Minister and licensed massage therapist Janae Thorne-Bird was disrobing at her healing center in January, preparing to perform her most sacred ceremony, the Ananda Nirvana, which is so much more than a massage. Bird was about to open the chakras, or centers of energy, for a new member of her church.
The 53-year-old mother of 11 and former Mormon is the founder of The Church of What Is Real and also the owner of Heartsong Healing Center. Until recently, both the informal church and healing center—decorated with statues of Jesus, Buddha and American Indian spiritual symbols—operated out of a Holladay mansion tucked away in a grove of trees off Holladay Boulevard.
The philosophy of the church, business and the Ananda Nirvana ceremony derive largely from Bird’s understanding of Tantra, an ancient Asian religious tradition that sprung from Hinduism, as well as spiritual lessons incorporated from several ancient and contemporary religious traditions. She believes that a person’s body is the only temple necessary to worship God and that it’s her religious duty to share her holistic medicine.
So, in January, Bird asked her new church member if he wanted to be nude during the Ananda Nirvana and whether he was comfortable with her also being nude. Nudity is a natural and sacred state of being, Bird says, but clothes are optional upon client request. The man got naked. She asked the man if he had any relationships that could be harmed by his participation in the ceremony and explained that the Ananda Nirvana is not a sexual solicitation—though eroticism is a part of the experience—but a “holistic healing of the body, mind and spirit.” Ananda Nirvana is Sanskrit for “blissful heaven.” While Bird offered many clients traditional massage at Heartsong, she says the Ananda Nirvana is a religious ordinance—not a massage—offered only to church members.
Just as the Ananda Nirvana is more than a massage, Heartsong is more than a spa. On Sundays, she hosted church service—including a meditation exercise called quantum light breath and soaking in the hot tub. While it may look like just an oily, deep-tissue massage to the uninitiated, to Bird, the Ananda Nirvana is a solemn exercise of the inter-woven energies that make up one’s life force. It often involves the recipient achieving an orgasm. Neglecting the sexual chakra during a body-work session is as unwise as neglecting, say, just one arm during exercise, Bird says.
Police don’t care about flabby arms, however. It’s another body part that got Bird in trouble.
According to the police report from the Salt Lake City vice squad, Bird told the man that he “was protected under the umbrella of their ‘church,’ ”—he paid $100 to join—which Bird said limited both her and his legal liability. “Bird then asked me if she could touch me anywhere. I told Bird she could do anything she wanted that made her feel comfortable,” the report states. Sexual intercourse is never a part of the Ananda Nirvana as she practices it.
Thirty minutes into the massage—“Just after I’d asked him to roll over,” Bird says—she was busted. The police report says she grabbed the man’s penis—twice. Seconds later, three cops burst into the room. The naked man on her table was a cop conducting a “massage parlor compliance check.” She was booked into jail.
Bird is now charged with prostitution and illegal massage—touching a penis during a massage is illegal in Utah—and faces potential jail time for class A and class B misdemeanor charges. The City of Holladay has already revoked her business license, but she hopes to appeal.
Bird will soon argue in 3rd District Court that the First Amendment should protect her from prosecution on religious grounds.
She has some reason to believe it might work. In the past decade, both Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff and former U.S. Attorney Brett Tolman pegged her ally, James Warren Flaming Eagle Mooney (pictured at left), as a drug dealer and tried to imprison him for decades. Mooney argued that distributing peyote—a controlled substance legally equivalent to heroin—is his religious duty. It worked—twice—and he’s still a free man.
So, if distributing a controlled substance can be a religious duty protected by the First Amendment, why not the Ananda Nirvana and other religion-based sexual practices? Coincidentally, a U.S. Supreme Court case that still largely limits religious freedom in sexual matters upheld prohibitions of polygamy in 1878. That’s coincidental because Bird lived in a polygamous relationship among fundamentalist Mormons for several years before “escaping” and finding peace in New Age rituals and beliefs that were manifest at Heartsong Healing Center.
Will the First Amendment protect the Ananda Nirvana? Bird is about to find out.
She grew up in Sugar House and attended Highland High School. Janae was, at the time, a fifth-generation member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on both sides of her family.
She married a college boyfriend named Kurt in 1975 in front of a justice of the peace when she was 18. “We didn’t want to do religion together,” she says, but that changed when she got pregnant the next year (correction: the amount of time between marriage and pregnancy was originally misreported). They were sealed in the Salt Lake LDS Temple and attended church regularly in Logan where they lived.
About 1980, Janae and Kurt started Living Stream health-food store in Logan and became “master herbalists.” [Note: Kurt’s last name is withheld as he did not return calls for this story. Janae Bird’s surname is from her second marriage. Thorne is her maiden name.]
The store attracted many food purists—no sugar, all herbal—who, Janae says, also were frequently fundamentalist Mormons. “A lot of fundamentalists live a very holistic life,” she says. Plural marriage was openly discussed. She was attracted to the fundamentalists’ fixation on the United Order, an early Mormon communist scheme of engendering a harmonious community so righteous, God would lift the whole town to Heaven. Janae and Kurt became involved in the home-schooling movement, avoided Western medicine and ate strict herbal diets.
Friends invited them to a meeting of the Apostalic United Brethren in Herriman where Owen Allred—the “real prophet” in the minds of sect members—was to speak. The attendees’ clothing was old-fashioned, Janae says, except for hers and Kurt’s. “I didn’t feel trusted or a part of it. I wasn’t wearing the garb,” Janae says. “My husband bought it hook, line and sinker. I think it was [polygamy] that intrigued him.”
Married life was relatively smooth until birth No. 3. Janae and Kurt fought about whether to have the baby at home or at the hospital—there were complications with the baby’s health—then at the hospital, they fought over whether she should receive an epidural.
Janae won both those arguments. She got the epidural, but lost faith in her husband as their world crumbled. Their store went bust after an employee embezzled from them. Kurt was baptized in the Apostolic United Brethren but was excommunicated from the LDS Church. Janae received threats that she would have to divorce Kurt or be excommunicated herself. “I said, ‘What’s behind door No. 3?’ ”
She took a two-week trip to Colorado’s Windstar Foundation, the educational and conservation experiment founded by her idol, folk singer John Denver. Kurt went along, but spiritually, Janae was alone. Environmentalism, humanism, Christian Gnosticism, American Indian mysticisms and Asian spiritualism—virtually the entire New Age milieu was represented among Windstar’s guests, and Janae loved all of it. “I was transformed. My heart chakra opened up to where it was a born-again experience,” she says. “I determined, ‘this is my path.’ ”
She briefly divorced Kurt in a fit of independence but soon feared she would lose custody of her children. They remarried in 1983, so she stuffed her New Age passions into a fundamentalist Mormon container and mostly played the submissive wife except for when she returned to Windstar for yearly retreats. She never did get baptized into the Apostolic United Brethren, but she would soon join their world in the Bitterroot Valley of Montana where defying sex laws was a principle of faith.
Menage a Quatre
In 1985, almost immediately upon arriving in Corvallis, Mont., a town very near the United Brethren town of Pinesdale, three of her young children contracted whooping cough; only the oldest of her five children had been immunized. After five weeks of suffering, 5-week-old Jaden (correction: the boy's age was originally misreported), already weakened by whooping cough, died from a staph infection.
Though her first impression of the community was tainted by her personal tragedy, Janae loved the people. They offered heartfelt condolences and ample help to the new family with a dying child. “Fundamentalists are very group-supportive,” she says. “There was a closeness in the community that I longed for.”
For the next five years, she and Kurt lived monogamously both inside and later outside—but near—Pinesdale. Janae got a job as a physical education and arts-and-crafts teacher at a local school. She apprenticed as a midwife and taught yoga, meditation and aerobics. Kurt traveled selling food-storage equipment and supplies.
All the while, Janae says, she was an outspoken advocate of gender equality and children’s rights. A female friend had been married at age 14, which made Janae fear for her own daughters’ futures living among the United Brethren. “I loved the women but they were so submissive,” Janae says. “I thought I could assist people to evolve. They needed a revolution.”
In 1990, Janae and Kurt put distance between themselves and the Apostolic United Brethren. Rather than tithe their savings as they had been asked to do, they purchased 640 acres near Missoula, Mont., about 60 miles from Pinesdale. “We wanted to get ‘off the grid’ and have our own exclusive community. ... [For a while] it was just us, and we were good.” They called their hacienda “Higher Ground” after the John Denver single, which Janae regards as a veritable hymn. The lyrics about striving for ideals seemed written just for them.
Soon after, they met Christy, a Wyoming woman in her early 20s whose parents were LDS converts to fundamentalist Mormonism and polygamy, just like Janae and Kurt. Christy had one child but had never been married. Living in the rough conditions at Higher Ground, Janae was excited when Christy “had a revelation” in 1992 that she should be Kurt’s second wife. “I had a log home with seven kids, no electricity, no utilities, and I thought, yeah, I could use some help,” Janae says. “[Plus] I had seen some very beautiful polygamous relationships … and Christy is an incredible woman. I felt a real connection to her.”
Janae’s third child, Deserae Pollock, 27, of Missoula, describes life at Higher Ground this way: “We were home-schooled by my father and mother. We did household chores of milking goats and hauling water. ... I think it was hard for my mother, who was raised with electricity and running water and all that, but it was all I knew, so it wasn’t hard for me.”
Help around the house is one thing, but Janae was anxious about sharing her husband sexually. She argued that another man should join the relationship as well. “I didn’t have any support scripturally,” she says. “[So] I never had a consort of my own when I was alone.”
In the end, Janae asked for a one-year courtship with Christy, but that eventually ended in marriage in 1993. Sharing Kurt was harder than she expected. “Seeing my husband walk off with another woman to have sex was more than I could handle. We’d been monogamous for 18 years.” She “suffered” through it, though. With seven children, no income or transportation of her own since they’d moved to Higher Ground—and eight months pregnant on top of all that—she felt stuck, and submitted.
Living 60 miles from Pinesdale afforded the family some leeway on clothing styles and other cultural mores. Janae says they also had sex together—all three of them—after Janae had a revelation that they should do so. That’s not normal for fundamentalist Mormons, Janae says, but then, Higher Ground was not normal. The threesomes were not adequate compensation for sitting alone while the other two were together, but it was something Janae enjoyed.
In 1995, Kurt and Janae were invited to give a talk on herbs at a polygamous community outside Manti. There, they met Sandy, who would also join them at Higher Ground. By now, they had well water and propane heat in their cabin, but still no electricity and only five bedrooms. Janae had nine kids, Christy had two, plus Sandy had three children from a previous relationship. Janae opposed forming a foursome, but again submitted. Though the foursome had great sexual energy together, Janae says, it still didn’t soothe her feelings of inequality. Additionally, the stress of the jam-packed household began to crush her.
After years of submitting, when again-pregnant Janae found out the others in the household were engaging in oral sex despite concerns she voiced that oral herpes—cold sores—could be spread to infect her unborn child, she made a final ultimatum: Either additional men had to join the relationship or Christy and Sandy had to go. This time Janae was stronger than ever, emboldened by ideas she learned and shamans she had met, primarily during return trips to Windstar Foundation. Initially, Kurt supported Janae, and Sandy and Christy left.
Soon after, Kurt insisted that Christy, the mother of one of his kids, be allowed to return. Janae was firm and threatened to leave with her children—though, in reality, she had no means to do so—if Christy returned. In a fit of anger, she swung at Kurt, and he knocked her over in front of the children. This was the first violence in their relationship, but it felt deadly serious. “I thought he would use all of his power to destroy me,” Janae says.
Janae left Higher Ground in 1999 with virtually no belongings and only one of her teenage daughters who wanted to go, too.
“It was the hardest thing in my life. I left a nursing baby,” Janae says. “That’s how he was weaned.”
The New Age
During a vision quest in the mountains of Higher Ground in 1998, not long before she left, she had a revelation that she was an ancient soul whose return to the Earth had been foretold by prophets past. She was told that her mission was to unite the world’s people in peace and love. The Lakota people of the Great Plains have a legend of a mystical White Buffalo Calf Woman who brought the tribe a peace pipe, a sacred tool. In Heart Wide Open, Janae’s 2010 self-published autobiography, she writes, “Was I that White Buffalo Calf Woman? Or was I simply an archetype or perhaps even a wannabe?”
Whatever the case, Janae felt compelled to pursue her revealed mission.
In 1999, during six months in a wheelchair following a car accident in Riverton (correction: the location of the crash was originally misreported) in which her passenger, a close friend, was killed, Janae was reinvigorated with a lust for life that had been lost after leaving her husband and family. She met her current husband, Brad Bird, shortly after the crash. Janae studied acupuncture and massage, thinking those skills would complement her knowledge of herbs and yoga. She dreamed of opening her own natural-medicine healing center. Tensions eased with Kurt, so visiting the children grew easier. Her 10 children have all chosen their own spiritual paths--one has chosen mainstream LDS faith--(correction: the number of children who follow mainstream LDS faith was originally misreported) but multiple family members say the clan all gets along well and none of her children are judgmental of her faith.
In 2001, she graduated from the Utah College of Massage Therapy. She moved to Las Vegas, got a job at the Bellagio Hotel and Casino, which sent her to The Watsu School at Harbin Hot Springs in California to be trained in Watsu, or water shiatsu, a massage therapy that adds buoyancy to the experience. After learning that after-class activities were clothing-optional and teachings incorporated Tantric philosophies, husband Brad accompanied her (correction: the time and place that nudity was acceptable was originally misreported). “Most people were naked in these classes,” Janae says. “He’s a man, he didn’t want me to be out there alone.”
She learned about Tantra and the spiritual power of bodywork to release kundilini energy, a force thought to coil in the spine. Releasing kundilini is “an experience of divine force coming over your body,” Janae says.
After two years in Las Vegas, the Birds returned to Salt Lake City. In 2008, they opened Heartsong Healing Center—and, later, The Church of What Is Real.
“Originally, I was wanting to stay inside Utah laws, and we did,” Janae says.
Early on, not knowing exactly what to expect, Janae used the word “tantra” in one of Heartsong’s advertisements. Creepy people started calling. Janae says that’s because popular culture portrays tantra as sexually exotic, not sensually spiritual, as she sees it.
Nevertheless, besides the creeps, she met men who suffered from sexual dysfunctions and precancerous prostate conditions. There was an opportunity, she says, to help the community utilize energies—including sexual energies—that many individuals have repressed for most of their lives, which may be unhealthy. New research suggests men over 50 who ejaculate at least once per week have lower risks of prostate cancer, for example. That type of Western-medicine research fits in neatly with Janae’s New Age faith in mind-body-spirit connections.
Janae came to respect her spiritual calling more than the law. First, Heartsong’s focus on “advanced therapies”—like Watsu, ashiatsu and other disciplines not offered by many spas—was good for business, as was the Ananda Nirvana, she says. Second, Janae believes sexual energy is just one of several chakras, no more perverted than the others. Third, Janae is indignant about her rights: she believes now, as then, that religious freedom should protect her work.
“This was not a jack-off shop. Those are a dime a dozen. Just go on Craigslist,” Janae says. “Kudos to them, but here [at Heartsong], it goes so much deeper. I am about holistic energy.”
Thus The Church of What Is Real was born. “We weren’t wanting to raise any red flags proclaiming we were a ‘tantric temple,’ ” she says, explaining why The Church of What Is Real was never officially incorporated with legal paperwork. “We didn’t have the ... church registered or listed on any written forms. Rather, it was explained to each member verbally as they joined.” The religious relationship between Janae and her clients, she thinks, should provide protection from law enforcement based on the First Amendment’s free exercise clause. “I was trying to maneuver it to do it legally and with complete integrity,” she says.
That did not protect her from arrest, however, nor did it stop the City of Holladay from revoking her business license, a decision she hopes to appeal, but finding an attorney she can afford has been difficult since her spa business was shut down. She now qualifies for a public defender in her criminal case.
So, she’s called to her defense a kindred spirit known by prosecutors statewide, James Warren Flaming Eagle Mooney. After his arrest in 2000, he faced decades in prison for distributing peyote to church members of his Okleveuha Native American Church—many of whom were not Native American. Reviled by many in American Indian communities and accused of being a “plastic shaman” who peddles ancient rites for cash, Mooney says those who believe only American Indians are entitled to peyote are simply racist. That’s like saying “you can not practice the Roman Catholic religion [and] you cannot take their wine sacrament unless you are actually from Rome,” he says.
Racist or not, the Utah Attorney General’s Office argued only American Indians are entitled to peyote under the law. Years of litigation later, however, the Utah Supreme Court ruled that the exception was for members of Native American churches who used peyote “in bona fide religious ceremonies” regardless of race. That case was dismissed in 2004.
Then the U.S. Attorney’s office picked up the case, also charging Mooney with drug crimes (pdf) that could have lead to decades in prison. Unrelated to Mooney but during his case, however, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a New Mexico religious sect was entitled to ayahuasca, a controlled substance derived from a Brazilian vine, to fulfill its religious duties. Mooney’s federal case was dismissed shortly thereafter in 2006.
Janae believes Mooney “set up a precedent … that we have a right to our spiritual practices.” That is, after all, what he tells people these days as he solicits $100 to join his church. Janae recently invited Mooney to Heartsong, where a group of her friends and clients gathered to hear him speak.
Among the attendees and new members of Mooney’s church was Wovoka Golden Eagle. Golden Eagle grows cannabis and says cancer can be cured with marijuana. It’s a religious calling, he says, to proselytize on behalf of earth-based medicine like cannabis.
Like Golden Eagle, Janae has enrolled in Mooney’s church hoping that it will bring her more protection than her own church has.
Law’s Long Arm
Civil-rights attorney Andrew McCullough, who is also the Libertarian Party candidate for Utah governor, is dubious that Mooney’s cases will help Janae in court. He says the Utah Supreme Court has rejected the idea that religion-based, illegal sexual practices should be protected by the free-exercise clause First Amendment. “What I’ve seen from the Utah Supreme Court has been pretty conservative,” he says.
McCullough referred to a 2004 case, State v. Green, in which Utah’s highest court upheld prohibitions against polygamy. The court deferred to the U.S. Supreme Court precedent set in Reynolds v. United States, the 1878 U.S. Supreme Court case in which George Reynolds, a later-named General Authority to the LDS Church, was denied an exception to polygamy prohibitions. In 1878 and 2004, the courts found that polygamy causes social harm and therefore governments have sufficiently compelling interests in prohibiting it—even if it infringes on someone’s religious exercise. The Reynolds case also established the principle that religious rights must be limited sometimes, or the First Amendment would “permit every citizen to become a law unto himself.”
Salt Lake County District Attorney Lohra Miller declined to discuss Janae’s case in particular because it is ongoing but said prohibitions against prostitution are justified because “there are innocent third parties injured,” including families and spouses of the clients. Miller says situations in which there is no victim and religion plays a role could be handled more leniently by prosecutors and judges, if the facts of the case warrant it—but, Miller believes, there should be no categorical exceptions to prostitution laws. Miller contrasted prostitution to sodomy, a practice that she says has no innocent third-party victim.
In 2004, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed. In Lawrence v. Texas, the court found that consenting adults have a right to sexual practices—in that case, homosexual sodomy—in the privacy of their homes without suffering the social stigma of arrest. The court dismissed claims that homosexual sodomy causes societal harm sufficient to justify prohibition—and Lawrence didn’t even make any religious claims.
In sum, to win her case and set a new precedent—as Janae dreams of doing—she would have to convince the courts that the Ananda Nirvana is harmless like sodomy, not harmful like polygamy allegedly is. It may be tough, but Janae is feeling bold. “I’m not taking any plea bargains,” she says.
She may have to prove also that her New Age religious beliefs are sincere and that the Ananda Nirvana is a bona fide expression of that religion. Asked to describe what she believes and how that inspired her work, Janae cites yet another ancient philosophy.
“It’s like Taoism. Once you try to define God, you’ve lost it. You have to experience it,” she said. “That’s what I offered at Heartsong.”
Skinny-Dipper Crackdown, in which Janae Thorne-Bird was quoted less than one month prior to her arrest.(December 16, 2009)
Peyote, Religion and the War on Drugs: Is James Mooney a drug pusher hiding behind religious freedom or a Medicine Man seeking spirituality? (March 1, 2001)