Across from Trader Joe’s and next to Subway, the Dahn Yoga center on Cordova Road advertises “energy training” and “brain education.”
It is the modest outpost of a Korean émigré called Ilchi Lee who lives in a castle in Sedona, Ariz. His program is, to say the least, controversial.
At a March 15 open house, students’ shoes piled up near the door. Photos of “gold” and “silver” members and an attendance chart hung on the wall. Fewer than 20 people came.
The studio was hot. The instructor projected infomercials from YouTube onto the wall. A disabled girl and a paraplegic man described the miraculous benefits of “brain-wave vibration.” Students applauded when the videos ended.
At practice time, the students lined up in rows and began nodding their heads. The instructors turned on some Céline Dion, and the head nodding gave way to full-body jiggling, as the class counted from one to 10.
Some enthusiasm is required. SFR got kicked out for not participating.
In the foyer, students encouraged persistence. “I know it’s kind of weird,” one said.
Weird? Yes. Worse? Maybe.
“This is a dangerous organization that prays upon people with money,” Cathleen Mann, a forensic consultant in Lakewood, Colo., says. “They are a cult in every sense of the word.”
Mann, who tracks the group around the country and has counseled former members, isn’t alone in her criticism. News reports say members have been conned out of tens of thousands of dollars. In 2006, the Village Voice told the story of a Brooklyn devotee, Julia Siverls, who died on a Dahn retreat in Sedona. Her family claimed Silverls was drugged before a long hike and denied care after collapsing; their lawsuit was dismissed after an apparent settlement.
Dahn denies wrongdoing. It also claims the endorsement of respected New Mexicans.
Last week, the local Dahn center emailed SFR with a copy of a proclamation by Santa Fe Mayor David Coss declaring March 11-15 to be “BEST days in Santa Fe.”
“Brain Education System Training (BEST) is designed to be a simple and easy-to-follow way to maximize your brain potential so you can live a health [sic], happy and peaceful life,” the proclamation says.
City spokeswoman Laura Banish says Coss doesn’t recall signing the proclamation, though it bears his signature. “This was done, I would say, inadvertently,” Banish says.
Another email from Volume Public Relations in Centennial, Colo. says Lt. Gov. Diane Denish proclaimed “BEST” days statewide. Denish Chief of Staff Joshua Rosen says a “certificate of recognition” was issued by a junior staffer, following an email request from former Secretary of State Stephanie Gonzales.
“In no way, shape or form does the lieutenant governor endorse this system,” Rosen says. (Gonzales, now at the Department of Workforce Solutions, did not return SFR’s call.)
A Dahn practitioner in Cedar Crest, Jo Garner, returned SFR’s call to Santa Fe Dahn Yoga Center manager Sylvia Lee. Told that the mayor doesn’t usually endorse businesses and that his staff said the proclamation was “inadvertent,” Garner noted that Dahn holds free public seminars. “It’s not issued for a business. It was issued for brain-education system training, which is a system used to improve human development,” she said. “That’s really what we’re celebrating.”
This seems to be a trend. In 2007, SF Weekly chided San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom for declaring “Ilchi Lee Day.”
Massachusetts-based cult “deprogrammer” Steven Hassan says such proclamations seek to increase the group’s credibility. “Scientology does the same, and the Moonies do the same,” Hassan says.
In Dahn’s introductory text, Brain Wave Vibration, Lee riffs on biology, physics and one of his favorite songs, “From a Distance” by Bette Midler. In the book, Lee calls himself a visionary and encourages disciples to avoid people who question their new path. He admits his program is more about mental reconditioning than exercise. “Think of Brain Wave Vibration as a way of rebooting your computer, your brain,” he writes.
Lee, born Seung Huen Lee, writes that a “great epiphany” led to his unique understanding of the brain: “It was like my head was about to explode, then suddenly everything seemed clear and an unshakable sense of peace and oneness came over me.”