|Title||Dahn Yoga - Rolling Stone Magazine: The Yoga Cult|
Rolling Stone Magazine: The Yoga Cult
February 22nd, 2010 -
Excerpts from the article on Dahn Hak – byline: “a greedy guru and his new age creep show” – in the February 2010 issue of Rolling Stone as we reported earlier.
If you looked at it from a certain perspective, the exercises Amy Shipley did in Dahn Yoga were perfectly normal. Take what she was doing right now. It was near midnight. Amy and seven other devotees of Dahn Yoga – nearly all in their 20s, clad in blue tracksuits and barely functioning on three hours of sleep – were standing in a waist-deep fountain in the desert of Sedona, Arizona. On command from their Korean trainer, all eight would plunge their heads underwater and hold their breath until their lungs strained, finally rocketing to the surface gasping and shouting a devotional song to their Grand Master – a middle-aged Korean man called Ilchi Lee – and weeping to prove their sincerity. Then they’d be ordered to do it again, and properly this time. In this way, Amy and the others were saving their souls and rescuing the world from annihilation.
See? Totally normal.
Amy loved tests. She’d always been Type-A like that, an overachiever, first in line for any challenge. And Dahn Yoga gave her endless tests to pass, especially here at its isolated Arizona retreat where, round the clock, members performed all kinds of mysterious rituals. Certain exercises had taken some getting used to, of course. Like the one where they’d turn off the lights and everyone would dance and scream for hours, until they collapsed in a sobbing heap. Or just earlier today, when Amy had been ordered to mash her face in the dirt as a lesson in humility. A 24-year-old blond Midwesterner who had been a homecoming princess of her Indiana high school, Amy was now a pro at such practices: At a previous workshop that lasted for 10 days, she and a dozen others had begun each morning by punching themselves in the stomach while hollering things like “I am stupid!” For that privilege, Amy had paid $8,500.
Two years earlier, Amy and her boyfriend, Ricardo Barba, had been ordinary juniors at the University of Illinois when they visited a campus fitness club that taught a meld of yoga and tai chi. Now, by spring 2008, they were sleep-deprived, celibate soul warriors who considered Ilchi Lee their “spiritual father.” In pursuit of the enlightenment Lee promised, they and thousands of other young American disciples dedicated 80-hour workweeks and astonishing amounts of money to Dahn Yoga. Amy was $47,000 in debt for her training, having maxed out credit cards and student loans at the urging of her masters. Again, totally normal: Many who progressed in Dahn had mountains of debt, especially those lucky older members with homes to mortgage – an asset that came in handy when paying for Dahn’s holiest seminar, which cost $100,000. [.]
Last year, Dahn Yoga pulled in an estimated $30 million in the United States alone – and that’s only a fraction of its 1,000 franchises across nine countries.
But critics say this lucrative fitness craze has a dark side. “Dahn is a destructive mind-control cult, very similar to the Moonies,” says Steven Hassan, author of Combatting Cult Mind Control, who has counseled many ex-Dahn members. [.]
The deceit can begin at the front door, since the Dahn brand name (Korean for “energy”) is notably absent from some of its storefronts. Dahn’s studio in New York calls itself Tao Yoga, and its affiliated retreat centers in Sedona, the Catskill Mountains and British Columbia bill themselves as holistic wellness spas. The 22 “Body and Brain Clubs” that Dahn disciples run on college campuses are initially quiet about their relationship to the group, even though their founder claims that the whole point is to funnel kids into Dahn. “College students are the perfect recruits,” says Lucie Vogel, who started the first Body and Brain Club in 2001 while a student at MIT. “The goal was to get them to become Dahn masters and devote their lives to Dahn.” [.]
Taking a page from Scientology’s playbook, Dahn has positioned itself not as a gooey spiritual movement but as cutting-edge science it calls “brain education,” with the power to sharpen memory, prevent cancer and even give practitioners extrasensory powers. As a result of such claims, two universities have awarded Lee honorary doctorates, 15 American cities have declared “Ilchi Lee days,” and the Dahn Foundation, whose sole mission is to spread the practice of Dahn Yoga, enjoys tax-exempt status from the IRS. Lee lectures at international brain seminars – hosted by the Korea Institute of Brain Science, of which Lee is founder and president – and in August, he held a “Brain Art Festival” at Radio City Music Hall. The hype has helped pave the way for a new product line: “brain education” programs for children. Clients often have no clue who they’re dealing with, as when New York paid $400,000 to PowerBrain Education, another Dahn-affiliated operation, to teach “brain wave vibration” workshops in 44 public schools. One elementary school, PS 65 in the Bronx, even got a lesson from Ilchi Lee himself. [.]
While Amy and Ricardo never considered themselves cult fodder, they now realize otherwise: “It’s like we were wearing ‘Recruit Me’ signs on our backs,” Ricardo says. [.] Attending classes at Dahn, Ricardo was amazed at the unexpected ways they helped him peel back his own layers. Like how in one exercise, his instructor turned to Ricardo and commanded, “Sing a song!”
“Uh,” Ricardo hesitated.
“That’s how you live your life,” the instructor snapped. “Too much thinking, not enough acting!” Ricardo was floored. When their Dahn instructors suggested Ricardo and Amy sign up for a two-day “Shim Sung workshop” to uncover their “true selves,” they readily agreed. [.]
They stayed up late writing the autobiographical essays they’d been assigned. Amy wrote about how her father had flitted in and out of her childhood and the hole that had left in her life. [.]
The next morning, their Dahn instructors collected the essays – soon to be shared with all the Chicago masters. What Ricardo and Amy didn’t realize was that the true purpose of the Shim Sung exercise was to help Dahn’s leaders identify recruits who might become big revenue producers. [.]
Ilchi Lee’s visage appears in every Dahn Yoga center. He is usually shown dressed in a dark business suit with no tie, his round, unlined face beaming tranquility. Dahn instructors are initially vague when discussing his identity with new members. That’s on purpose, say ex-masters: Instructors are taught to “make it fit their brains” – that is, to tell members only as much as their minds can handle. At first, Lee is referred to as Dahn’s founder. Next, he’s the author of a book recommended to you. Then he’s revealed as the calm voice speaking in Korean on the CD playing during your workout. If you’re truly fortunate, he might be the man making a rare personal appearance, arriving amid great fanfare as all the masters reverently scurry around, careful never to step on his shadow. It can take a couple of years, ex-members say, before they’re informed of Lee’s true identity as the font of universal energy upon which we all draw.
“We believed he was like God,” says former member Jade Harrelson. Lee himself is more modest; in a 2005 training manual, he compared himself merely to Buddha.
[.] by age 28, Lee felt unfulfilled. In his own retelling, he hiked to the top of Moak Mountain in 1980 and meditated for 21 days, neither eating nor sleeping, until he was hit with the revelation that he was composed of cosmic energy, energy with no beginning and no end. This was his moment of enlightenment. Lee descended the mount to spread the good word.
He changed his name to Ilchi, or one who is “pointing the way,” and taught mind-body exercises in a park, gradually developing a following. In 1985, he opened his first Dahn center in Seoul. From there, Lee moved at a relentless pace, touring Korea and opening centers across the country. [.] former followers say that as part of the standard ceremony to be elevated to Dahn masters, they were required to recite a pledge vowing to die for Ilchi Lee if necessary.
The actual theology that members were required to spread was a little shaky. For a while, Lee promised followers that once they had harnessed enough energy through something called “brain respiration,” they would fly to an “enlightenment star” aboard a spaceship shaped like a golden turtle. (He ran a brisk business selling $4,000 golden turtle statues meant to harness cosmic energy.) Later on, he spoke of the need to recruit 100 million “new humans,” at which point this critical mass of Dahn followers would somehow create world peace. After that, he began preaching the healing powers of “brain wave vibration” and of smiling the “HSP (health, smile, peace) smile.” But in the end, theology didn’t matter; what mattered was that everyone felt united for a greater purpose – and that they were kept too busy to think it through. In that regard, Lee reportedly had help from Hwa Young Moon, a Korean woman who joined Dahn in the late 1980s and whipped it into shape; she knew a good deal about the enlightenment trade, having grown up in the “Moonies,” the Unification Church.
It took a while for the Korean crew to figure out the mind-set of its new American market. The big problem was that Americans bristled at being told what to do – Korean Dahn involved a lot of barked orders. So Dahn instructed its American masters to adopt a softer approach. In an even bigger breakthrough, it added “Yoga” to its name, repackaging its central goal from seeking enlightenment to pursuing “personal growth.” A master in L.A. even arranged screenings of The Matrix, telling members that, like Neo, they were living in an artificial reality – but that with her help, Dahn Yoga would open their eyes. “I am Morpheus,” she would solemnly tell them, then press “Play. [.]
“Becoming a Dahn master means dedicating your life to Ilchi Lee,” Amy says. “Everything I had would be for him. I would no longer be a regular person – I would become one of Ilchi’s people.”
The Sedona training program for masters varied each year, but one constant remained: Candidates had to prove how much they were willing to endure for Dahn. In the past, its climax had been a grueling seven-mile mountain hike with up to 40 pounds of rocks in your backpack. But after Julia Siverls collapsed on the trek in 2003 – her teammates reportedly praying over her body as she died – Dahn tried other means of testing its candidates: making them drink toilet water, licking each other’s feet, falling backward into a pool while screaming in Korean, “Ilchi Lee, I love you!” In one brutal session, two dozen candidates were presented with a single white washcloth and told that it represented their soul. “They’d worked us into a frenzy,” recalls Harrelson, the former member. “It became primal. People were scratching and fighting each other to get this thing.”
Having survived their training, newly minted masters were encouraged to move into communal apartments and were given their sacred task, or “vision.” Nothing in Dahn is more important than vision, as a training manual makes clear: “The first value of life is vision. The second value of life is vision. The third value of life is vision.” Vision, former members say, is simply the amount of money that masters are expected to bring into Dahn each month, as well as the number of members they recruit. In a recorded lecture he gave to New York masters last April, Lee himself reinforced the primacy of vision. “You have to go crazy about two things,” he instructed. “One is, you have to go crazy for your members. And second, you have to be crazy about money.” This “vision,” Lee emphasized, must be “more precious than your life.”
Failing to achieve one’s vision was considered a grave spiritual lapse – and masters obsessively checked Dahn’s online database, which tallied every dollar brought in. “The pressure was intense,” says Greene, the former master, whose California center took in $30,000 a month. “Literally all you could think about was how much money you had yet to raise.” Masters scrambled to sell everything they could: $10,000 Sedona workshops, $1,500 annual memberships, $1,000 weekend retreats, $200 private healing sessions, plus books, CDs, even Ilchi Lee’s own happy-face calligraphy. But no matter how well they did in any given month, the calendar turned over, and their totals dropped to zero again. It was a never-ending treadmill.
Having achieved the title of Dahn master, Amy pushed herself to the limit. Each morning she woke at 4 a.m. to meditate, shaking her head back and forth to connect with Ilchi Lee’s energy, as she had been taught, and praying to make her monthly quota of $20,000 and 20 members. Then she would begin her packed day of teaching classes, conducting “healing sessions,” coaxing people into memberships and attending staff meetings before heading home at 11 p.m. There was no time to sleep, barely time to eat. One day Amy fainted while distributing flyers in Lincoln Park; her superiors approvingly told her she’d been releasing her guilt and shame. A month into her life as a master, Amy was worn out. One morning in July 2008, when she and Ricardo climbed into his beat-up Astro minivan to buy fruit for a workshop, she was glad to just sit and let him drive, the motion soothing her into a half-sleep.
“I don’t want to do this anymore,” she said suddenly.
Ricardo looked at her. He’d never seen her so tired. “Say the word, and we’ll go,” he answered.
Amy thought, then shook her head. She’d come too far to give up. Besides, she was about to be awarded her very own ticket to heaven – her “soul name” – personally bestowed upon her by Ilchi Lee. She was about to come face to face with her god. [.]
Ricardo spent the next two months holed up at his parents’ house, working in their garden and picking nectarines from their tree, just thinking. Without Dahn, he was depressed, confused and terribly adrift.
Former members say it can be nearly impossible to leave the group – not only because Dahn teaches that leaving means spiritual death, but because its members often harass those who try to quit. [.]
For weeks after leaving Dahn, Amy scarcely left her childhood bedroom in Indiana. The pressure of having to face the innumerable decisions of a typical day – what to wear, what to eat, what to do – were too overwhelming. “I hadn’t thought for myself in so long, I’d forgotten how,” she says. She couldn’t concentrate, had nightmares about her masters and Ilchi Lee, and was racked with anxiety – symptoms that would eventually be diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder. “I didn’t know who I was or what to do,” she recalls. Her family paid for therapy and intensive “deprogramming,” which helped Amy cope. Today, a year and a half after leaving Dahn, Amy is starting to get her act together, working as a teacher at a charter school in New Orleans.
Ricardo has not been faring quite as well. When he’s not working as a busboy, he spends most of his time hiding out. Unlike Amy, he hasn’t gotten any therapy since leaving Dahn. Although he was less indoctrinated into the cult than Amy, he has found himself struggling. “It’s something I haven’t gotten over,” he acknowledges. “Dahn flipped some switches in my head, and I don’t think I’ll ever be able to shut them off.” In January, Ricardo and Amy reached the painful decision, after seven years as a couple, to break up. “Amy and I came down to New Orleans to heal together, but we realized we’ve become a crutch for each other,” says Ricardo. “I just feel that Dahn has done so much damage to us that we have to separate in order to heal.”
Both are still grappling with how to make sense of their experience and the shame of how they could have let it happen to them. But what’s hardest to endure isn’t the misery they suffered in Dahn – it’s the memories of how the group awakened them to their own sense of potential. During their two years in Dahn, Amy and Ricardo proved themselves more hardy, capable and determined than either had ever imagined. For Ricardo, discovering that capacity was the sweetest satisfaction he has ever known – a contentment, he suspects, that most people will never know. He’s desperate to tap into that feeling again. If only he knew how.
“I feel like I’ve lost my sense of purpose,” he says. “There’s a part of me that wants to be challenged. But I feel like there are no jobs that challenge me, nothing to the point where I was challenged in Dahn.” Maybe that’s why, despite everything he now knows, and against all common sense, Ricardo secretly fears that what he really wants is to go back.
This is a summary extract of the full article as it appeared in the February 2010 issue of Rolling Stone: full story.
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