The Scary Yoga Obsession

Thousands of young women have turned to the popular Dahn Yoga practice, and many say they love it. But now some former members are making shocking charges of greed, psychological manipulation and sexual assault. Who’s right?

Glamour Magazine/December 8, 2009

Lucie Vogel tells a harrowing story, but it begins with a scene of complete serenity. Nine years ago, she says, she lay stretched out on a woven mat in a dimly lit room, breathing in the scent of incense. On the walls around her, posters bore the graceful strokes of Korean calligraphy. A man in a cotton tunic and loose-fitting pants was giving Lucie, then 20, what he called an energy evaluation, firmly applying pressure to various points on her body. This wasn’t exactly what she’d envisioned when she called to sign up for an introductory yoga class, but it felt good-really good-so she was going with the flow. And why not? Lucie, a sophomore at the intensely competitive Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), had been feeling anxious lately, not like her usual outgoing and confident self. The product of a loving family, she’d always excelled in academics and just about everything she tried: She was an accomplished double bass player, a strong skier and a fearless mountain biker. But the rigors of studying to be an environmental engineer had become overwhelming, and she feared she would fall behind. Then she’d spotted a flyer for yoga and tai chi. "I thought it might help me feel more grounded and happy," she says.

At the end of that first session in September 2000, Lucie says the instructor told her she had "energy blockages" that were likely contributing to her unhappiness. He said he believed she was seeking more from life. "Here I am, 20 years old, feeling the most relaxed I’ve ever been," Lucie says, "and this mystical dude tells me he can help me find enlightenment. I’m like, OK!"

Lucie registered for a Dahn membership and started taking yoga classes several times a week. Within a month, she felt happier and less stressed; the lower back pain she’d had from a bike fall disappeared. But that’s where Lucie’s account of her experience with Dahn takes a turn. Her yoga practice, she says, quickly became more intense. She was taken under the wing of a "master" at the center, in whom she confided her growing fears about falling behind at school and her struggle to figure out what she was meant to contribute to the world. According to Lucie, the master said that she could solve all of her problems with more Dahn Yoga training. Intrigued, Lucie signed up for a series of workshops at Dahn centers. At the workshops, she says, she was taught that the path to her enlightenment lay in Dahn, but that the process of finding her true self would be painful and difficult. It was a challenge that Lucie, who’d always been competitive, found potently seductive. And so she began to turn away from her old routines-the long walks with her dog, the dinner parties with friends, the weekend ski trips and movie nights with her boyfriend-in favor of the new world she’d found within Dahn. "With most people, you encounter boundaries, a wall or distance," says Lucie. "In Dahn, I felt genuine connections. People were so open and honest. They got to know me and advised me on how to manage things that felt unmanageable."

Encouraged, she says, to focus her energies on her spiritual growth, she dismantled her old life piece by piece. She broke up with her boyfriend, traded in her jeans and T-shirts for traditional Korean clothing, chopped off her long curly hair, dropped out of MIT and began amassing huge debts to pay for classes and workshops. "Behind that sweet honey I was fed at the start," says Lucie, "came, little by little, drops of poison." Ultimately, she says, her seven years in Dahn damaged her family relationships, cost her nearly $85,000 and left her profoundly traumatized.

Lucie isn’t the only one raising serious questions about the organization-others echo her experience and allege traumas of their own. But a vocal opposing camp extols the virtues of Dahn. What’s really going on in this popular yoga chain?

"It felt like falling in love"

Say the word cult and many people think of Waco’s Branch Davidians or the horrific mass suicide in Jonestown, Guyana. It hardly seems likely that the term would apply to a chain of clean, airy yoga studios-a brand hyped on some local TV news shows, no less. Yet noted cult experts such as Steven Hassan, Cathleen Mann, Ph.D., and Joseph Szimhart say that Dahn fits the profile. "It’s very aggressive," says Szimhart, an author of numerous studies on cults. "There’s an indoctrination process that quickly undermines free will." Adds Hassan, author of Combatting Cult Mind Control, who’s talked to 85 former Dahn devotees: "Dahn has been flying under the radar. But it is one of the more destructive and harmful cults out there." Hassan also believes that, because Dahn uses yoga to attract members, it has been successful at recruiting young women. "Many women use Dahn centers like regular yoga studios and go home to their normal lives when class is over," Hassan says. But "a small portion become enmeshed like Lucie did. Of those true believers, many are young, bright, upper-middle-class women looking for their place in the world."

Last May, 27 of these former devotees-22 women (including Lucie) and five men-banded together to file a complaint. Among their accusations: Dahn persuaded them to "disconnect from their previous life, including friends and family." They charge "psychological manipulation, thought reform and undue influence" to coerce them into "becoming disciples" and "donating" all their money to the organization. It’s money, they say, that Ilchi Lee, who founded Dahn in his native Korea in 1983, used to fund his "extravagant lifestyle." One woman is also accusing Lee of "sexual assault," a claim Dahn denies along with the rest of the allegations. Just before press time, many of their accusations were "dismissed without prejudice" by a judge in a pretrial ruling. (The judge let the sexual assault charge stand, however.) That means the plaintiffs have 30 days to try to provide enough additional details for the claims to move forward. Dahn fights on, trying to get all the complaints dismissed. Meanwhile, the plaintiffs say they will persist because they want to expose Dahn for the harmful group they believe it to be.

Just what are these women and men up against? A powerful international brand. Documents obtained by the plaintiffs’ lawyer indicate that Dahn, which boasts nearly 1,000 centers worldwide, including 139 in the U.S., may have earned between $25 million and $30 million in 2009 in this country alone. Driving that revenue stream are fees paid by about 10,000 U.S. members-77 percent of whom are female-and 537 salaried leaders or "masters."

Meantime, Dahn has many passionate devotees. A typical class features meditation and gentle exercises derived from an ancient Korean form of training. In almost 300 testimonials on Dahn’s website, women and men rave about the program’s benefits. "My Dahn practice has helped me grow mentally, physically and spiritually," posts Robyn Smith. Some users report it even heals diseases: "My doctor says I’m a miracle!" posts Jerrie, who writes that Dahn helped her recover from crippling fibromyalgia. Several Dahn followers interviewed by Glamour offer varying degrees of praise. Says Polina Yagudayev, an ex master from Denver who invested $40,000 in her training and still takes classes a few times a week: "I recommend the classes. If you want to go further, it’s a lot of money; you should choose consciously."

Many of the young women involved in the complaint acknowledge that Dahn benefitted them initially, which is why they say they were willing to overlook the vaguely uneasy feeling they got from their first encounters with the organization. "The whole thing felt weird," says plaintiff Jade Harrelson (known in the suit by her given name, Jessica), 27, a former master who joined Dahn while studying at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. "But after my first class, I had a smile on my face. I was so hopeful it was going to be great." And once she shelled out the $100 fee for her first weekend workshop, it was. "You are always made to feel so special," she says. "I met all these people who immediately included me as one of them." Among the leaders who welcomed her and nurtured her growing devotion was Lucie.

A few months later Jade attended a Shimsung workshop led by a high-level Dahn trainer and staffed by Dahn masters. These workshops, according to Jade and some of the other plaintiffs in the suit, take on the air of group therapy, with participants sharing their deepest, darkest insecurities with a roomful of strangers. Masters are quick to offer a box of tissues or a supportive embrace during emotional moments. At the end of the workshop, the lights dim, loud drumming music is turned on and the participants chant, weep and shout, "Who am I? What do I want?" Lucie remembers that some people walked out midworkshop, unnerved, but she and others felt as if their hearts had opened.

Recalls Lucie, "It felt like you were falling in love, only much bigger, because you weren’t just falling in love with a person, but with a community, a practice and a lifestyle, all in one. It was everything. I felt like the luckiest person in the world."

Cult experts call that lavish attention "love bombing," a common recruitment technique. "As social beings, we respond well to people who make us feel welcome and secure," notes Janja Lalich, Ph.D., a professor of sociology at California State University, Chico, and a cult expert. "Love bombing also tends to make the person feel more obligated to comply with requests from the group-requests to come back again, to give more, to bring friends and so forth." The technique doesn’t work on everyone, which may explain why many people can practice Dahn Yoga without being consumed by it. "Dahn is especially appealing to anyone who is anxious, vulnerable or struggling with personal issues like a breakup or questions about career direction," says cult expert Szimhart.

Six months into her Dahn experience, Lucie dropped out of college to dedicate her&self completely to Ilchi Lee’s "vision" of spreading the word about Dahn Yoga. When her MIT tuition refund check came, she cashed it to pay for a course at Dahn’s National Retreat Center in Sedona, Arizona. "You feel good when you write the check or swipe your card," says Lucie. "Like you just bought a present for your soul."

At Sedona retreats, Lucie says, participants typically did yoga, meditated and danced for hours to loud music. "It was like a rave without drugs, the most fun you’d ever had," says plaintiff Nina Miller, 28, who was 24 and a recent Smith College grad when she discovered Dahn. "I was trying to decide what to study in graduate school, and where the rest of my life would take me," says Nina. Wherever that would be, Dahn seemed like a great start. Nina’s sister, Liza Miller, also a plaintiff, was a 22-year-old senior at Hampshire College when she attended the Sedona retreat with Nina. As she recalls: "The masters bounced around the room like balls of light and joy; you’d look at them and think, I want to be like that." The end of the retreat, Nina says, felt like the last day of summer camp: "You wish you didn’t have to go back to your real life. And that’s when they tell you this can be your life if you become a Dahn master."

To become a master, say some women, they were asked to make increasingly serious financial commitments. Jenifer &McAtee, a 27-year-old former master who is not involved in the complaint, says she had already signed up for a $5,500 course, and when it was recommended that she purchase $2,000 worth of other sessions, "I said I didn’t have the money," she says. "So a master handed me the phone and suggested I call my credit card company and ask them to raise my credit limit. The master said I’d make the money back. And I trusted this person." Responds Dahn Yoga’s vice president of communication, Joseph Alexander: "I don’t know if this story is true or not…but sometimes people weren’t supervised as they should be."

"I was disappearing"

Some of the women in the complaint say friends and family members asked them hard questions about their new obsession. Lucie says her sister e-mailed her information she’d found that said Dahn was a cult, but Lucie was not swayed. Nor was she alarmed by the cult allegations surfacing on the Internet. She and other Dahn members dismissed them. "We were young, and we wanted to be the best in everything," says Jade. "It was as if it became a contest to see who would be the most devoted." Another plaintiff, Lisa Morehouse, worked for a breast cancer foundation when she joined Dahn at 33. She describes the process of losing herself in the group this way: "You learn to disregard your inner voice and follow what the practice tells you. We silenced our intuition until we were like zombies."

In 2003 Lucie completed her seven-day masters’ training course. The workshop, she says, culminated in a 21-hour mountain hike, with participants carrying rock-filled backpacks. A few months later, Julia Siverls, a 41-year-old New York City college professor, died on a similar Dahn hike. But for Lucie, this test was well worth the payoff. "The day I became a sabumnim [Dahn’s word for master] was one of the best of my life," she says. "I knew what I was living for."

By this time, Lucie says she had shed nearly all her personal belongings, with the exception of a photo album with pictures of her prom, her sister and her late father as a relic of her past. "The album was absolutely irreplaceable," she says. But her Dahn training, she says, had made her see the album as an attachment to her former life and, as such, an obstacle to the growth of her soul. One day she grabbed the album out of the closet and threw it in a Dumpster. "It was bittersweet," she says. "Sweet in that I was furthering my commitment, and bitter in that I was disappearing."

Lucie reenrolled at MIT, but instead of living in the dorms, she bunked with other masters and premasters in an apartment. Inside, she says, they became carbon copies of one another: They slept in rows on the floor; spoke a brand of Korean-infused English they called Konglish; and worked, they say, up to 120 hours a week for Dahn. At that point, though, explains Lucie, whenever Dahn leaders spoke of "vision," it apparently meant how much money they could bring in each month. Sometimes, she says, toward the end of a month, her masters would instruct her to bow all night long to help her focus entirely on her goals. "When you finish something like that, you feel hyperalert and extraordinarily powerful," says Lucie. "Any thought or feeling you have that is not related to achieving your vision, you cut from your mind."

After one such frenzy, Lucie says she made $75,000 for Dahn in a single day by selling a package of private "healing" sessions to a wealthy couple. Although Lucie was at that point earning about $30,000 a year working for Dahn, she says she was never given a commission; she claims she did earn a bonus that year for being the best recruiter in the country, and that she put the money back into her center.

Increasingly, though, Lucie’s euphoria at Dahn was replaced with fatigue and stress. She gained weight and struggled with feelings of guilt. "As masters we were doing something that was a strange combination of exactly what we wanted, healing people, and the opposite-taking too much money from them," says Lucie. "People looked up to me as a model master. I smiled all the time, as I was trained to do. But inside I was rotting and dying."

In 2007 Lucie, Nina Miller and some other masters presented a proposal to Dahn officials; they suggested changes including that they stop wearing the Korean outfits, work fewer hours and reduce their monthly quotas. About a month later, Lucie says she was summoned to Sedona to do construction work under a master who’d been assigned to "reeducate" her and put a brake on her independent thinking. "Then someone I knew there suggested that I leave," says Lucie, with gratitude. "Amazingly, it had never occurred to me. Somewhere inside, I knew it was the right thing to do, and I said to myself, I have to go." That night, without telling anyone, Lucie got in her car and, in a state of shock and confusion, drove away.

"We are healing together"

Numb, doubting her decision and, in her darkest moments, contemplating suicide, Lucie returned to Massachusetts and hid out in a rented apartment. While Lucie’s star in Dahn was falling, Jade’s was on the rise. Having attained master’s level, she’d dropped out of college to work for Ilchi Lee in Seoul, South Korea-a decision that deeply troubled her family. While teaching classes and serving as a spokesperson for Dahn Yoga, Jade says she met with Lee several times. "I felt honored to be singled out," she remembers. "I thought he must see great potential in me." But her delight in this special treatment changed, she says, when Lee’s attentions became too personal. In her testimony for the case, Jade recounts: "Lee gave me my special ‘soul name’ of Dahn Soon, which means ‘simple’ in Korean…. He told me I was his daughter. Several weeks later he gave me a gold necklace with crystals." About a year later, in 2006, Jade claims she was summoned to Lee’s apartment; he soon gestured for her to join him in his bed. "He pushed my head under the covers and held my head down until I stimulated him orally…. Then…[he] lay on top of me and penetrated me," claims Jade in her testimony, going on to recount, "I felt extremely uncomfortable with this, and told myself over and over that Ilchi Lee would never do anything to hurt me…. I was unable to resist his emotional and psychological dominance."

But when Jade sought help the morning after, she claims she was told she should "be ashamed for daring to question [Lee’s] integrity." Distressed, she continues, she decided to quit Dahn.

For all they claim to have endured, some women involved in the complaint say leaving Dahn was the worst trauma yet. At first, says Lucie, "it was like your parents died; you lost your job, your home and your dog; and your husband walked out on you-all at once." But her conflicted feelings vanished on the day she heard about Jade’s claims. "I was so, so angry," she says. She also felt guilty. "I felt so responsible for what had happened to her because I told her she could trust him…. I offered to buy her a ticket home immediately." Once Jade was back on U.S. soil, thanks to Lucie, the women began to reach out to other former members-and heard still more upsetting details about Ilchi Lee’s lifestyle. They claim there were multiple boats and homes, plus luxury travel and high-stakes gambling. All this prompted their suit, in which they are seeking what their lawyer says amounts to millions in damages for financial harm and severe emotional distress.

Mike Paul, a spokesperson for Dahn, says the complaint "is trying to take advantage of Americans’ lack of understanding of Korean culture." Bowing, for example, is an ancient Asian meditative practice. He also points out that Dahn has had "excellent results helping millions worldwide with health and wellness," and calls at least some of the plaintiffs in the case "disgruntled former employees." Furthermore, says Paul, "they use one word that they hope will ruin the reputation of the organization so they can have a settlement: cult."

And many current members and masters are enraged by the charges. "Their allegations are unfounded," says Dahn master Dawn Quaresima, who joined Dahn while dealing with health problems following a C-section. "I invested a lot of money in my training too; it cost much less than my college education, and I got a lot more out of it." Says Genia Sullivan, a New Jersey-based master who’s been in Dahn for more than a decade, "I’ve read the lawsuit and don’t agree with any of it…. It’s a wonderful organization. I’ve never seen so many people with such good hearts." And Dahn continues to thrive, attracting members through its studios and its new Body + Brain Centers. That’s no surprise: Groups that offer meaning and spiritual solace become increasingly attractive in tough economic times, says cult expert Hassan.

Meanwhile the women taking a stand against Lee say they still struggle to find a new normal. Jade, now living in the Boston area, works at a health center-but says she feels despair each time she passes her local Dahn franchise. "I want the word out," says Jade. "This is not a yoga studio."

Lucie now directs a ski school in New Hampshire and has paid off the debt she accrued while at Dahn. One good thing she says has come from her ordeal is a "beautiful friendship" with Jade, Liza and Nina. "We’re healing together," says Lucie. While they say they may never see a penny-or an apology-from Dahn, they hope their complaint will save others. "The women who become sabumnims are incredible people; they are so smart and passionate and have so much to contribute to the world," Lucie says. "Ilchi Lee’s bank account is not a cause worthy of all they have to offer."

Catherine Elton is a journalist in Boston.

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