Julia Siverls was hiking up Casner Mountain in the Arizona desert, hauling a backpack full of rocks and taking only occasional sips of water.
The rocks, she was told, represented loved ones and a vision for the future, and she was ordered to never put them down, a companion said.
Several hours into the daylong, 20-mile trek, she collapsed under the scorching sun.
“She began to give up and we begged, pleaded and yelled for her to keep moving,” Robert Rueb, one of four people with her, told police last month. “We had to keep moving.”
But the 41-year-old college professor from the Bronx stumbled one last time. She started shaking, lost consciousness and died. Before paramedics had time to arrive, two of her companions emptied the rocks from her pack and one had Rueb turn his shirt inside out, hiding embroidery of a flame, triangle, square and oval — the symbol of an obscure Korean group called Dahnhak.
The coroner concluded that Siverls died from heat exhaustion, but police reopened their investigation into the July 2003 incident after Rueb, a resident of Queens, came forward with new details.
The hike she was on was supposed to break her down so she could achieve heightened spiritual awareness and become a “master” of Dahnhak, which has centers around the country — including Greenburgh and Bedford — and is led by a self-styled guru who markets his own brand of yoga and says his mission is to start an “enlightenment revolution.”
Siverls’ death provides a rare glimpse into a group that has maintained a shroud of secrecy since coming to the United States from South Korea a decade ago. Dahnhak rejected requests by The Journal News to interview its founder, Grand Master Seung Heun Lee, saying he was “too busy.”
Dahnhak operates 160 yoga and tai chi centers in mostly affluent communities, opening 40 in this country in the past year alone.
Mind-control experts say it is a destructive cult that uses the centers to lure members and convince them to give up time and money. They say members have left behind families, considered divorcing their spouses, or changed careers to focus on the group.
Last month, Siverls’ family filed an $84 million lawsuit blaming Dahnhak for her death, accusing the group of forcing her to continue the hike and engaging in brainwashing that included lacing her food with drugs.
“They told us she died peacefully,” said her sister, Veronica Siverls-Dunham of Salisbury Mills, N.Y. “Then we got the police report. Give me a break. She was in pain, burning up. I protect my baby sister, and it’s my job to not let this just disappear. This must not be allowed to happen to anyone else.”
Dahn leaders say the allegations in the lawsuit are false.
“We are very saddened any time a member dies, and we believe proper care was taken under the circumstances,” said Steve Kim, a Dahnhak spokesman.
Cult expert Rick Ross said Lee, the founder and leader, reminds him of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, the Korean-born founder of the Unification Church.
“But Rev. Moon openly acknowledges that he is a religious leader and that what he teaches is a religion, whereas Dahnhak is very vague about this,” Ross said.
“They won’t admit it openly that there is a belief system behind these centers,” he said. “Instead they portray it as yoga, meditation, martial arts or whatever exercise is popular.”
Lee also uses the name Dr. Ilchi Lee. Ilchi is his chosen spiritual name, meaning “a finger pointing to the truth.” He claims supernatural powers, including the ability to heal, see ghosts and diagnose diseases. He teaches members to control their thoughts through a process he calls “brain cleaning.”
He shuns organized religion and says his mission is to inspire 100 million “earthhumans” over 10 years to join him in an “enlightenment revolution” that will transform governments, end wars and lift humanity to a higher spiritual plane.
He says people can accomplish this through “brain respiration,” a Dahn breathing technique.
“Through brain respiration you will become a New Human, a spiritual person whose primary goal is to create harmony,” Lee wrote in his book “Healing Society.”
“And when enough New Humans join together in a worldwide spiritual-cultural movement, we will effect the grandest revolution in the history of humankind, a revolution that will usher in a new era of spiritualism,” he wrote.
Dahnhak starts people with basic classes, then encourages them to join workshops and retreats that cost as much as $10,000. They target some to become masters, who teach classes for little or no pay.
The centers generally blend into their communities. The Greenburgh site is in a strip mall on Central Avenue; a sign out front advertises yoga and tai chi.
People enter through the back, where a Korean woman in a white robe leads them into a softly lit room and guides them through a series of exercises. They stretch and pound their abdomens to facilitate the flow of “Ki,” or life energy, before they lie down, close their eyes and breathe deeply as soothing music plays.
She then places “power brains” on their chests that shoot vibrations through their bodies. Everyone is instructed to smile.
The experience leaves participants deeply relaxed. Afterward, she invites them to the lobby for a special, calming tea.
Newcomers go through the same routine, but in private. Then the woman has them sit at a table, sets down a contract and encourages them to sign up for a program that will change their lives.
“I see him as one of the effective spokespersons on this planet, urgently urging the world to find its path to peace,” said Neal Donald Walsh, author of “Conversations with God,” who has lectured with Lee. “He’s simply a gentle, peaceful man who sincerely seeks to assist people in finding inner and outer peace.”
Lee’s greatest admirers are members of Dahnhak.
“You never get tired of listening to him,” said Joe Lo Grasso, 62, a retired builder from Paramus, N.J., who has attended retreats in Sedona and has paid $10,000 for a course that claims to teach members how to heal themselves. “He kind of makes you open up your senses so your speech and thoughts flow.”
Dahnhak’s Web site posts testimonials from members who credit the program with helping cure conditions ranging from gastritis to heart disease. Lo Grasso said he no longer needs prostate medication.
The master of the Bedford center, a Korean woman named Shim who runs a brain respiration class for children, said the program helps them overcome such conditions as attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder. “It improves their physical health and mental concentration so they are able to control their minds without taking any medicine,” she said.
Debra Goldstein, a Dahn member in Scarsdale, is among those who avoid the retreats but go to the classes because they find the exercises a great way to decompress after a hard day.
“I have a very stressful job,” said Goldstein, 50, of White Plains, who works in direct marketing. “When I go there, I just sort of put my mind in a blank once I get to that second half of the class so I can sleep at night.”
Some ex-members call Lee a fake who left them in debt and isolated from friends and family.
Web sites have been appearing, seeking to debunk the organization, and the controversy is raging in South Korea.
“If you go over there, you’re either going to find people saying it’s the best thing in the world or it’s a cult,” said Will Berkhardt, a Dahn master and former spokesman in Sedona.
Cult experts issue stern warnings.
“I believe it is a destructive cult, complete with a charismatic figure who claims to be enlightened, deceptive recruitment and (questionable) techniques that make people dependent and obedient,” said cult deprogrammer Steve Hassan, who has worked with former Dahnhak members.
Charles Laquidara, a former Boston radio announcer, sought help after his 25-year-old son Ari canceled plans to attend graduate school and opened a Dahnhak center in Andover, Mass., instead.
“This is not the son I knew,” said Laquidara, who briefly joined Dahnhak to see what it was like.
Hassan confronted Ari Laquidara in December. For six days, Hassan showed him videos about cults and had him speak with ex-Dahn members.
But the efforts to get him to abandon Dahnhak failed.
“I was just saying, ‘I’m so sorry you were hurt, but it’s not my experience here in my community,’ ” Ari Laquidara said. “I am connected to people who really care for me.”
He acknowledged criticism that Dahn leaders exert too much control, pressuring certain masters to remain celibate for years at a time, while judging their spiritual worth based on their fundraising prowess.
He countered that celibacy was not required, but rather an “intention or wish,” designed to keep them focused on deeper, more spiritual pursuits. He said most masters he knows were single because “marriage takes a lot of time and energy on one person, whereas we have to focus on guiding, helping and healing far more than one.”
And the masters’ success at raising money is crucial, he said, because it enables Dahnhak to reach more people.
Iris Song, a former member from Phoenix, said a Dahn instructor told her she should divorce her husband, who resented her devotion to the group. At the time, Dahn leaders were trying to convince her to become a master.
“(A Dahn instructor) said my spirit was too pure to be tied down,” Song said. “They made me believe this was my destiny; that I needed to leave my family.”
She quit after Rick Ross, hired by her husband and father, confronted her for three days of “deprogramming.”
Though he calls himself a doctor, Lee has no medical degree —only an honorary doctorate from a California university.
Critics question his claim that “brain respiration” increases brain functioning and induces “hyper-sensory perception.”
“Pseudoscience would actually be a generous term for what they do,” said Brian Cummings, a scientist at the University of California at Irvine, where Lee gave a demonstration two years ago. “The real term should be that this is a cult or religion of some sort.”
At the university’s Institute for Brain Aging, Lee attempted to demonstrate the power of brain respiration by holding up cards and having his child “trainees” see through them and identify objects on the back side.
It didn’t work, Cummings said.
“He was there for two reasons: One, to advertise that he was invited to give a lecture at UC Irvine so he could have an official brochure saying he went there and, second, to convince us that there’s something to this brain respiration and that we should study it,” he said. “It was just silly.”