Chain of Yoga Centers Called “Cult,” Sued By Former Employees

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A popular chain of yoga and wellness centers, founded by a South Korean businessman who has gained a widespread and devoted following, has recently been the target of a lawsuit.

The suit, filed in Arizona’s federal court by more than two dozen plaintiffs, calls Dahn Yoga a “cult” and its leader, Ilchi Lee, the cult’s “absolute spiritual and temporal leader.” At issue are allegations that instructors at the yoga centers demanded that employees pay increasing amounts of money for training and courses, and that they asked workers to take out student loans and turn over the sums to the company.

Jade Harrelson, one of the plaintiffs, also claims that she was sexually assaulted by Lee, although she never filed a police report and did not come forward with the allegation until she and three other former employees filed suit in early 2009.

Additionally, the plaintiffs say that they were forced to undergo extreme physical exercise regimens, including a form of training known as “bow training,” in which participants perform deep knee bends to the floor, hands raised high, and then come back up. Another plaintiff, Harrelson’s friend Liza Miller, said that she was once asked to perform this maneuver 3,000 times over the course of 10 hours, without being allowed food or water.

Dahn Yoga opened its first United States studio in Philadelphia in 1991, and has since grown to a chain of 127 U.S. centers, with over 1,000 worldwide. Its profits for 2009 have been estimated at $34 million. The yoga and wellness centers are wildly popular, counting among their fans the president of Costa Rica, choreographer Tommy Tune, and a neurology professor at NYU’s medical school, Elkhonon Goldberg. Goldberg has also been quoted on Dahn Yoga’s website as praising a group Lee founded, called the International Brain Education Association (IBREA).

Dahn Yoga’s philosophy includes a technique called “brain wave vibration,” which is intended to ameliorate the symptoms of diabetes, arthritis and other maladies. Yet the former employees who are named in the lawsuit claim that what the company does is indoctrinate its workers and followers, in order to take advantage of their devotion.

Supporters say that Dahn Yoga is a business, like any other, and that the disgruntled employees misunderstood common financial practices by that business. A spokesperson for the company said that no one has ever been coerced into giving money to Dahn Yoga or to Lee.

Harrelson, who followed Lee to Seoul, South Korea in order to work with him there, says that he gave her special attention and that she regarded him as a father figure—until, that is, one night in 2007 when he sexually assaulted her in his apartment. Lee has denied all allegations of sexual assault, physical abuse and psychological manipulation of his employees.

 

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