Below is an excerpt of an article that originally appeared in RS 1098 from February 18, 2010. This issue and the rest of the Rolling Stone archives are available via Rolling Stone Plus, Rolling Stone’s premium subscription plan. If you are already a subscriber, you can click here to see the full story. Not a member? Click here to learn more about Rolling Stone Plus.
If you looked at it from a certain perspective, the exercises Amy Shipley did in Dahn Yoga were perfectly normal. Take what she was doing right now. It was near midnight. Amy and seven other devotees of Dahn Yoga — nearly all in their 20s, clad in blue tracksuits and barely functioning on three hours of sleep — were standing in a waist-deep fountain in the desert of Sedona, Arizona. On command from their Korean trainer, all eight would plunge their heads underwater and hold their breath until their lungs strained, finally rocketing to the surface gasping and shouting a devotional song to their Grand Master — a middle-aged Korean man called Ilchi Lee — and weeping to prove their sincerity. Then they’d be ordered to do it again, and properly this time. In this way, Amy and the others were saving their souls and rescuing the world from annihilation.
See? Totally normal.
Amy loved tests. She’d always been Type-A like that, an overachiever, first in line for any challenge. And Dahn Yoga gave her endless tests to pass, especially here at its isolated Arizona retreat where, round the clock, members performed all kinds of mysterious rituals. Certain exercises had taken some getting used to, of course. Like the one where they’d turn off the lights and everyone would dance and scream for hours, until they collapsed in a sobbing heap. Or just earlier today, when Amy had been ordered to mash her face in the dirt as a lesson in humility. A 24-year-old blond Midwesterner who had been a homecoming princess of her Indiana high school, Amy was now a pro at such practices: At a previous workshop that lasted for 10 days, she and a dozen others had begun each morning by punching themselves in the stomach while hollering things like “I am stupid!” For that privilege, Amy had paid $8,500.
Two years earlier, Amy and her boyfriend, Ricardo Barba, had been ordinary juniors at the University of Illinois when they visited a campus fitness club that taught a meld of yoga and tai chi. Now, by spring 2008, they were sleep-deprived, celibate soul warriors who considered Ilchi Lee their “spiritual father.” In pursuit of the enlightenment Lee promised, they and thousands of other young American disciples dedicated 80-hour workweeks and astonishing amounts of money to Dahn Yoga. Amy was $47,000 in debt for her training, having maxed out credit cards and student loans at the urging of her masters. Again, totally normal: Many who progressed in Dahn had mountains of debt, especially those lucky older members with homes to mortgage — an asset that came in handy when paying for Dahn’s holiest seminar, which cost $100,000.
Amy broke through the water’s surface again and launched into song, careful to keep a smile on her face as tears rolled down her cheeks. Suddenly, she was struck with a rare moment of clarity. She didn’t understand how this exercise was promoting world peace. She felt ridiculous. She was exhausted. She missed Ricardo, who was back in Chicago cleaning yoga-studio toilets and doing penance for his inability to “create” money. What the hell am I doing? Amy wondered. But no sooner did the thought enter her mind than she squelched it the way her masters had taught her: When in doubt, commit yourself even harder. She slammed her face into the chilly water until her reservations dissipated. At the end of this week’s training, Amy herself would be crowned a Dahn master and awarded her heavenly assignment: to recruit 20 new members and raise $20,000 for Dahn Yoga each month.
“I was a good little cult member,” Amy says today. “I would have drank Kool-Aid laced with cyanide if they told me to. I would have chopped off my right arm. I would have done anything.”
Given the devotion many Americans feel for yoga, it was just a matter of time before someone hatched the idea for a yoga cult. But at Dahn Yoga, a 25-year-old Korean organization, there are no downward-dog poses, no sun salutations. At the group’s 127 fitness centers nationwide, practitioners train in martial arts, engage in a head-shaking meditation known as “brain wave vibration” that is best performed while holding palm-size rubber vibrating brains ($80 per pair) and, after class, discuss their feelings in a “sharing circle.” In fact, Dahn’s calling itself “yoga” is just a marketing ploy to enhance its appeal to Americans, who make up some 10,000 of the 500,000 members the group claims worldwide. Many are supermotivated kids, like Amy Shipley and Ricardo Barba, who are recruited from college campuses, along with a healthy dose of older rich folks whom the group privately calls “VIPs.” Last year, Dahn Yoga pulled in an estimated $30 million in the United States alone — and that’s only a fraction of its 1,000 franchises across nine countries.
But critics say this lucrative fitness craze has a dark side. “Dahn is a destructive mind-control cult, very similar to the Moonies,” says Steven Hassan, author of Combatting Cult Mind Control, who has counseled many ex-Dahn members. A federal lawsuit filed last year by 27 former members, including Shipley and Barba, goes a step further, claiming that Dahn is not only a cult, but that the profits generated by its brainwashed masses fund the rock-star lifestyle of Seung Heun “Ilchi” Lee, a paunchy, white-haired 57-year-old who travels the globe via private jet and is orbited by a worshipful entourage of personal assistants. Lee’s disciples, meanwhile, live in communal housing, go deep into debt to meet financial quotas and say they are driven to exercise to an extreme degree. (In 2008, Dahn settled a lawsuit for an undisclosed sum when a college professor named Julia Siverls died of dehydration while hiking a Sedona mountain, allegedly lugging 25 pounds of rocks in her backpack.) The current lawsuit also accuses Lee of breaking wage and immigration laws, evading taxes and sexually abusing female disciples, who are assured they’re being singled out for a sacred honor.
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