First, after I tried to join Scientology in July, a bunch of people emailed me with horror stories about friends and family lost to the practice. On its face, Dahn yoga is not very scary. It is a vague combination of yoga and tai chi that promises practitioners they will "experience the transformative power of energy."
But the cult is championed by shady "Grand Master" Ilchi Lee, who is described as "a global educator, mentor, and innovator devoted to teaching energy principles and developing the full capability of the human brain," but was also the target of a 2010 lawsuit that accused him of preying on young recruits, brainwashing members, and fraud.
Second, I read a great Rolling Stone article called "The Yoga Cult" that led with a girl my age nearly drowning herself as part of her spiritual practice and chronicled the group's history of corruption, abuse, and a completely misleading use of the word yoga—Lee only added it to the name in 2001, evidently to make it more appealing to white people.
So in the spirit of science and journalism, I logged onto the website and signed up for a $20 introductory session, comprising of a one-on-one chat with the instructor and a one hour session of "yoga."
At their Chelsea location, I was greeted by a small, soft-spoken Turkish woman. Her first question was about my pre-payment. Then she gave my skinny jeans and band t-shirt the side-eye and asked if I had an "outfit." I showed her my sweats and baggy t-shirt. She nodded and pointed me to a changing room, which was full of white martial arts uniforms on hangers.
When I emerged, the woman led me into the studio. One wall was entirely mirrors; she pointed out the soft floor. "No need for a yoga mat!" she said.
Two older ladies came to say hello before heading to the changing rooms. As we waited for them, my teacher had me stand straight up with my bare toes pointed slightly in. She directed me to my Dahn Jon, or second chakra, an "energy center" three fingers below my belly button. She held up a fist. "Now tap," she said, and began punching herself in the abdomen, rolling her fists over each other at a rate of around one tap a second.
So I started punching myself. Slowly at first, then faster, as the teacher smiled and nodded encouragement. She told me to either close my eyes or stare at the ground. "Stay in your body. If your mind wanders, bring it back here," she said. Mostly my mind wandered to how I would describe punching myself in the stomach.
This was supposed to create "vibration, blood flow and detoxification of the intestines." I was punching myself maybe half as hard as she was, and it still hurt. It was weirdly tiring. When I needed a break, she told me, I could do "intestinal exercises," pushing my belly out as far as possible and then sucking it in again, over and over.
I absorbed myself with these two tasks, trying to get into the spirit of things. After a few minutes the teacher called the three students together into what I naively thought would be a massage line. The grandmotherly woman behind me started smacking my back, shoulders and butt, hard. "Is it ok if she touches you?" the teacher asked, after a few seconds of this. "Uh-huh-huh yeh-hes-hes?" I attempted to respond.
The mild beating over, we did some basic yoga poses and stretches, interspersed with the "intestinal exercises" and the "tapping."
Next the teacher called us into a line and put on some EDM. "Close your eyes and shake," she said, demonstrating for us. She whipped her head back and forth in tune with the music. This was "brain wave meditation," a core part of the Dahn practice.
At first it was sort of fun. Then I got really dizzy and slowed down. "Faster!" she said. I sped up. "Stay in your body!" she insisted. I couldn't go anywhere else. First I became more dizzy, then nauseous. I couldn't stop thinking about axonal shearing, a kind of brain injury often caused when your skull and brain rotate at different speeds. Why am I doing this. "Keep up with the music!" I am going to ralph all over this special floor. It was somewhere between five and ten minutes, probably, but could also have been a lifetime. This is never going to end. This is how I am going to die.
And then it was over. The music turned off, and I opened my eyes. My vision slowly stopped swimming and my upchuck reflex faded. "And tap!" I started punching myself in the stomach again. "And stop."
My arms fell to my sides like lead. It was over. It had to be over? What else could happen? I looked around. Everyone was looking forward, happy and placid. One of my classmates caught my eye and turned her smile up a notch, nodding. I tried to make my mouth do smiling back to hide my quiet desperation.
The instructor turned the lights off and put on spa music. "Now lie down with your knees bent. Relax."
I lay down. I stared at the ceiling. I felt the sweat in the small of my back and berated myself for being out of shape. I smelled feet.
The instructor came over to me. "Bring your hands up. Do you feel the energy between them?" She cupped her hands towards each other, fingers spread, and then began to circle them around each other. "Feel the energy. I think of it like dancing. Do you feel it?"
I wasn't really capable of lying, so I said no. She handed me two rare earth magnets and told me to try that. She said the force between them was some sort of spiritual energy. So I lay there screwing around with the magnets, eyes closed.
Eventually she turned the lights on. We all stood, shook our arms and legs, and gathered in a circle to say goodbye. As my classmates left, the teacher called me over and offered me a cup of weird tea that tasted like popcorn. We sat on the floor.
She asked me how I liked it, and if my experience had been good. I said yes. She told me in my "condition," I would have to take at least two classes a week to get on track (physically? Spiritually? It wasn't clear). "But you have potential," she said. "You could become a teacher."
I raised my eyebrows. "Oh yeah?" She told me her story, how she'd come to this country and worked in a hotel. People treated her cruelly. "I've worked service jobs too, people are awful," I said, anxious for common ground.
She brought out some pamphlets on techniques used by Dahn, the courses I could take, a newsletter documenting various members' path to enlightenment, a schedule of her classes, and a packet trying to sell me a card with a picture of a "LifeParticle Sun" on it, which I could stare at while meditating to help me clear misperceptions and "explore the world of possibility" ($5 online). She tried to sell me a book but didn't mind when I said no. She had me sign a waiver that asked what I was most interested in. I circled something about emotional balance.
"You should meet my master," she said. "She is in Union Square. She has been doing this for much longer than me, she can tell you much more than I can." She got her phone and texted the other center to say I was coming.
I changed out of my clothes and headed out. On the walk over, I sent a few hasty texts to friends saying that if I disappeared, they should look for the yoga studio next to McDonalds in Union Square. Walking up the dirty grey stairs to the center, I felt genuine apprehension.
Just inside the door was a pile of at least 100 children's shoes. Some Korean kids were visiting from a Dahn summer camp in the Catskills. The waiting room was clean and bright, almost corporate. I introduced myself to a woman behind the desk, and she told me she had been expecting me.
She was white and healthy looking, with great teeth and an American accent. She was somewhere between 35 and 55. She suggested I take a second class. After I declined several times and promised to come back later, she pulled out a price list. Packages ranged from $100 or so a month into the thousands for those who required individual attention.
I asked about the Sedona Retreat for Change, where a young woman named Julia Margaret Siverls died, hiking up a mountain with little food or water while carrying forty pounds of rocks on her back. The master smiled and changed the subject.
When I declined to buy a package, saying I was strapped for cash, she told me it was about my priorities—how important was it to me to get healthy? "We encourage you to sign up right away, while you're still motivated," she said. "The problem in the West is that people think too much. You should put less energy into thinking and more into caring for your body."
Just then, the kids filed out carrying poster boards about Korea's accomplishments and geography. I took the opportunity to beat a hasty retreat. "Thanks for everything!" I said, before filing down the stairs in a pack of ten year olds, texting my friends to say I was fine.
Cult name: Dahn Yoga
Year founded: 1985.
Spiritual leader: Ilchi Lee
Most troubling members: Public schools, prestigious colleges.
Slogans: Change Your Energy First
Awaken Your Brain
Live Your Values
Should you join this cult? Please don't.
[Image by Jim Cooke]