Yoga Cult: An I-Team Investigation

KLAS TV Las Vegas/February 24, 2006
By George Knapp

A hybrid form of Korean yoga has really caught on in America over the past few years. It's called Dahn Hak, and while it's popular with tens of thousands of students, for many, it feels like a religious cult. Dozens of former Dahn students have alleged that brainwashing and mind control techniques are used, along with high-pressure sales tactics. And now, a program inspired by Dahn Hak has made it into our public schools.

Proponents of Dahn Hak make no secret of their intentions. They want to change the way people think. They use something called brain respiration to stimulate and energize the mind. A lot of people say it's changed their life for the better. Others say this is a religious cult. Parents of students at one local school are going to be surprised to hear about what's behind some of the stuff their kids are learning.

Dahn Hak yoga has made major inroads in the ten years since it made the jump from South Korea to the U.S. It now has 147 centers in 14 states, including two centers in Southern Nevada. An estimated 50,000 Americans enjoy the unique blend of yoga, martial arts, and eastern spirituality.

Charlotte Connors, a Dahn Hak instructor, said, "It was so beneficial for me physically and emotionally. I was like, I want to be a teacher." Dahn Hak instructor Art Laquidara said, "My experience is that this is a fantastic organization for holistic healing and wellness."

Dahn Hak was born in Korea in the mid 80s, created by Il Chi Lee, now known as Master Lee. Lee essentially hopes to change the consciousness of the planet, in part by helping people to make better use of their brains. After getting into trouble in the early 90s for manufacturing illegal health supplements, Lee brought his expertise to a new headquarters in Sedona, Arizona and turned it into a multi-million dollar business empire with legions of devoted followers. But not everyone sees Dahn Hak in a positive light. In fact, many former students believe it's a cult that depends on mind control, brainwashing, and pushy sales tactics to win converts.

Cult expert Steve Hassan [Warning: Steve Hassan is not recommended by this Web site. Read the detailed disclaimer to understand why.] said, "This is a totalitarian, authoritarian Korean cult that wants you to stop thinking and become a clone." Hassan says he has counseled -- and deprogrammed -- 14 former Dahn Hak students and that, in his opinion, this organization fits the classic mold. "I see a lot of people after they've left the group. They're still distraught having panic attacks, anxiety attacks, sleep problems, nightmares."

A former Dahn Hak student told the I-Team, "I felt like I was in shock." This Las Vegas woman, we'll call her "Cheryl," says her experience with Dahn Hak was one of the worst decisions of her life. She visited the Dahn center in Summerlin to take yoga but quickly realized this wasn't like any yoga she knew about. The instructors told her they could basically fix whatever was wrong with her.

Cheryl said, "It will cure depression, your high blood pressure. It will cure any ailment, any medical ailment you might be suffering with." At the urging of her instructor, Cheryl signed up for a weekend retreat in California where she says she was systematically and emotionally deconstructed. She returned to Las Vegas a basket case.

She explained, "I couldn't sleep, I couldn't eat. I felt like I was drugged." She was hospitalized for three days and then was treated by a psychiatrist who said she'd been through mental abuse similar to a prisoner of war. Cheryl continued, "...said it was a cult and I was suffering from post traumatic stress disorder."

It was Cheryl who told the I-Team that Dahn instructors had created a special program for school kids at Booker Elementary in Las Vegas. A teacher at Booker who was a Dahn disciple started it five years ago. Another Dahn instructor, university professor Geoffrey Leigh, took it over. The intent is to use so-called brain respiration to energize and motivate the students. To date, there's little empirical evidence to suggest it does much for grades or test scores, but the kids sure seem to enjoy it.

Dr. Leigh says it's not really a Dahn connected program. "It really isn't a type of brainwashing, as much as trying to encourage, like other brain programs for kids, to use their brains. In ways they can choose to do so."

Booker Elementary Principal Beverly Mathis says this is called "Wake-up" not Dahn Hak, although until the I-Team told her, she had no idea about Dahn or the allegations made against it by dozens of former students like Cheryl posted on anti-cult Internet sites. "No, I hadn't heard of that until a few days ago," she said.

From what we saw during limited visits, we heard no attempts to brainwash the kids at Booker Elementary, and the students did seem energized by the exercises. But the critics say this kind of technique for youngsters makes it far more likely they can get sucked into Dahn Hak later in life.

Friday a 5 p.m., the I-Team will look at just what the Booker students are learning, and whether it does any good. And we'll also tell you what happened when we sent an undercover producer into a Dahn center to sign up.

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