Ben Lucal of Brookline, Mass., joined Dahnhak in December after finding a flier on his doorstep advertising yoga. He started attending classes daily, but said he was pressured to get more involved.
"The masters would regularly take me aside and ask me personal questions and see if they could get me to sign up for more stuff," the 21-year-old said. "They'd really try to frame it as things in my life needed to be solved by doing their practices. Everyone seemed really nice. They talked a lot about trusting."
He signed up for a series of workshops, one called "initial awakening" and another called "shim sung," Korean for true self. The latter was held in Cambridge, where the group rented a big hall for the weekend.
"They had us standing and hitting ourselves in the gut really hard, standing in positions for a long time, screaming out things like 'Who am I?' and 'What do I want?' They were telling us these were healing techniques to get you to open up yourself."
Drums played as a woman over a loudspeaker shouted out, "Scream louder. Louder. Hit yourself harder. Harder," Lucal said.
"It's all very confusing, but you're given the feeling that something wise and bigger is at hand," he said. "All of the masters and mentors around are very confident that what's happening is really for the greater good, that life will be completely different now that you know your true self."
He went to a similar gathering in Sedona, called YEHA (Young Earth Human Alliance), at which Grand Master Seung Heun Lee addressed about 500 participants in Korean, using an English translator.
"We all had to rehearse standing in perfect lines and bowing," Lucal said. "We were told he was going to come in and that he would say this word in Korean, then we had to say some Korean words back to him. We basically were supposed to give him a Pope-like treatment. We were set up to receive him as this great messiah who had organized everything for us."
He said the programs were the first of many incremental steps toward him becoming a Dahn master who would work full-time for the group, a prospect he embraced because it appealed to his highest ideals.
"They were claiming to offer me an opportunity to be a healer and help people grow spiritually, improve lives and create a utopia on the planet Earth," he said.
But he was also a little skeptical, particularly after a Dahn master back home asked him to pay $10,000 for a series of private healing sessions — at $300 an hour.
"My whole body tightened up and I was like, 'Wow, what's happening?' " he said. "I had the gut feeling that something was really wrong."
At his parents' urging, he said, he reached out to a counselor who specializes in cults and also did his own investigating by speaking with former members about their experiences, then decided to leave the group earlier this year.