Fatal Trek

The mysterious desert death of a Brooklyn yoga devotee

The Village Voice/July 11, 2006
By Kathryn Belgiorno

Every day for a year and a half, Julia Siverls practiced an eclectic Korean style of yoga called Dahn. She started each morning with meditation and breathing exercises, then sandwiched her day job as a college professor between hours spent as a Dahn volunteer—teaching classes, distributing recruitment flyers, or researching potential locations for new centers. Julia approached her spiritual life with the same diligence she applied to everything else. Having grown up in a rough Brooklyn housing project, she went on to stack up not one but two master's degrees and a doctorate. A certificate dated July 14, 2003, signifies her crowning achievement in yoga: becoming a master instructor. Sadly, Julia could not attend the graduation ceremony held in Sedona, Arizona, at the Ilchi Meditation Center, a resort-style compound that serves as Dahn's U.S. headquarters. On July 12, at the age of 41, she died on a nearby mountain while training to be a Dahn master.

There are 147 Dahn centers in cities throughout the United States, and they advocate a triangular model of health: The bottom tier consists of physical concerns, emotional elements are in the middle, and spiritual aspects are at the top. As one Dahn instructor puts it, the spiritual potential of an individual can't be fulfilled if the body isn't healthy. Ergo, Dahn: a catchall term for a blend of yoga, tai chi, and martial arts exercises. According to promotional materials, Dahn was born in 1983 after founder Dr. Ilchi Lee "helped a half-paralyzed stroke victim regain his health and confidence at a local park in rural Korea" by updating 5,000-year-old martial arts moves.

From another set of documents, a different picture of Dahn emerges. In a 109-point civil complaint, nine of Julia's brothers and sisters allege that Dahn masters "forced and coerced" her to practice their brand of yoga, ultimately compelling her to attend the deadly yoga retreat. They charge that members of Dahn laced her food with drugs before leading her on a grueling mountain hike, during which, despite indications she was struggling, they denied her medical care. And along with various former group members and experts on the topic, they believe that Dahn is a cult. (A Dahn spokesperson denies all allegations.)

The Siverls family didn't always feel this way—at first, they celebrated Julia's involvement with Dahn. In a memorial booklet distributed at her funeral mass, a picture of the petite, 5-1 Julia in her yoga uniform graced the front flap, with an image of a mountain on the back. "While pursuing one of her greatest passions she attained the title of 'Sambumnim Master' at the Dahn Institute," reads one passage. "She believed as [Dahn] taught, 'Awaken the healer within. Develop it. Master it. Heal yourself, your family, society, and the earth.' "

Two of Julia's siblings spent several days in Sedona following her death. Their hosts treated them graciously, Alephia (Siverls) Gelber says, but they were isolated from other guests and received little information about Julia other than an "impression she died peacefully, looking up with a smile on her face." They had hoped to gain an understanding of what happened on the mountain that day. "But we went there stumped and we came back stumped," Robert Siverls says.

Three days after Julia's death, Detective John McDormett of the Yavapai County Sheriff's Office questioned the four trainees and one full-fledged master who were with Julia on the hike. It was odd that the hikers were unable to link any of the day's events to specific times, the detective noted, but still, the story they told him separately was essentially the same: They set out from the retreat center around seven in the morning, backpacks stocked with food and water. In the afternoon, Julia collapsed twice but pushed forward; after she started shaking and would not eat or drink, the leader of the group, Master Charlie, called for help. Julia's death was ruled an accident and the case was closed.

But late in August, when the family received a copy of the sheriff's report, says Veronica Siverls-Dunham, Julia's sister and the administratrix of her estate, they learned for the first time about an off-duty deputy who had been riding his ATV down Casner Mountain—elevation 4,500 feet—when he spotted five people clustered around a woman who "appeared to have difficulty walking. . . . I saw the black woman fall to the ground and land on her hands and knees. . . . Both the man and the woman reached underneath [her] armpits and tried to lift while continuing to walk. They began dragging her for a short distance. The woman was unable to get to her feet."

The sheriff's deputy noted that the group "did not appear to be carrying a large amount of water, and it was already very hot at 9:30" a.m. It was this detail that stunned the Siverls family, since the 911 call hadn't come in until 4:30 p.m. "That means all day long she was suffering," Alephia says. "That's what is really unbelievable, that this organization that preaches love would allow someone to suffer to death."

And there's more that doesn't add up, from the cause of Julia's death— dehydration due to heatstroke and environmental exposure—to the question of whether there was methadone in her blood (and if there was, how it got there), to the off-duty deputy's description of Julia. "My first impression was that the black woman was mentally handicapped because of her poor coordination," he wrote. "The group . . . did not appear to be in the physical shape necessary for doing such a strenuous hike." By all accounts, Julia was a health fiend who eschewed medication, never left home without a bottle of water, and most importantly, was more than up to the task of a wilderness trek—she had faced down far greater challenges in her life.

"How does someone survive the Marcy projects and die on a mountaintop?" her brother Robert Siverls asks. "It's like, wait a minute—she spent her life dodging bullets, not getting pregnant, not having a man beating on her and all that craziness, and this is how her life is ended?"

The Siverls family lived in the notorious Bedford-Stuyvesant housing development—storied now on account of former resident Jay-Z—from the late '40s to the mid '80s. Their home was filled with a lot of love, Robert says: "A strong bond kept the family together, rooted in a really hip, wise interpretation of the streets from our father, and a deep spiritual connection from our mother," who raised her children Catholic.

"We have this whole idea of surviving, of education as a choice of weapon, that's paramount to us," Robert continues. The siblings passed on both what they learned and the money they earned to the next in line. As the youngest of 12, Julia raised the bar highest, channeling the family's work ethic into a bachelor's degree in economics from Antioch College, a master's degree in urban affairs and public policy from the New School, and master's and doctoral degrees in education from the University of Iowa. In 2002, she became a professor of education at Queensborough Community College and was approaching tenure before she died.

Yoga might seem like an unlikely calling for such an ambitious, achievement- oriented woman, but with its mind- bending tangle of schools, workshops, and courses with names like "Aura Healing" and "Meditation Therapy"—and its emphasis on progressing through levels and notching certificates—it resembled the academic system in which she thrived.

Her sister Alephia points out that Julia also "wanted to get to a higher level of consciousness." She practiced hatha yoga for years before turning to Dahn late in 2001. And Dahn's mission—helping individuals heal themselves—appears to have had particular resonance for her. Friends say that back in 2001, a serious car accident left her immobilized with a severe back injury for months. "That was a turning point for her, when she decided she wanted to be really healthy," a close friend says. "Yoga was one way to take care of her body." According to the Siverlses' lawsuit, Julia was in top condition at the time of the hike. Family members insist that the car accident was no big deal. As to whether she might have been taking painkillers for her back injury (which could have turned up as methadone in the postmortem report), Alephia says, "Absolutely not."

In the week before Julia's fatal hike, the group of five aspiring masters trained hard —so hard, says a former master named Robert, who was on the trek, that he sustained a knee injury that would later lead him to successfully sue for workmen's compensation from Dahn. Yet he pushed forward anyway. "The trip was mandatory to [Robert's] job," says Edward Hilfer, his attorney in that case. "In order to get to a higher level, you had to go through this training."

The training program involved exercises intended to encourage teamwork, such as spoon-feeding each other or racing without using your legs. Others, such as walking across a log suspended in the air, tested the potential masters' courage. According to Robert, Julia struggled with many of these. "I don't want it sounding like I'm being critical of her, but before we did certain tests . . . she would start to twitch and stutter," he says. "I didn't know her to be that way before. In New York she seemed tough and outgoing."

Julia complained frequently throughout the week to their leaders, so on the day of the hike she was told to remain silent. "We all had different jobs to do," Robert explains. "I was given a job as motivator. I was not allowed to say anything negative." But as early as two to three miles into the hike—where the deputy saw the group at the base of the mountain—both Robert and Julia had started to stray from their assigned tasks. And even after Julia "started breaking down, to the point she was crying, saying, 'I don't want to continue anymore, I want to die,' " Robert says the group prodded her to try harder. "I was screaming at the top of my lungs, 'Julia, let's go now.' . . . If I had to drag her up the hill I would have. And I'm sorry to say that," he says. "I switched from the nice, supportive person I am to, 'I'm getting off this mountain alive.' "

Robert casts the hikers as a group so in thrall to Dahn and the desire to become masters that they lost the ability to act rationally. He says that their leaders at the retreat center told them in no uncertain terms that if they didn't finish the hike, they would fail to become masters.

In the last hours of her life, Julia was no longer outgoing, ambitious, or even nervous—she was unconscious. As Robert tells it, Master Charlie picked her up and carried her to a tree, under which he estimates the group spent three hours. He had the impression that the master was "waiting for Julia to wake up so we could continue." Once Julia began shaking, the group panicked. Master Charlie used a stick to manipulate pressure points on her hands and feet and tried to revive her before one hiker started to administer CPR. She shouted that Julia was wearing a necklace with a medal of the Virgin Mary. The group began to pray out loud.

In November 2004, prompted by Veronica Siverls-Dunham—who was looking for closure and wanted to contact the hikers herself—Detective McDormett called Robert. What Robert said on the phone that day and later wrote in an affidavit led the sheriff's office to reopen its investigation in June 2005. He told McDormett that the key to the mystery of Julia's death was the hikers' backpacks: Instead of containing appropriate provisions (he said the hikers were given only four 10- to 16-ounce bottles of water and two pieces of fruit to share), their bags were filled with rocks. Master Charlie instructed the trainees to gather 40 pounds each from the retreat center grounds and weigh them on a scale. By the time police and paramedics arrived, the rocks were gone from the packs, emptied by Master Charlie and another hiker, according to Robert.

Robert says that he was "coached" by Dahn employees at the meditation center to tell the police that they carried enough food and water with them on the trip. As for the rocks, "We were told not to bring [them] up, that I know for sure," he says. "It was not only implied, it was stated very clearly." But if there was a cover-up, the sheriff's office and the D.A. found insufficient evidence of it. They also could not rule out the possibility that the methadone in her system came from a prescription painkiller and closed the second criminal investigation last fall.

Dahn spokesperson Charlotte Connors disputes many elements of Robert's story. She says the hike is "not very arduous" and maintains that all the Dahn yoga training she has done is less strenuous than her college field hockey training. In an e-mail, she writes, "the Coconino Forest Service reports that the Casner Mountain Trail is 2.5 miles long." (The U.S. Forest Service website, in its Coconino National Forest section, states that the trail is seven miles.) Furthermore, based on what the hikers originally told investigators, "it is a fact" that they had water. And, she writes, there is no requirement to carry rocks.

Former and current masters alike are familiar with the hike and the rocks in question. Rose, a current master who was a close friend of Julia, likens carrying the rocks to "praying for a person, and the amount depends on how many people you're making a sacrifice for." She won't reveal how many she carried on her own hike to become a master, late in 2003. As for the provisions she carried on her own hike, Rose offers an unusual response: "It's not really a wise thing to bring food. . . . The food will make you heavy. Even water—when you see the marathon, they don't encourage anyone to drink water, because the water also will slow you down, slow your metabolism. It's just like any other sports training."

Gladys Wesley-Kennedy, a former master, who earned her stripes in Sedona in 2002, is not surprised that a masters' training session would come to tragic end. Not long before Julia's death, Dahn began mass- producing masters, she says, targeting certain American members with "good energy" and hurrying them through the intense training process.

At the root of this push for masters, according to Wesley-Kennedy and other former Dahn members, is money. In their civil complaint, the Siverls family cites a labyrinth of 12 for-profit and nonprofit corporate entities that they allege are "secretly link[ed] . . . to disguise the size of the organization and shelter the Dahn Hak Cult's income and assets," as well as Dahn's founder, Ilchi Lee. Critics of Dahn claim that Ilchi Lee is purveying faux enlightenment for very real profit. According to the Siverlses' complaint, Dahn lures members with free classes and then pressures them to spend big on retreats, workshops, and healing sessions, an allegation based at least in part on the more than $15,000 Julia paid out to Dahn. An annual membership in New York City runs almost $2,000; in its Brooklyn Heights center, Dahn charges $29 for an initial consultation. The hour is capped by an aggressive sales pitch to become a member, complete with instructions to "feel" the decision to join, rather than think about it, and a warning that choosing the gym over Dahn will lead to the buildup of toxins in the body. The session ends with a hug.

Former Dahn masters say the pressure to buy Dahn membership pales in comparison to the pressure to sell it. The masters at each center determine their "vision" for the month—a target amount of money and members—and an internal website details their failures and successes. Tales also abound of masters who are convinced to practice celibacy and separate from family and friends. One former master offers that because "Dahn doesn't really want people to live with non-Dahn people," he finally gave up his Manhattan apartment, sleeping instead at the center where he worked. Finding fault with Dahn is verboten, former masters say, explained away as "bad energy."

Perhaps the alleged dark side of Dahn was dramatized during Julia's hike. Like other holistic or spiritual traditions, Dahn is rooted in the notion that pain and struggle beget enlightenment: The hot sun and heavy rocks, like uncooperative family members or diseases, are obstacles that must be both embraced and overcome.

A book published by Dahn's founder in 1999 underscores the point. In Heaven Within, a woman named Kari journeys from Sedona to Korea, submitting to an intense physical regimen that includes hanging upside down, sitting in an isolation booth, and consuming only pine tree pollen, then only water, then only fruit. In one eerily prescient passage, Kari falls and strikes her head and shoulder on a rock. She angrily asks her master, "Don't you people realize you could be sued?" Kari's odyssey—and suffering—end with her experiencing a "radical spiritual transformation." The book reads like an allegory, but the preface says it is inspired by real-life events. On the last page are addresses of Dahn centers across the country, below a heading that reads, "Where to Experience Heaven Within."

Julia's defining characteristics— her strong ambition, spirituality, benevolence, and belief in the goodness of others—may have proven to be as fatal as they were admirable. But the Siverls family's looming civil trial could hinge on another quality: Julia's autonomy.

"The family has to remember that Julia wasn't a baby," says Rose. "She made her own decisions, and knowing her, you don't force her to do things she doesn't want to do." It is this very independence that leads the family to conclude Julia was victimized by a cult. Cult expert Rick Ross, whom the family has retained as an expert witness, believes Julia was brainwashed via training sessions that involve an intense emotional component, such as a weekend workshop Dahn sells called Shim-Sung. ("With the changes in their personalities through Shim-Sung, practitioners are able to realign their lives toward their true purpose," reads a passage from one of Ilchi Lee's books.)

It is indeed difficult to comprehend why five seemingly intelligent adults continued on a hike that was killing one of them, or what kind of hold Dahn could have had over a bright woman like Julia, but one former master has a thought. "When you're there, you meet the most wonderful people and have the best relationships you ever had in your entire life, because—in the beginning—there's no pressure, other than you're all training together, you're having a great time, going out to dinner, having parties," Robert says. "It was such a tight-knit thing. Suddenly you're hanging out with these people and everybody loves you and cares for you. The next thing you know you're being manipulated. And the next thing you know, you're in the desert."

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