Brain Power Wellness, a program that is currently being used in several hundred NYC Public Schools, includes short activities for students that are supposed to improve focus and self-esteem. My friend told me her principal paid 30,000 dollars for this program, and I believe her, though I can’t back it up with hard evidence. The Brain Power exercises and games are organized under categories such as Team Building, Mindfulness, Neuroplasticity and Citizenship. The activities include mediation, partner-stretching and a lot of counting to ten while doing various clapping sequences. They also include breathing exercises and “brain tapping” to relieve tension. The program was introduced at my school in September by a friendly member of the Brain Power staff named Jane.* As someone who truly believes in the importance of mindfulness and meditation for children, I was interested in this new initiative. So when I was asked if I wanted to be the one to attend the professional development workshops and be the Brain Power Leader/Mentor for our school, I gladly obliged.

In my process to become a teacher-leader in this program, I attended three professional development workshops on Wednesdays in November-February. Although I found them to be a bit “touchy-feely,” I tried to keep in mind that it was common for teachers to practice the activities they expect their students to do. So I engaged in a lot of team-building exercises and high-fives with strangers and an especially uncomfortable exercise called “Brain Power Bakery” where we partnered off and pretended our partner was cookie dough as we gave them a back massage. It was also at this workshop where I first met the founder/director of Brain Power Wellness and author of The Brain Power Classroom, Dave Beal. His leadership style and motivational speeches made me cringe. At one point, he even apologized for “preaching too much.” To make matters worse, most of the teachers around me seemed to be eating it up. He asked a lot of call-and-response questions like “Kids can’t learn when they don’t feel loved, right?” and people responded in unison with “right.” Witnessing the devotion to this male leader was the first time I felt like BPW was a little “culty.” Still, my school had sent me to these workshops, and I got an hour lunch break, so I kept coming back for more.

In February, I was invited to a Brain Power Leadership Training and Retreat in the Catskills. This training was a Monday-Wednesday in early March, meaning I would be excused from work for three days and get to stay in a private room at a hotel. The hotel, Honor’s Haven Resort and Spa, boasted a hot tub and a sauna, not to mention that all my food, lodging and transportation would be paid for by my school. I wouldn’t know anyone there, but would be going with other NYC teachers who had also assumed the roles of Brain Power Leaders in their schools. I would also know Jane, the relaxed and friendly Brain Power staff member who had been working with our school. I agreed to go. 

In some ways, the program was exactly what it said it was going to be. We hiked. We meditated by a waterfall. We practiced teaching BrainPower games and activities. At first, I felt really grateful to be there, essentially being paid to be in nature. But I also found some of the sessions to be a bit….odd. For example, one evening we rotated to different stations during a “Self Care” session, one of which included poking our belly-buttons with a plastic healing stick to “stimulate the gut.” We also did a “yoga” class that did not include the yoga poses I’m used to but instead involved a lot of body-tapping, or hitting ourselves while bouncing up and down to relieve tension. While I felt slightly uncomfortable at times, I kept an open mind.  If people use jade rollers for lymphatic drainage and dry brush their skin to stimulate circulation, this couldn’t be that weird, right?

Luckily, I found myself in the hot tub later that night with the right people. One man was discussing the fact that he had googled the hotel, and discovered that it was somehow associated with a yoga program called Dahn Yoga, which was accused of being a cult about a decade ago. Apparently, this yoga group got into some legal trouble back in the day, including a wrongful death lawsuit when a CUNY professor died while hiking on a Dahn Yoga training retreat in Sedona. 

Later that night, I googled “Honor’s Haven Resort Dahn Yoga” and found this article. I skimmed it. I thought it was interesting but didn’t do any further research. So an alleged cult used to hang out at this hotel and it hasn’t been good for business. That made sense. Did I mention that our group of fortyish people were the only people in this giant place? Talk about The Shining vibes.

It wasn’t until Wednesday that I really began to put things together. That morning, Dave Beal took us on a walk up 120 wooden stairs to a wooden platform and explained that this structure was erected for Ilichi Lee, a Korean spiritual leader who wrote a book called I’ve Decided to Live 120 Years. Dave also mentioned that Ilichi Lee was the founder of Brain Power’s parent company, Body & Brain. I took a mental note of all of this information, and then found myself walking next to someone who was (like me) more interested in discussing how the retreat was weirder than expected than meditating their way up 120 wooden steps. After I complained about Dave Beal’s motivational speeches, my new friend revealed that she had done more research, and was basically convinced that Brain Power Wellness was Dahn Yoga rebranded and repackaged. They stuck a white guy as the leader and marketed it to public schools and tried not to advertise their affiliations with the alleged cult. 

All it took was a little google searching to find out that my new friend was exactly right. Body & Brain, parent company of Brain Power Wellness, is essentially Dahn Yoga re-branded. “Body & Brain” and “Dahn Yoga” are used interchangeably on Wikipedia. I also discovered that there is tons of evidence that Dahn Yoga is, well, a cult—one that includes a fun history of mind control techniques, sexual assault, and monetary manipulation. It has been reported that Brain & Body aka Dahn Yoga is a cult in Forbes and Glamour and Rolling Stone and CNN. Most of these articles are from about a decade ago, seemingly before the rebrand from Dahn Yoga to Body & Brain. There’s also countless message boards and other testimonials about Dahn Yoga being a cult, and apparently much more to discover if you can read Korean. (Anyone?)

It all makes sense now. Honor’s Haven Resort included a room with a squishy floor where no shoes were allowed, which is what all Body & Brain studios are like, according to the Yelp reviews I read. Speaking of Yelp, if you look up the one-star Yelp reviews for any of the 100+ Body & Brain locations nationwide  you will find that these studios are relentless in pressuring people to pay large sums of money to become members and that many people feel uncomfortable and scammed. 

But perhaps the most interesting thing I discovered is that good old Dave Beal had already tried to introduce these “exercises” aka Dahn Yoga into NYC schools back in 2009 but received pushback. Links to this New York Post article and this Gothamist article explain that the program was formerly called “Power Brain.” Clearly, they’ve just switched the order of the words (!!) and are now trying to reintroduce this program a decade later, hoping no one remembers the cult associations. And even though I swear I heard Dave Beal say out loud that their parent company is Body & Brain, there is zero evidence of that on the Brain Power Wellness website. And nowhere on the Brain Power website does it refer to Dahn Yoga founder Ilchi Lee or his book “Power Brain Kids.” The rebrand is intentional, and I doubt they want us to make the connection.

Unfortunately for them, they showed their cards by taking us to Honor’s Haven, which is managed by Ilchi Lee’s son Julian, and still stores their “yoga” equipment in bins labelled “Dahn Yoga.” They also clearly underestimated the amount of googling I could do on a two-hour bus ride back to the city. As it turns out, Beal’s book The Brain Power Classroom clearly states that his inspiration is from Lee and his “Brain Education” Program, but also here’s a website that also links Ilchi Lee to Brain Power Wellness.

I also went ahead and found this article that states that Dave Beal was a Dahn Yoga instructor back in 2006 (and Dave’s son’s name is also named Julian? Coincidence?) This article also let me know that Dave’s wife is Dawn Quaresima and here she is teaching Dahn Yoga exercises and yes these exercises are pretty much exactly what we did on my “retreat.” 

In addition to Dahn Yoga, there are several other organizations that fall under the Ilchi Lee umbrella, such as Earth Citizens Organization (ECO), which has a leadership program called “Heroes.” Turns out these Heroes did a training program at Honor’s Haven that is quite similar to what I did. I also found some 2017 photos of my girl Jane on the ECO website, and some 2013 photos of Jane and other BPW staff while scrolling through #dahnyoga on Instagram. This is especially interesting as Jane recently told me she had only been working for Brain Power for three years. While this technically may be true, these Ilchi Lee organizations are all one and the same to me now. 

So here is your TL;DR: Brain Power Wellness is a part of Dahn Yoga aka Body & Brain. This is an organization founded by Ilchi Lee who has been called a cult leader and has been the subject of several lawsuits including wrongful death and sexual assault. At my BPW leadership training we were not doing yoga or even tai chi, we were doing DahnHak exercises or “Brain Education”: pseudoscience that started with Ilchi Lee and that has been linked to mind control techniques and cult-like manipulation. These exercises were developed for adults, and are now being re-packaged as though they are mindfulness techniques for children in classrooms. And the NYC Department of Education bought into it and now this program is in 400 NYC public schools. From a certain perspective, this is extremely clever marketing. And while the exercises are seemingly harmless and I’m sure many of them do promote team-building and focus, I now don’t trust where any of this is coming from. Maybe I’m overreacting, but I am completely freaked out. 

On Thursday, I told my administration about my discoveries. So far, I’ve been told they are “looking into it” and will get back to me. Will they pull the program? Will Jane (who emails me frequently to schedule me and my students for more workshops) start asking questions if I say I don’t want to be a part of this anymore? What if my principal still expects me to continue teaching my students Brain Power exercises? What if this post goes viral and then I die a mysterious death? At least it would be more interesting than dying of coronavirus. Either way, I’ll keep you posted. 

 

*name changed

8 Comments

  1. Kyric Koning

    This is a post where I get to be simultaneously intrigued and concerned. I look forward to the updates. Stay mindful.

    Reply
  2. Geneva Langeland

    Hot dang! This is fascinating and weird stuff. I’ve picked up a fair bit of info about cult-adjacent organizations from two great podcasts: The Dream (investigating the wellness industry) and Sawbones (a comedic look at medical missteps and quack remedies throughout history). This group reeks of pseudo-psychological snake oil.

    Reply
    • Avatar

      I did Dahn Hak Yoga in Chicago from around 1999 till about 2001. My boyfriend at the time was very into it. I will say that the Korean masters were very kind to me and seemed to be on a different spiritual level. My master once did a very healing reiki treatment on me when I came in from fighting with My boyfriend at that time and was upset. (My ex was abusive at the time.) I was very young.

      I am someone who never fully buys into anything and I think they knew that I wasn’t going to ever buy into the program. I saw the parts of it that were cultish. They were trying to get disciples to pay to become master’s and dedicate more of their lives to the center and practice. To buy their books and pay to see Ilchi Lee speak. To spend weekends there for seminars. My ex did all of that. I would never spend money on things, as I had none, and they would figure out ways to let me do things for free.They taught me to be more connected to my body and to speak some Korean, so I never held anything against the program as it was only positive for me. I stopped going as I saw that it was quickly turning into an Americanized version with all American masters and no one would answer me as to where the previous masters had gone. It lost most of it’s initial appeal for me.

      I just watched ‘The Vow,’ on HBO and it triggered my brain to recall my time at Dahn Hak and how if I’d been a more susceptible person, I could have been sucked in. I decided to look.up if Dahn Hai is actually a cult, and found this article. Good to know my intuition was right.

      Reply
      • Avatar

        Ah! I always joke with my friends that I accidentally joined a cult in college because I was a member of dahn yoga for a month freshman year. I Google them every now and then and was interested to learn they rebranded. I can’t believe they’re in NYC public schools now! That’s so scary.

        Reply
  3. Gabe

    Thank you for sleuthing and unraveling the mystery, Caroline—both for us readers and the nation’s youth!

    I am already waiting for a April update.

    Reply
  4. Avatar

    Hi Caroline,

    I am a former Dahn Hak Sa Bum (instructor or master); that is the unbranded original Korean title. Dave and Dawn were both Sa Bums while I was a still in the organization. I don’t know how old Julian is now, but Dave and Dawn’s son was born before they became disciples of Il Chi Lee. So unless Julian is younger than ten there is no relation in the name of Il Chi Lee’s son and Dave and Dawn’s son.

    Dahn Yoga is an American branding of Dahn Hak. Dahn Yoga was already trying to rebrand itself as Body & Brain Yoga before the 2010 article in Rolling Stone was released.

    To be fair you are in no physical danger, the CUNY professor (Julia Silvers) that died was undergoing an initiation to become a disciple of Il Chi Lee. In Dahn there is a strong emphasis on overcoming the limitations of the body and mind. Julia and her other initiates were on a day long hike in the Arizona desert with either limited water or no water, consequently she suffered heat stroke and died.

    I would strongly encourage you to talk to your principal and show him the links between Brain Power Wellness and Dahn Hak. If you are a teacher I would also encourage you to talk to your union rep with your concerns, and also bring this up at PTA and school board meetings.

    Dahn hak and its affiliated programs are not secular mindfulness techniques.

    Il Chi Lee is explicitly teaches a spiritual guide, Guru, or Seu Seung Nim( Korean honorific that Il Chi Lee says means spiritual father) . He has explicit directed his “masters” to receive donations to cover the expenses of a very expensive mansion (Mago’s Castle) in Sedona AZ. He said that unless enough people donated $10,000 to the Mago Castle project the world would end in 2030. Dahn Hak is properly understood as a new religion that incorporates traditional shamanistic, buddhist, taoist and mind-body-energy techniques from Korea markets them as Yoga or Brain Power.

    If you are looking or allies in the community I would talk to pastors or rabbis, because if they are not allowed to provide scriptural education in the school due to separation of church and state, Dahn Hak should not be allowed to teach your students Power Brain exercises. Power Brain exercise or based on a spiritual or metaphysical and Chi (energetic) vision of the world and Il Chi Lee constantly teaches that his teachings on understand of ChunJiKiUn (Cosmic Energy) will save the world.

    Reply
  5. Avatar

    I was a member of Dahn yoga in the early 2000s. When I saw what was happening, I stopped going after about 6 months. While I attended I enjoyed hours of exercise almost every day with positive people. I had a 4 pack with all of the abdominal pumping exercises. I gave them the last of my money (I was a grad student), which was $600. I felt ok about it since it was for a 6 month membership, so $25 per week for a great exercise program. Then I saw what was reallllyyy happening. They tried to groom me to be a “master,” suggested that I move into a dorm (that I never visited). A friend in the program divorced her husband and married a Korean “master.” Another friend kicked her husband out of their house and was preparing to divorce. A poor lady from Europe was duped into signing contracts to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars as I recall, to become a “master.” When she wanted out they forced her to pay off the contract and last I saw here she was working her butt off at a lousy hospital to pay off her Dahn debt- she just wanted it behind her so she could return to her homeland. The woman who introduced me to Dahn had been recently hospitalized for psychiatric reasons just before I met her. She was fun and creative and I so I went to a class with her and they roped me in. She ended up getting deeper and deeper in, traveling to Sedona AZ and then to Korea. What I know firsthand is this: they lured me in with love and flattery. They tried to convince me to give up my friends and move in with them. They taught me Korean. They told me they loved me every day and gave great hugs. They were basically preying on my low self-esteem and need for love to collect my money and get me on board to recruit others. I spent at least one day passing out fliers and trying to recruit people on street corners in Chicago. I saw friends get completely brainwashed and leave their families. When I called to say I was not coming back (or maybe they called me?) they tried the good cop bad cop thing. One “master” suggested I come back because it was so good for me, and the other tried to shame me into returning. I never went back.

    Reply
  6. Avatar

    Very interesting article! I also joined a Dahn Yoga studio in Phoenix. I attended a weekend long workshop at Mago Garden back in the early 2000’s. There was no doubt in my mind when I left this workshop that it was a cult. The weekend was exhausting, I left that workshop and never went back to the Dahn Yoga Studio. After reading many articles that came out in 2010, I’m glad I had the insight to walk away! I took my mother with me to this weekend retreat and as we were driving away from Mago Garden, I told her that we just experienced brainwashing exercises and this is a cult!

    Reply

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

post calvin direct

Get new posts from Caroline (Higgins) Nyczak delivered straight to your inbox.

Do NOT follow this link or you will be banned from the site!