(CBS 5 NEWS) – 5i Team Reporter Morgan Loew investigates an international organization based in Arizona. Its followers believe it has made them happy and healthy. They’ll even tell you it has cured them of illnesses, but critics warn this is a cult in disguise.
The red rocks of Sedona lure visitors from around the world, but it was something else nestled in the hills outside of the town that brought a 41-year-old college professor named Julia Siverls here during the summer of 2003.
“The last time I saw her was at my wedding, the reception, and she was telling me ‘I’m going to Arizona’,” says one family member.
Family members say they still have a hard time believing what happened… believing the events that led to Julia collapsing and dying on the side of a mountain.
“You don’t know the stuff that’s going to happen. She was like, ‘I’m scared. I m going on this hike tomorrow. I’m scared’,” says the victim’s brother, Robert Siverls.
Julia traveled to Sedona for something called masters training in Dahn Yoga, a Korean art form that her family and others compare more to a cult than an exercise program. Dhan is a combination of yoga, martial arts and medication. Followers say it works wonders.
“Within one month I felt amazing,” says Charlotte Connors. She started taking classes to relieve depression. She liked it so much, she moved from Manhattan to Sedona to work for the Dahn Yoga organization full-time.
“Of course in my example it was so beneficial for me physically and emotionally, I was, like, I want to be a teacher. I want to share this with other people,” says Connors.
Critics charge that some of the followers get too involved and spend thousands of dollars getting rid of personal possessions and turning their backs on their own families.
“I saw in my mind what she – what I thought – was a cult,” says concerned parent Charles Laquidara.
Charles’ son is a Dahn Yoga follower.
“We called a cult expert, and we actually had an intervention in Hawaii. When he came home for Christmas it was horrible,” says Laquidara.
Cult expert Steve Hassan has counseled 14 former Dahn members.
“People that I’m counseling who have been in this group, show all the signs of symptoms of people in other mind control cults,” says Hassan.
Dahn Yoga is headquartered in Sedona, where Julia died.
The police report says Julia died of dehydration during a training exercise on the mountain.
“To expose someone to the degree where they can ultimately die, it’s madness,” says Robert Siverls.
The family has filed a lawsuit alleging, among other things, that Julia was drugged and killed by the Dahn cult. It’s an allegation the organization flatly denies.
“All I can say is that our entire organization was devastated by what happened to Julia, by her death,” says Charlotte Connors.
When asked if she thought the program was responsible for her death, she said, “Absolutely not. We disagree with the allegations, and that’s really all I can say because of the litigation.”
Dahn Yoga was started by a man who calls himself Dr. Ill Chi Li. He’s designed strange gadgets including little vibrating brains used in conjunction with Dahn Yoga. He also claims to have supernatural powers, but critics like Steve Hassan compare what he does to brainwashing.
“If it quacks like a duck and has feathers like a duck, at a certain point you have to say it’s probably a duck. In my opinion, this group is one that I really warn your viewers about,” says Hassan.
When asked why people would call it a cult, Connors says,”I think that people who might say something like that probably don’t have any direct experience with Dahn Yoga.”
Dahn Yoga organizers tell us the problem may be that some people mis-interpret the enthusiasm of the teachers.
There are now eight locations here in the Valley, more than 600 centers worldwide, and the organization says 200,000 followers.