Fatal Trek

The mysterious desert death of a Brooklyn yoga devotee

Former Dahn masters say the pressure to buy Dahn membership pales in comparison to the pressure to sell it. The masters at each center determine their "vision" for the month�a target amount of money and members�and an internal website details their failures and successes. Tales also abound of masters who are convinced to practice celibacy and separate from family and friends. One former master offers that because "Dahn doesn't really want people to live with non-Dahn people," he finally gave up his Manhattan apartment, sleeping instead at the center where he worked. Finding fault with Dahn is verboten, former masters say, explained away as "bad energy."

Perhaps the alleged dark side of Dahn was dramatized during Julia's hike. Like other holistic or spiritual traditions, Dahn is rooted in the notion that pain and struggle beget enlightenment: The hot sun and heavy rocks, like uncooperative family members or diseases, are obstacles that must be both embraced and overcome.

A book published by Dahn's founder in 1999 underscores the point. In Heaven Within, a woman named Kari journeys from Sedona to Korea, submitting to an intense physical regimen that includes hanging upside down, sitting in an isolation booth, and consuming only pine tree pollen, then only water, then only fruit. In one eerily prescient passage, Kari falls and strikes her head and shoulder on a rock. She angrily asks her master, "Don't you people realize you could be sued?" Kari's odyssey�and suffering�end with her experiencing a "radical spiritual transformation." The book reads like an allegory, but the preface says it is inspired by real-life events. On the last page are addresses of Dahn centers across the country, below a heading that reads, "Where to Experience Heaven Within."

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.

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See also:
Your Turn: Ever Done Dahn?
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Julia's defining characteristics� her strong ambition, spirituality, benevolence, and belief in the goodness of others�may have proven to be as fatal as they were admirable. But the Siverls family's looming civil trial could hinge on another quality: Julia's autonomy.


Julia Silverls Family: Julia's brothers Ronald Siverls (back Left) and Alfonso Siverls (back right) stand with their sister Veronica Dunham (foreground right) who is joined by her daughter Katherine Dunham (Foreground Left) at Veronicas home in Upstate New York. 4th July 2006.
photo: Giulietta Verdon-Roe
"The family has to remember that Julia wasn't a baby," says Rose. "She made her own decisions, and knowing her, you don't force her to do things she doesn't want to do." It is this very independence that leads the family to conclude Julia was victimized by a cult. Cult expert Rick Ross, whom the family has retained as an expert witness, believes Julia was brainwashed via training sessions that involve an intense emotional component, such as a weekend workshop Dahn sells called Shim-Sung. ("With the changes in their personalities through Shim-Sung, practitioners are able to realign their lives toward their true purpose," reads a passage from one of Ilchi Lee's books.)

It is indeed difficult to comprehend why five seemingly intelligent adults continued on a hike that was killing one of them, or what kind of hold Dahn could have had over a bright woman like Julia, but one former master has a thought. "When you're there, you meet the most wonderful people and have the best relationships you ever had in your entire life, because�in the beginning�there's no pressure, other than you're all training together, you're having a great time, going out to dinner, having parties," Robert says. "It was such a tight-knit thing. Suddenly you're hanging out with these people and everybody loves you and cares for you. The next thing you know you're being manipulated. And the next thing you know, you're in the desert."

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