Pressure PointersOn the fifth floor of an office building in bustling downtown Seoul, about 30 men and women clad in white martial-arts outfits stand about shaking out their hands and feet.
At the command of Seo Yoon-jung, an instructor at DuckSooGung Dahn Center, near the old palace of Deoksugung, the class performs a series of stretching and breathing exercises that are pivotal parts of Dahnhak, a modern version of a holistic health program that traces its roots to ancient Korea.
Founded about 20 years ago by a self-styled spiritual leader, Lee Seung-heun, Dahnhak is a mind-body training program that incorporates essential features of Asian practices, such as yoga, tai chi and qi-gong, aimed at stimulating one's vital energy.
Among the group in the recent Friday evening class were several foreigners, including teaching interns Mary Peterson, 39, and Courtney Lloyd, 22, both of whom assisted Ms. Seo in leading the session. In colored uniforms, like Ms. Seo, to indicate that they are teachers, Ms. Peterson and Ms. Lloyd demonstrated moves that included an elegant pose of an archer getting ready to shoot up into the sky.
Ms. Peterson, from Santa Fe, New Mexico, has been in Korea since June, teaching Dahnhak and learning Korean at Sogang University. She discovered Dahnhak two years ago, after trying other Eastern approaches, when she was looking for a remedy for her daily asthma attacks. "I was working in an unhealthy environment, a building with lots of trapped chemicals," she explained. "On top of that, I had a difficult relationship with my supervisor, which was very stressful." She dabbled at yoga, a Chinese walking practice and meditation before chancing upon Dahnhak. Dahnhak is similar to yoga in its theory of trying to open the body's meridians, or energy channels. According to Ms. Peterson, though, the positions are not as difficult. Another big plus is the efficiency. "Everything, including relaxation and stretching, is done in one hour," she said.
Ms. Lloyd, who had been suffering from chronic fatigue and bad knees, was inspired by an energetic 66-year-old woman who practiced Dahnhak. Ms. Lloyd found herself walking into a Dahnhak center in Sedona, Arizona, in January. "I was most impressed that it's about being able to use your body and mind the way you want," said Ms. Lloyd, who studied acting and dancing in New York. Reading "Healing Society," an Amazon.com best-seller written by the founder of Dahnhak under his pen name, Ilchi Lee, motivated her to become a Dahnhak master and put her on a plane to Korea.
At DuckSooGung Dahn Center, a typical one-hour session has 25 minutes of meridian exercise followed by 20 minutes of energizing breath work. The class wraps up with a 10-minute gi-controlling exercise and a five-minute revitalizing exercise. Gi is the Eastern term for vital energy.
Meridian exercise is basically stretching exercises using posture, breathing, and consciousness to stimulate the meridians. "This part of the session increases your gi, or energy, flexibility and fitness," said Jung Jung, chief master for foreign trainees at the center. Students also learn to release stress-induced negative energy, she said.
The next part of the class, dahnjon breathing, focuses on respiration and gi. The purpose is to breathe in cosmic energy and accumulate it in the dahnjon, or lower abdomen. Dahnhak claims that conscious control of the breath can eliminate the harmful effects of stress and negative emotions. Dahnjon breathing is also supposed to boost the immune system and thus restore the body's natural healing power.
The ki-controlling exercise involves learning to control energy flow. "And ki-controlling meditation allows you to calm the mind," explained Ms. Jung.
Steve Bowen, 32, a public relations manager who has lived in Seoul for eight years, appreciates the meditative aspect of the program. "Dahnhak requires concentration with its emphasis on breathing exercises, unlike working out in a gym which is essentially mindless," he said. Noting the din of the rush-hour traffic below, Mr. Bowen said, "Seoul is an incredibly stressful city to live in, particularly because as a foreigner I stand out." His goal in trying Dahnhak is stress management and, after just four sessions, he is already a convert. "I enjoy shutting everything out and focusing on me."
Sitting on the floor around a low table sipping a post-session tea, Dwayne Pattison, 30, recalled how he came to try Dahnhak. Beset with intestinal problems, he opted for the holistic approach over his doctor's regimen of medications. "I sought ways to heal myself," said Mr. Pattison, who has been doing Dahnhak for about six months. "With my condition, it was really painful for me to sit. But the trouble was virtually gone three months after I began Dahnhak. It really helps that the lower abdomen is one thing Dahnhak focuses on." Indeed, at one point in the class, students pound on their lower abdomen with their fists.
Although the movements look simple, stretching properly takes time. Mr. Pattison often finds himself sweating after 15 minutes. Also, he finds sitting cross-legged especially difficult. "My knees would jut out like this because I couldn't stretch my thighs," he explained, still looking not altogether comfortable there on the floor.
In addition to improving his health, Dahnhak has helped him learn to relax, which, in turn, has helped him at work. An English consultant at the National Agricultural Cooperative Federation, he said, "I'm more creative, which helps in my writing."
Appealing to people seeking physical as well as mental health, Dahnhak has attracted some 1 million followers in Korea, many of whom can be found practicing in public parks in the mornings. There are about 300 Dahnhak centers in Korea and 50-60 similar centers have been established in the United States since its introduction there seven years ago.
DuckSooGung Dahn Center offers five classes daily, each meeting for one hour. For more information, call 02-752-7720.
by Kim Hoo-ran