Korean spiritual leader's brain respiration movement is catching on locally

Seattle Post-Intelligencer/July 17, 2004

When we heard that there was a sold-out Brain Respiration Festival today in Seattle, naturally our curiosity was piqued.

Brain respiration? Say what?

New mind-body trends seem to pop up all the time, and this one already has spawned seven centers in the Puget Sound area with an impassioned following. Another two will open soon.

About 1,000 people are attending the one-day Brain Respiration Festival at Meany Hall on the University of Washington campus. Schools in Las Vegas, the Los Angeles area and Florida are using brain respiration techniques in the classroom. The movement has its own quarterly magazine, body & brain.

Developed by Korean spiritual leader Ilchi Lee, brain respiration is a "system of brain-based meditation techniques and physical exercises that seek to awaken the deepest potential of the human brain." His message might be summed up best by one of his sayings: "Change your brain and you can change your life."

Lee says that with his training, a person can decrease stress, use more of the brain than the standard 10 percent and learn to discard negative, hard-wired emotions and habits.

Adherents say this isn't just another fad. They say the proof is the people who leave healthier and happier after practicing it.

"Everything that has to do with human health, including creativity and enlightenment, has to do with the human brain. It's not an overstatement to say that the human brain is life itself," Lee said via a translator.

Lee, 53, also modernized Dahnhak, an ancient Korean mind-body-spirit tradition of optimizing one's energy, or ki. Most of the places where both practices are taught call themselves "yoga" centers, though there's no downward dog and the techniques are often very different from Hatha yoga.

Complementary practices, Dahnhak and brain respiration aren't easily defined. They combine elements of religion, self-help, meditation, healing and Eastern philosophy and medicine with martial arts movements, stretching, tai chi, specialized breathing, visualization and more. Other techniques include tapping or thumping parts of the body to release "stagnant" energy, self-massage and even occasional dancing to disco.

The ultimate goal of brain respiration and Dahnhak, said Lee, is to develop a "power brain" that is creative, peaceful and productive.

Certainly, there is plenty of research showing that exercise and cognitive stimulation help keep a brain "young."

But Lee isn't concerned that there's no proof positive of his theories and training. "There's a lot of facts and truth out there that science can't verify yet," said Lee, who is now based in Sedona, Ariz. "It's science's job to catch up."

Lee and his Web site say that the University of California at Irvine's Center for Brain Aging and Dementia is studying his methodology. Not so, they say. An assistant to the director there, Dr. Carl Cotman, adds, "We do not endorse him. At all."

Lee said he began developing his training about 25 years ago when he did 21-day solitary retreats.

He started testing whether his theories and methods would help others, first working with one person in a park. Now, an estimated million people practice Dahnhak and brain respiration, most in Korea.

To doubters, he likes to say that it was only a few hundred years ago that humankind thought the sun revolved around the Earth.

Studying Dahnhak and brain respiration isn't cheap. Students are encouraged to come three times a week and employees say the cost works out to $8 to $15 per class. A three-month membership with unlimited classes costs $390. But they say many can practice at home after about a year of study, and there are books and videos for those who don't go to the centers.

They also sell products that supposedly help energy flow, such as necklaces and bracelets, and a $90 "power brain," a "portable brain energizer," in the form of a spongy, yellow noggin that vibrates and fits in one's palm.

Participants wear martial arts-style uniforms. They emphasize etiquette, bowing and greeting each other in Korean, often with hugs.

"We just teach and let people experience. At first, we just transfer cosmic energy to people," said Geum Hwa, the regional manager for Dahn centers in the Puget Sound area. "But after you learn how to, you can create your own energy."

Most find out about the training through fliers or word-of-mouth. Many who come through the door have depression, stress or loneliness, Hwa said. A new student first has an "aura picture" taken, and gets an "energy checkup" before an individualized training plan is created.

Janice Marshall was shopping at a PCC store when the Dahn center in Kirkland caught her eye. She decided to try it for a month. "I had a lot going on. I was really depressed. My sister had died within the past year. And my favorite cat in the world had died." Suffering from a litany of ailments, including acid reflux, allergies, back pain and hypoglycemia, Marshall, 52, said she felt better within two weeks and had experienced an 80 percent improvement in her symptoms within one month.

"I was just feeling so good and confident and happy to be here," said Marshall, who's now been studying for 10 months. "I just felt enveloped with life."

Janet Turpen, 54, is in her fourth week of training. Initially, she came to learn tai chi, but realized that Dahnhak was far more than that. She became increasingly open to the spiritual part of it and now goes to class five days a week.

Her children and husband were more skeptical of the odd-sounding practice.

"One of my children said, 'You're not joining a cult, are you?' " Turpen said. "It does sound a little nutty trying to explain it."

But Turpen, who works in franchise and government relations for Comcast, says it has been more effective for her insomnia and back pain than anything she has ever tried.

"I sleep so much better at night; I'm so calm now," she said.

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