Mind, Body, and Spirit: The Yoga Trend

27 Oct

The scene is similar in any yoga studio across the country. The lights and ceiling fans are on low, flute music trickles through the sound system, intermixed with sound effects of the ocean and a slight breeze.  Yoga studios are on the rise, and many participants describe yoga as relaxing, but first and foremost a good stretch and a form of exercise.  However, some take the courses much more seriously. What happens when the practice of yoga becomes an obsession? In May 2009, many debt-ridden yogitas found themselves in a lawsuit with the chain yoga center and retreat Dahn Yoga and its founder Ilchi Lee for manipulation and fraud. While some are calling the centers an alleged cult, other still faithfully shell out money and time in hopes to become a Dahn master.

Melissa, an owner of a Dahn Yoga center in Buckhead, Georgia who did not wish to reveal her last name, spent years of intensive study and practice to become a manager and instructor. She admits that some of the practice may sound peculiar to a newcomer.

“A main part of Dahn Yoga is brain training, a training of the brain vibrations that triggers certain hormones to make the participant in complete control of their emotions,” said Melissa.

According to Melissa, Ilchi lee had a strong interest in the human mind. The brain education classes he organized are divided into four categories, each involving meditation as a way to form a stress response.

“It is similar to the flight or fight response, except we like to think of it as ‘rest or digest,’” said Melissa.

Students are introduced to Dahn Yoga and brain training via an hour-long private introductory class that runs about $30. From there, they are placed into workshops accordingly, with prices and length rising. Melissa recommends practicing everyday to her students. Classes run from 6:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., and she encourages several students and trainees to attend as many as five in a row Monday through Friday.

As part of her training, Melissa trained at a camp and retreat in Arizona with a master, and she tries to talk her students who hope to become masters into taking the same retreats. According to the 2009 lawsuit, some students spent upward of $8,500 for these retreats. Some may say that the cost is worth the sacrifice for passion, but some participants found the retreat more degrading than rewarding.

Melissa described some workshops that take place in Mesa, Arizona that act as a “deeper experience.” She said that people would “lightly slap themselves” and repeat negative affirmations to release negative energy.

Prana Yoga and Healing Center in Sarasota, Florida also offers some seemingly strange practices, albeit for a smaller price tag. For the Fall Equinox session that took place September 23, an advertisement promised that participants would move in “Body, Mind, and Spirit.” Regina Owett, owner of Prana, takes much pride in the practice of the “spiritual trance dance.”

“We will be dancing with spirit in trance while blindfolded,” said Owett. However, participants are offered some reassurance.

“You will be protected by facilitators while dancing,” she said.

According to Owett, the trance dance was meant to be a fun activity in which participants could release some inhibitions and laugh a little while practicing a cultural tradition. However, some participants do not find some of the activities of yoga centers to be a laughing matter. While some students form strong bonds with their instructors, one even calling hers a “godsend,” many have had to rebuild their lives after becoming obsessed with the yoga phenomenon.

Amy Shipley, 25, claimed in her lawsuit that she felt coerced into staying with the retreats, feeling that the more time she put into it, the less she could give it up because of the amount of money and time she had already invested. One consequence was a feeling of isolation from her friends and family. In an interview with Forbes magazine, Shipley described a case at a Sedona, Arizona retreat in which her classmates were instructed to bow 3,000 times. As a form of punishment, she witnessed people being forced to lick each other’s feet. Shipley asserts that she emerged from the retreats as a “glassy eyed train wreck.” Accusations have also been made about Lee sexually preying on female students, although there has been no substantial evidence found to support those claims.

As far as remarks made about Dahn Yoga being a cult, Melissa asserts that students should never feel forced to spend money.

“We do not twist their arms behind their back, and we also provide many suggestions for practicing at home,” said Melissa. She says that Lee believes the main focus of Dahn is and will remain to be relaxation, flexibility, and balance.

Filers of the lawsuit received an undisclosed amount in early 2010, and hundreds of Dahn centers nationwide remain in operation in over forty states.

“The word ‘Dahn’ is the Korean word for energy,” said Melissa. “we should not be held responsible for people becoming addicted to the strength and energy gained from yoga.”

As to the allegations made about events at the Sedona retreat, Melissa had no comment and asserted that nothing out of the ordinary has happened at any retreats at which she was present.

“The purpose of Prana is to empower the student,” said Owett. “We hope that students may find peace and healing and even bring their friends.”

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