t a spa or vacation destination. To many, it’s a final stop—either they were going to heal at HHI or die trying.
As someone in good health, my testing was pretty straightforward, except for an energy test conducted through a palm scan. With the easy vitals (blood pressure, weight, height) out of the way, I headed to the mess hall for lunch. This is where I understood what Liz meant when she described the retreat as “extreme.” Food—what it is and how it is sourced, prepared, and consumed—stands squarely at the center of HHI and its campus.
HHI’s food is all raw, all organic, all vegan—all the time! For example, one of the first things I noticed was a buffet of sprouts. Not just alfalfa sprouts, but heaped bowls of sunflower, sweet pea, buckwheat, radish, clover, mung bean, broccoli, and fenugreek. Toppings were limited and included other types of vegetables, some seeds and nuts, and staples to create your own “dressing.” According to HHI, sprouts are among the most nutrient-dense foods on the planet, filled with enzymes, vitamins, minerals, and protein. A “perfect diet” would seem to consist of little more than sprouts and wheatgrass.
I dove in! Hey, this is what I was here for, right?
Our morning orientation meeting was packed. The orientation leader had clearly been chugging the proverbial Kool-Aid, or in this case, an aloe and wheatgrass concoction, for many years. A self-identified devotee of the program, he really seemed to be living and teaching his dream. He took us through the daily expectations and schedule. Many of the expectations seemed straightforward enough. We were to stick to the meal plan and attend a selection of seminars and classes. There were a few other requisites: wheatgrass consumption and waste elimination. Daily elimination (ideally, twice a day), we were told, is vital during detox, the theory being that toxins—even if released—will continue to linger if not evacuated by the bowels. This “release” would be forcefully encouraged via self-administered enemas. While I am aware regularity is important, I decided I would leave this detail to the colon hydrotherapy team at HHI: the Oasis Spa & Therapy Center.
Later, we were split into groups and ushered over to the wheatgrass hut. Wheatgrass contains a number of nutrients like vitamins C, E, and K. That said, there is a lot of public debate about its health properties. Cynics say it is no healthier than other green vegetables. HHI paints it as a miracle elixir. Either way, it certainly couldn’t hurt to consume. Juicing wheatgrass can be a very messy process if you are not careful. Luckily, the hut was made specifically for this purpose. Large refrigerators with neatly stacked trays of freshly harvested wheatgrass were situated on one side of the room. Sinks, grinders, pestles, and other assorted instruments to assist in the juicing process were on the other. It was simple; I loved it!
The Oasis Spa was always a hotbed of activity with folks constantly registering, paying, and getting shuffled around to various treatments. In most cases, a certain number of treatments are “included” in the spa package. It didn’t take too much to realize it would be in my best interest to hightail it over to the spa at my earliest opportunity to secure the best treatment slots. Justifying my indulgences with “when at HHI,” I went to town on treatments purported to cleanse my toxic body. I enjoyed a daily massage, a salt scrub exfoliation treatment, and two colon hydrotherapy sessions.
Over at Vida, the medical building, I took two vitamin drips (IVs) which were HHI’s baseline concoction plus extra B vitamins to increase energy. I also took a series of glutathione shots (a powerful antioxidant) and a shot of vitamin D, which I was told would be beneficial as my winter lifestyle in Chicago does not include much exposure to natural sunlight, the primary source of vitamin D. Not being one for needles, the phlebotomists let me play old movies while I received my vitamin drips. The doctor, who I met with very briefly near the end of my stay, told me that my blood work had come back, and I was in good shape. Phew!
One of my favorite things to do was to soak in the mineral pool in the afternoons. Though the temperature was a bit low outside, the pool was just warm enough to lounge around on various flotation devices in the belief the water held some power. Magic or otherwise, I always left at ease.
Being a bit of a water rat, not only did I leave the pool area relaxed, but also better informed about the people around me. Everyone’s story was unique, but ended with a similar conclusion. In general, my fellow guests were very open about the reasons that brought them to HHI, and all had great things to say about it.
Everyone’s story was unique, but their rationale was similar. People were there to heal, some from minor ailments, others from a more severe diagnosis. I ran into one man who was in remission for multiple sclerosis for most of his life and credited HHI. Another lady from Copenhagen who had been in a horrific accident and was bedridden for years, was back for her third stay, crediting the healing of her spine and neck to her prior two visits. Notably, I was one of only three people I met who, like me, were staying “just” a week. Many were on their third or fourth stay at HHI.
What I Learned
Minus some diarrhea on the second night, which was no fun, by the end of day three, I felt significantly lighter. By the end of day four, I felt relaxed and clear-headed. When I got to the airport to head home, my vision of food had drastically changed. I realized that the airport barely had any alimentary offerings not banned by HHI. At its core, HHI proffers the idea that poor nutrition is the root of all physical ailments. They don’t propose treatment plans for specific disease—like cancer, obesity, or autoimmune disorders—rather, they believe healing starts from the inside, and proper nutrition is key in effectively treating all physical ailments. Meals at HHI are entirely free of allergens, which allows the body to “reset.”
With a healthy diet, HHI asserts, you create a solid foundation free of toxins which naturally provokes health and wellness. HHI touts profound results for some who are suffering from serious illness, and I believe it. I also believe that every person is different, and results aren’t guaranteed. During my stay, I heard so many inspiring stories. If somehow all of the healing is the result of a giant placebo effect, may the effect last forever and continue to be shared throughout the world.