Ashley, Renee and six others stood in pairs massaging each others’ shoulders, scratching each others’ backs, and sweeping away stagnant energy with their hands. Then they hugged each other tightly, let go enough to bow to each other, and said, “kam sa ham ni da.”
It’s Korean for thank you. Then they sat cross-legged on the floor beside each other and stayed for tea and sharing.
For some, like Ashley and Renee, Dahn Yoga provides physical and spiritual renewal. Others have called it a financially destructive cult. What is Dahn Yoga and how does it turn from feeling good to feeling “had”?
In one of the Denver area’s five Dahn Yoga centers, on the second floor of a mini-mall, the room is bright yellow, one wall mirrored, like a dance studio. And on Fridays, it just about is. On “Vibration” day, participants dance freely, “releasing energy,” to Pharrell Williams’ Happy song, and other upbeat tunes.
Posters adorn the other walls, one is an effusion of “life particles,” Dahn Yoga’s core concept, others illustrate some common Dahn stretches, and a chart outlines levels of consciousness. Attendance sheets sport stickers, red happy faces and silver stars. Pinned to a corkboard is a sign-up sheet promoting a special healing workshop scheduled for the next week. The day-and-a-half session costs $1,050.
Ashley, 32, her light brown hair pulled into a ponytail, is wearing a “Heroes” t-shirt, an orange sun-like symbol on the upper arm, like a badge. She’s just come back from a Dahn Heroes training in Sedona, Arizona, Dahn’s U.S. headquarters.
“Carla,” also 32, with dark bobbed hair, stays for tea, too. Carla is not her real name; she asked to remain anonymous.
Carla started her Dahn training in 2005 when she was in her early 20s and at a particularly vulnerable time in her life. “I spent about $40,000 on trainings to become a master. I was encouraged to charge the workshops on a credit card and I did,” she said. No longer a master or teacher, Carla cleans houses and babysits for a living.
Lawsuits against Dahn Yoga
In 2010, Carla was asked by some other masters to join a lawsuit against Dahn Yoga. The lawsuit charged Dahn with mental coercion plus breaking wage and immigration laws, evading taxes and sexually abusing female disciples. One charge was forcing people to spend exorbitant amounts of money on trainings.
A previous suit for wrongful death – a woman died of dehydration during a Dahn workshop in Sedona – was settled in 2008. Rolling Stone Magazine, CNN, and other major media covered these lawsuits and accused Dahn of being a dangerous cult.
Carla didn’t join the 27 other masters and employees in the lawsuit.
“But I understand it,” she said.
Carla’s immersion in Dahn
Carla was 23. Her parents had just gotten divorced, her father remarried and moved to the east coast. She went to live with him there. And went to a Dahn class.
She loved how they tapped their bellies with their fists to warm their “Dahn jons,” stretched and twisted to open “meridians” (energy channels), but it was during the meditation that she truly engaged. Participants were asked to sit in half lotus position, crossed legged on the floor, with eyes closed, and hands about two inches apart in front of their hearts and told to imagine an energy ball growing between their hands.
“The energy I felt, the magnetic sensation in my hands, it blew my mind. I was a virgin in the spiritual world until then,” she said. This was more than just physical exercises.
Within a month of attending her first class, Carla was working as a receptionist and wewas encouraged to train as a master, taking workshops on the east coast and in Sedona. “It was all new and exciting. I always wanted to be a helper,” she said. And, according to Carla, the practice promotes “being enlightened, helping others, and benefiting the earth.” It appealed to her idealism. Meanwhile, it absorbed more and more of her life.
The Dahn website says Dahn Yoga is “committed to helping practitioners create energetic, balanced, and healthy lives and inspire them to make positive contributions to their communities.”
Dahn Yoga founder, Ilchi Lee
Carla’s been to the Sedona center dozens of times and has met the founder of the practice, Korean Ilchi Lee, who she said, is quite charismatic. “Il Chi” means one finger, or pointing the way. He gave himself that name 30 years ago.
Lee founded the practice in 1985, about the time he changed his name. It debuted in the U.S. in 1991 in Philadelphia. Dahn’s focus is brain training through physical movement and meditation. It uses 360 meditative and brain enhancement techniques, one of which is head shaking, or “brain wave vibration.” According to the Dahn website, the practice “integrates ancient, millennia old, Korean philosophy and Sundo culture with applied neuroscience to teach optimal brain utilization.” That’s seems to say there’s some science, or at least thoughtful analysis, behind it.
Lee, author of 36 books, most self-published through the Dahn operation, has developed various ideas, organizations, and “systems” around brain training. He founded the International Brain Education Association, the Korean Institute of Brain Science, the University of Brain Education (it has a department of “peaceology”), and Brain Education for Peace, organizations that promote study and training of the brain for positive results for individuals and for the world.
Lee also developed The Brian Education System Training (BEST) and recently the Brain Operating System or BOS which has five parts: wake up and pay attention; good news makes a good brain; choose. If you choose it, it will happen; become the master of time and space; and design all circumstances.
That our thinking is a powerful determinant in our lives is not Lee’s mantra alone. And it’s not a new idea. From the most destructive brain training, as in brain washing, to the most freeing, as in a belief that anything is possible, there’s been lots of attention given to training or reprogramming our brains. Cognitive therapy, a recognized psychological therapy, operates on the model that our thoughts control our emotions. The book, The Secret, is all about how positive thinking can create life-changing results such as increased wealth, health, and happiness. It has sold more than 19 million copies worldwide.
The popularity of positive thinking
Motivational speakers like Tony Robbins have made a fortune promoting positive thinking and actions. Robbins’ seminars and books, like Unleash the Power Within, have amassed him about $480 million. Even traditional religions have taken up encouraging people to bring good thoughts (and good fortune) into their lives. Joel Osteen, preacher, televangelist, and pastor of the largest Protestant church in the U.S., also got rich and famous on this idea. So Lee is just one of many who has become wealthy on selling brain power.
One Dahn initiative is a glossy magazine, “BrainWorld,” published by its own organization called The Earth Citizen Way (articles in the Spring 2105 issue, interestingly, include one on brainwashing and one on Billy Crystal).
Dahn aims to engage more than your brain
According to Carla, however, the goal Dahn Yoga is to change more than the body and brain.
One of Lee’s latest books, Bird of the Soul, self-published by his publishing house, Best Life Media, includes a guided meditation CD. The book encourages readers “To free your soul, you need to release your thoughts and emotions first, and begin to listen to your soul’s voice.” Dahn Yoga, it seems, seeks to engage – and some might say control – all of you.
“When you’re really into it,” she said, “Dahn is a spiritual practice and a lifestyle. It’s not only about changing your life, getting in touch with your authentic self, your soul, but also about helping others to tap into their hearts.” It’s about believing that you can make a difference in yourself and others.
Individual change and community actions seem not enough for Lee. He planned a “Harmonic Convergence” of his own. The first Harmonic Convergence was scheduled for 1987. It was linked to an exceptional alignment of the planets. The idea was that if enough people – millions – all meditated and focused their energy on peace at the same and right time, it would change the world. It obviously didn’t bring world peace. But the goal was laudable.
According to Carla, Lee also wanted to create a similar shift in 2012. His goal was to engage 100,000 people to bring about “a change of consciousness,” to empower the heart. It didn’t happen. The goal of 100,000 wasn’t reached.
The Dahn way
Changing yourself – and the world – is a time-consuming endeavor. Carla taught classes and worked full-time at a studio for several years. She made it her life. She had to.
“It’s the Dahn way,” she said. The group of masters often lives together, as she did. “You’re surrounded by it 24/7 when you’re a master. Giving classes, selling memberships, taking workshops, giving workshops, talking about it.”
Carla was committed, and something of a star. She was sent to Boston for three months to teach classes to disadvantaged kids, she also went to Korea to demonstrate Dahn and Tai Chi. And she loved the sense of community, of something to believe in and belong to.
Carla talked a lot about the energy she felt in the practice. Although some say the energy is “life particles,” when asked, Carla hesitated, her voice dropped almost to a whisper. “When you’re deep into the practice, that energy is – is – kind of channeled though Ilchi Lee.”
Back at her home studio, Carla had membership and financial goals to meet. She was feeling more and more pressure “to meet quotas, to sign people up for memberships, enroll them in workshops, encourage them to go to Sedona” where she says, the highest level workshop of five days cost $100,000. Those were aspects she was increasingly uncomfortable with.
Alex Meyer, 29, discovered Dahn Yoga about 15 months ago at a low point in his life. Thin and 6’5,” he said he was a recluse for several years before his father helped him find Dahn Yoga. His father had had health issues. And Meyer himself was suffering from Crohn’s Disease. His parents had just divorced, like Carla’s. It was a vulnerable time in his life.
“I questioned everything,” Meyer said, “and walked away from everything. I quit my job, broke up with my girlfriend, and moved out of our place. I just felt, if you’re sick, no one would stay with you.”
Dahn Yoga filled the gap in his life. After his initial introductory session in which he was “evaluated” and introduced to the practice, he was hooked. He attended several classes a day, had pressure-point healing sessions, and took workshops. He began to live the Dahn life. He says his symptoms of Crohn’s disappeared. He’s not alone in claiming health benefits from Dahn. His father said his health problems, too, neck and bladder are better. And many such stories of healing decorate the Dahn website. Indeed, the website states Dahn Yoga “is a national leader in health and wellness,” offering classes “based on traditional Korean healing philosophy and East Asian energy principles.”
Meyer is now a master, teaching classes. Dressed in a billowy white yoga shirt and loose pants, his blue eyes twinkle behind nondescript glasses. He bows deeply and smiles. “Ban gap sum ni da,” happy to see you in Korean. He hugs some regulars.
Nine women and three men, from 20s to 70s, but mostly middle-aged, form a circle. Meyer has them tapping their abdomens (which he calls their Dahnjon) and sucking in their bellies and puffing them out, then they greet (ban gap sum ni da) and bow to each other. Moving out of the circle, Meyer leads them in various stretches – arms out wide, pressing fingers toward walls, necks forward and back, hips rotating, knees bending, and then rotating their spines to squeeze stagnant energy from their livers and stomachs.
There’s considerable talk about exercising internal organs. There’s soothing music. They hold various “breathing and energy accumulation” postures on their backs, like sleeping tiger, for up to five minutes at a time. Then there’s relaxation time and a meditation. The class ends 70 minutes later with a bow and a cheer – “healthy body, happy heart, power brain.” Some participants head for the attendance sheet and put happy faces or star stickers on the day or stay for the tea ceremony.
A Korean master led another class. The exercises were vigorous, with lots of fast arm and leg movements. Participants were encouraged to breathe out through their mouths, to breathe out energy blockages. So the room was filled with sighs. Then there was a loud gasp and a slightly overweight woman, about 50-years old, slumped to the floor, panting loudly and gasping for breath.
The master glanced at her briefly and continued directing the class in the exercise routine. A kindly looking woman stopped and knelt by the fallen participant, placed her hand on her chest, spoke soothingly to her and encouraged her to relax and breath slowly. About five minutes later, the fallen one moved to the wall, and leaned against it. The class continued on.
According to Carla, the Korean masters are more rigorous in their practice than most American teachers. “They’ve all done military service, it’s required, so they’re more disciplined,” she said.
Dahn Yoga, although mostly fronted by Americans here, has its rigorous side. Participants are challenged to hold poses, to control their bodies with their minds with statements like, “You can do this, let the natural vibrations happen, it shows where the blockages are, only one more minute, you can do it.”
Although all yoga is about connecting the mind and the body, the Dahn program goes beyond that – so is Dahn even yoga? The non-profit Yoga Alliance, a professional and trade credentialing group, with thousands of members, teachers and studios, has not one Dahn Center or teacher listed in its registry. According to Carla, Dahn teachers don’t qualify for membership. The Yoga Alliance, when asked three times to confirm whether Dahn Yoga qualifies, wouldn’t say. A spokesperson said that after looking through their records, they could not find evidence of a Dahn center applying for registration.
Dahn Yoga studios always offer Tai Chi classes also. It’s part of the full practice.
Currently there are Dahn Yoga centers in 20 states and 120 cities in the U.S., either owned by the company or by franchisees. Franchises are typically named Body + Brain Yoga. Seven other countries Canada, Germany, Japan, Korea, Russia, the UK, and Hong Kong, also have studios. A new retreat center just opened in New Zealand.
Several attempts over two weeks, by phone and email, to contact the Dahn corporate offices in Sedona went unanswered.
It’s not known how many people who attend Dahn classes continue in the practice, or how deeply they commit to all the beliefs. Not everyone claims seemingly miraculous recoveries from this practice or spends $40,000 to become a master. Some members’ names on the attendance sheet at the SE Denver Dahn center sport only an occasional star or happy face sticker. Some are blank – maybe they dropped out.
Ken McCarty, a tall, thin, retired accountant, said he “comes for the exercise.” He’s been attending classes once or twice a week for about three months. “It’s a good change of pace from other exercise programs,” he said. He moved toward the door, turned, and added, “You can put whatever time and effort into it you want. You can come to class and leave or if you seek a higher level, that’s fine.”
Possible not to be absorbed?
Carla, who now lives with her boyfriend and pools resources to get by, still goes to classes but says she has mixed feelings. She misses the high she got from the practice – the exercise, the energy, the communal meditation, the sense of doing good, and of belonging to a community of like-minded people. She’d like to teach again, to make a living on it.
Two things stand in her way. She would have to take workshops again to reinstate herself as a master. Those would cost money she doesn’t have. But there seems to another reason, just as compelling. “When you’re a master or really into it, it’s your life 24/7, it’s Dahn, Dahn, Dahn,” she said. Maybe that’s where the “cult” accusation enters in. “I just don’t want it to be my whole life anymore,” she said.
The Dahn practice seems to have a set of spiritual and lifestyle beliefs that demand total absorption when you’re really committed to the practice, and that can cause problems for leading a balanced life.
There’s the hard sell and the pressure to fully engage – mind, body, heart, soul – and wallet. If you’re not careful how much of each you invest – feeling Dahn good can make you feel bad.
Copyright, 2015, Bojinka Bishop, story and photos
Full disclosure – the author had attend Dahn classes and had been pressured to take workshops and extend her membership, and go deeper and deeper into the Dahn world. She no longer attends.
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