Fatal Trek

The mysterious desert death of a Brooklyn yoga devotee

Every day for a year and a half, Julia Siverls practiced an eclectic Korean style of yoga called Dahn. She started each morning with meditation and breathing exercises, then sandwiched her day job as a college professor between hours spent as a Dahn volunteer�teaching classes, distributing recruitment flyers, or researching potential locations for new centers. Julia approached her spiritual life with the same diligence she applied to everything else. Having grown up in a rough Brooklyn housing project, she went on to stack up not one but two master's degrees and a doctorate. A certificate dated July 14, 2003, signifies her crowning achievement in yoga: becoming a master instructor. Sadly, Julia could not attend the graduation ceremony held in Sedona, Arizona, at the Ilchi Meditation Center, a resort-style compound that serves as Dahn's U.S. headquarters. On July 12, at the age of 41, she died on a nearby mountain while training to be a Dahn master.

There are 147 Dahn centers in cities throughout the United States, and they advocate a triangular model of health: The bottom tier consists of physical concerns, emotional elements are in the middle, and spiritual aspects are at the top. As one Dahn instructor puts it, the spiritual potential of an individual can't be fulfilled if the body isn't healthy. Ergo, Dahn: a catchall term for a blend of yoga, tai chi, and martial arts exercises. According to promotional materials, Dahn was born in 1983 after founder Dr. Ilchi Lee "helped a half-paralyzed stroke victim regain his health and confidence at a local park in rural Korea" by updating 5,000-year-old martial arts moves.


Julia Silverls and Dr. Ilchi Lee the day before her death.
photo: Courtesy of Terry Brostowin
Julia Silverls and Dr. Ilchi Lee the day before her death.

From another set of documents, a different picture of Dahn emerges. In a 109-point civil complaint, nine of Julia's brothers and sisters allege that Dahn masters "forced and coerced" her to practice their brand of yoga, ultimately compelling her to attend the deadly yoga retreat. They charge that members of Dahn laced her food with drugs before leading her on a grueling mountain hike, during which, despite indications she was struggling, they denied her medical care. And along with various former group members and experts on the topic, they believe that Dahn is a cult. (A Dahn spokesperson denies all allegations.)


The Siverls family didn't always feel this way�at first, they celebrated Julia's involvement with Dahn. In a memorial booklet distributed at her funeral mass, a picture of the petite, 5-1 Julia in her yoga uniform graced the front flap, with an image of a mountain on the back. "While pursuing one of her greatest passions she attained the title of 'Sambumnim Master' at the Dahn Institute," reads one passage. "She believed as [Dahn] taught, 'Awaken the healer within. Develop it. Master it. Heal yourself, your family, society, and the earth.' "

Two of Julia's siblings spent several days in Sedona following her death. Their hosts treated them graciously, Alephia (Siverls) Gelber says, but they were isolated from other guests and received little information about Julia other than an "impression she died peacefully, looking up with a smile on her face." They had hoped to gain an understanding of what happened on the mountain that day. "But we went there stumped and we came back stumped," Robert Siverls says.

Three days after Julia's death, Detective John McDormett of the Yavapai County Sheriff's Office questioned the four trainees and one full-fledged master who were with Julia on the hike. It was odd that the hikers were unable to link any of the day's events to specific times, the detective noted, but still, the story they told him separately was essentially the same: They set out from the retreat center around seven in the morning, backpacks stocked with food and water. In the afternoon, Julia collapsed twice but pushed forward; after she started shaking and would not eat or drink, the leader of the group, Master Charlie, called for help. Julia's death was ruled an accident and the case was closed.

image
A Korean style of yoga known as Dahn is practiced here at the Sedona Ilchi Meditation Center located in a remote area southwest of Sedona, Arizona. July 4, 2006.
photo: Martha Strachan
But late in August, when the family received a copy of the sheriff's report, says Veronica Siverls-Dunham, Julia's sister and the administratrix of her estate, they learned for the first time about an off-duty deputy who had been riding his ATV down Casner Mountain�elevation 4,500 feet�when he spotted five people clustered around a woman who "appeared to have difficulty walking. . . . I saw the black woman fall to the ground and land on her hands and knees. . . . Both the man and the woman reached underneath [her] armpits and tried to lift while continuing to walk. They began dragging her for a short distance. The woman was unable to get to her feet."

The sheriff's deputy noted that the group "did not appear to be carrying a large amount of water, and it was already very hot at 9:30" a.m. It was this detail that stunned the Siverls family, since the 911 call hadn't come in until 4:30 p.m. "That means all day long she was suffering," Alephia says. "That's what is really unbelievable, that this organization that preaches love would allow someone to suffer to death."

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