Suffering From a Stress-Related Illness or Finding It Difficult to Concentrate?

Daily Breeze/December 27, 2005
By Melissa Heckscher

Everybody wants to get smarter.

Sure, we could read Tolstoy or stutter over advanced arithmetic, but who has that kind of time? In today's microwave-it-in-the-bag and eat-it-in-the-car world, wouldn't most of us rather take some sort of intelligence elixir? A get-smart panacea?

Some would hope so. Go to the supermarket and you'll find several ways to ingest ginkgo biloba, an herb purported to improve mental clarity and ward off Alzheimer's (it is infused into juices, gum and pills). Or browse the racks at your local music store and find mind- boosters such as "Tune Your Brain With Mozart" and "Music for Concentration."

And then there's brain respiration, which can be practiced locally at the Torrance Dahn Center.

The practice, founded in 1985 by Sedona, Ariz.,-based spiritual leader Ilchi Lee, involves concentrating the flow of energy to the brain, thereby allegedly boosting oxygen and blood flow to the region.

Dahnhak yoga is a modernized version of an ancient Korean practice: "Dahn," meaning energy, and "hak," meaning "study of." Also called Dahn yoga, it combines brain respiration with aspects of yoga, martial arts, visualization and stretching.

"It can help with every stress-related health problem," says Ben Greene, who teaches Dahn at the Torrance Dahn Center. "We have a very clear idea of what it means to become healthy."

Followers call Dahn life-changing; critics call it a cult. In any case, it's growing.

There are hundreds of Dahnhak centers worldwide, with 15 locations in the Los Angeles area, including the Dahn Center in Torrance.

Mastering a reporter's brain.

"Are you the master of your brain?" Lee asks in his book, Brain Respiration.

Uh. Maybe?

One of my editors is stumped.

"Brain respi-what?"


"Huh." He taps his head. "I need some brain respiration."

Don't we all.

Sure, this brain respiration thing (or anything that claims to bring peace, health, and happiness all-in-one-package) may seem a little questionable -- more so if you Google it, where dozens of bulletin board postings call Dahn yoga a "dangerous cult" and a money-making scheme. But the brochure advertised improved concentration, and I've already tried Gingko.

When I walk into the studio at the small, nondescript Hawthorne Boulevard location, eight students already are doing an exercise that involves bouncing up and down while lightly tapping their "Dahn Jons," the area just below their belly buttons. This is supposed to stimulate their bodies' energy.

Reluctantly (I don't dance), I join them. Our synchronized belly- tapping strengthens, the whole of it sounding like a muffled drum beat. We close our eyes and take turns counting to 10.

"People use their brain in very habitual ways," says Greene, an Orange County native . "However many years we've spent being alive we've spent disconnecting from our bodies "

Greene leads the class through a series of exercises. Some of them are yogalike, with long stretches and outstretched poses; others are metaphysical, including an exercise that involves feeling "heat energy" between our outstretched hands.

(I have to admit I felt something. It could have been energy -- or, with all that outstretching, my hands were simply numb.)

"How did everyone feel today?" Greene asks later as we sit in a circle and drink from small cups of tea, as is the Dahn tradition.

"I really needed this," says a woman to my side. The holiday season can be stressful, she says. Dahn helps her relax.

Debbi D'Aquino, an enthusiastic San Pedro woman, speaks next:

"I felt something," she says, sticking her hands out in front of her chest, palms up, and motioning them back and forth as if weighing something invisible in her hands. "My eyes were closed, but I could see my hands moving."

She is elated. A 52-year-old former hatha yoga instructor who has suffered from longtime back problems, she started coming to the Dahn Yoga Center almost two months ago and now comes three times a week.

"I'm not one to go to the doctor," she says. "After two sessions, I started feeling a slight difference in my body. After two weeks it was 75 percent better."

Paul Williamson, a Torrance resident, started taking Dahn classes after a bout with depression.

"I was at a tough point in my life," says Williamson, a baby- faced 25-year-old with bright blue eyes. "I was really depressed and I knew that antidepressants weren't the right answer."

Williamson says the practice has upped his self-esteem and helped his depression. He is now training to be a Dahn teacher.

But not all reviews are so glowing.

A darker side?

Rick Ross, founder of the New Jersey-based Rick A. Ross Institute for the Study of Destructive Cults, Controversial Groups and Movements, says he receives numerous complaints about Dahn and that the organization has "disturbing parallels" to destructive cults.

"I have probably received more than 100 complaints to date," said Ross, who has been collecting information about cults since 1982. "By comparison, I don't receive any complaints concerning the overwhelming majority of yoga centers, exercise studios and martial arts schools."

"The group exploits people," he continued. "[I receive] complaints about high-pressure sales tactics, the terms of long- term contracts, high fees for services, expensive uniforms and retreats."

Darkening the allegations is an $84 million lawsuit filed by the family of a 41-year-old New York college professor who died of apparent heat exhaustion during a 2003 Dahn retreat in Sedona. In the lawsuit, attorneys call her death a result of negligence.

Greene said in his eight years studying, he has never seen a dark side to Dahn.

"To judge the whole practice based on one incident is small- minded," he said. "There are so many more people that have judged it in a positive way."

Greene wouldn't comment on annual fees at the Torrance center, but said it works out to about $8-$15 a session. Uniforms come with memberships, and buying ancillary products -- including a set of vibrating instruments that look like brains designed to stimulate the body's energy -- is voluntary. One member said her yearly fees range near $1,700.

"It's a very individualized program," Greene said. "This is not just a class. We're really helping people to get healthy."

Karen "Lucky" Thornton, a spokeswoman at Dahn headquarters in Sedona, said cult accusations come from misunderstanding.

"If we take the evolution of the human species into consideration, everything once started out as a cult," Thornton said. "The only difference between a cult and a cult-ure is one of number. Say if only 10,000 people followed the same belief system and way of life, we may term it a cult; however, if 10 million people followed that cult's same belief system and way of life, then we may comfortably term it to be a cult-ure."

Feeling smarter?

As I write this story, drinking focus-flavored Vitamin Water and feeling no post-workout soreness from my Dahn experience, I think to myself: Do I feel smarter?

Greene said it takes weeks to months before participants feel the effects of the training. But still, I wonder, was my brain "respirated?"

Hold on.

I forgot something in the car.

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