Thursday, October 08, 2009

Aggressively marketed enlightenment

Allow me to begin with an anecdote about the time I almost joined a cult.

One day last May I was innocently wandering X* Square when I came upon a sign regarding massages at a Dahn Yoga studio. Always in want of a good massage, I inquired within. What commenced was the most extensive set of influence techniques** I have ever witnessed. Each event below ends with an influence technique:
  1. I walk in and ask about massages. Y*, the head of the studio, asks to make an appointment to see me in 45 minutes. (Asking people to make small commitments to enhance their bond to the thing in question.)
  2. All around the studio, there is information about how Dahn yoga can improve every aspect of your life and there are testimonials about how it has changed people's lives for the better. (Yikes.)
  3. Y asks me to fill out a 10-page questionaire (Small commitments thing again. People don't like to think they've put in effort for nothing.)
  4. Upon hearing that my physical therapist told me to seek more restorative forms of yoga, Y asks, "So you would say your PT sent you here?" (People like to be consistent; you can take advantage of their desire for consistency to bend what they say slightly in order to influence them to do things.)
  5. We jump around for about 30 minutes in a one-on-one session. (One-on-one attention makes people feel like they owe something.)
  6. The whole time, Y told me things like the vibrations from jumping around were good for my brain, and that I was loosening my organs. (People are suckers for things they want to believe.)
  7. After the jumping around, Y gave me a brief massage. When the massage was over, my contact was bothering me, so I was rubbing my right eye. Y began rubbing his left eye and said that his eye was bothering him too. (Mirroring, a phenomenon that occurs when people are bonding, is oftne used by salespeople for influence purposes. You can also hypnotize someone by mirroring: if you consistently lag without the other people noticing, you can begin leading and have them follow. Apparently you can make someone's cheek itch by scratching your own cheek.)
  8. Afterward, Y asked me how I liked the session. (Asking people how they feel after you give them something will influence them to say good things about your product. Then you can take advantage of their desire for consistency.)
  9. Y then told me that I had a lot of passion, which made me a good fit for Dahn Yoga. (Appealing to people's vanity is a great way to get them to use your product.)
  10. Y said since I liked the session so much, since I was looking for something to help with my neck/shoulder injuries, and since my PT sent me there, it looked like I should continue going. (Consistency again.)
  11. Y told me that there were often weekend gatherings where young people get together and there is a lot of energy. (Appealing to people's desires for community can get you a lot from them.)
  12. Y then asked me if I would be willing to commit to multiple years of Dahn Yoga. Then he pared down to one year, then six months, then three months. I finally gave in at one month. (Asking unreasonable things of people will cause them to feel guilty and be more likely to acquiesce to smaller requests.)
  13. When I was leaving, Y asked me when I was going to come again. (Commitments.)
  14. Y said that I should plan to come either a few minutes early or stay a few minutes late so that he could show me take-home exercises. (Commitments.)
  15. I never went back. For a couple of weeks afterwards, I often got phone calls from "Y from Dahn Yoga, X Square," asking when I was going to come back. (Connection/commitment.)
It was fortunate that the few bigger things caused me to notice the subtle manipulation: apparently these techniques are what causes many people to pay a lot of money (and sometimes devote their lives) to Dahn Yoga. The most sketchy thing was that 1) jumping around is not yoga and 2) there is no scientific basis to the "brain vibrations" business. I was also somewhat disturbed/confused by the "Brain Respiration" uniforms hanging in the bathroom. What caused me to think that there was intentional deception rather than just innocent evangelism of bogus ideas was the mirroring. Upon returning home I read their Wikipedia page, which linked to some references about how people had complained about Dahn Yoga's manipulative marketing, how people claim it is a pyramid scheme, and how at least one family has asked a cult deprogrammer to intervene with their son who had sold all of his possessions to live according to the way of Dahn yoga.

My Dahn yoga experience caused me to think more about the aggressive marketing of Bikram yoga (also see Wikipedia page and the Bikram Boston site.), a multi-million dollar franchised corporation which similarly claims to solve all health problems and has many testimonials from people saying that this has changed their life (and solved all of their problems). Bikram yoga has a similar script of telling you during the practice that. Bikram also has its own set of influence techniques: the instructors establish a clear teacher/student relationship and make you feel that you are not good enoughand must improve, causing you to return time after time even though you are spending a lot of money to be uncomfortable. (At least, this happened to me.) After a month and a half of Bikram, I talked to a middle-aged couple who said that everyone they knew who had done bikram had quit after less than six month due to injuries. This caused me to quit abruptly after I realized I wasn't getting any better. Though I wanted to believe the instructors when they said "this is the best thing to do if you have a neck injury" and "don't worry, you'll get worse before you get better," I had lost faith in Bikram.

I hypothesize that, like me, many are drawn to "programs" like Bikram because of a combination of 1) injuries and 2) desire for an easy path to spirituality. If I had not had that neck injury (that, by that point, had not healed for 10 months), I would not have been so desperate for things that promised to fix everything. I have also been told that though I am areligious, I have a strong desire for explanation and order: religious tendencies, if you will. I had come across bikram/dahn at a time when I believed that I could find "the solution to everything," " the relevation that changed my life." I also had many qualities that made me particularly receptive to this form of prepackaged, aggressively marketed enlightenment: I was not accustomed to waiting long to get anything that I wanted, most of my life and self-image were already comprised of aggressively marketed components, and the specific marketing of Bikram/Dahn appealed to my needs***. In an alternate universe that has a slighly more unfortunate (or perhaps fortunate, as I would be living in blissful, ignorant poverty?) outcome I could see myself devoting large amounts of time and money to something like this.

While the aggressive marketing aspect of Bikram and Dahn are harmful, they are not necessarily all bad. On one hand, this aggressive marketing is harmful because it preys on people's desire for spirituality and desire for an answer in order to market a product that is, essentially, fake. On the other hand, many people do believe in things like Bikram and Dahn and are perfectly happy about that. Bikram and Dahn could also be giving people health benefits, since they may not otherwise stretch or exercise****. The mental aspect (placebo effect) could also be improving lives. The major thing that makes something like Dahn Yoga more harmful than a religion is how aggressively it extracts money from Dahn practitioners. One might say that people who spend all of their money on Dahn deserve it, but many are young people who may be living on their parents' money. (See the external links on Dahn wikipedia page for stories on Dahn harm.) These people can believe what they want, but it may be our duty to make the information available to them that they are worshiping at the (very expensive) Church of McDonald's.

Since leaving Bikram, I have found a form of aggressively marketed enlightenment that better fits my lifestyle needs: heated vinyasa flow yoga. I like these studios much better because they do not claim to solve all problems and they do not claim to be the end-all be-all of spiritual needs. In fact, some instructors recommend other forms of yoga (like yin) that are more restorative. While it is somewhat ironic that instructors tell me to relax and breathe while cuing me through cycles of posture changes so fast they leave me out of breath, this has been a step in the right direction for my type A, impatient personality. I have become better at relaxing, better at being patient, and better at not pushing myself too hard--learning to modify postures in yoga has been one of my first lessons that it is often better for me not to do everything that I possible could. My dabbling in Spirituality Lite has had positive effects on my wellness (by first of all teaching me that this is is a concept), both physically and mentally. One day, I might be ready for The Real Thing. ;)

* Names obfuscated to protect ...?
** Good thing I read Cialdini's Influence, a book on psychological influence techniques used by salespeople, prison camps, and cults alike.
*** The message of both was that if you paid them money and kept coming, everything would be better. (The Bikram instructors' incessant "constructive" criticism also addressed my need to have my butt kicked.) This is an easier message to swallow than the prescription to slow down, take it easy, and find spirituality within. (For Bikram, the heat also tells you that you don't need to wait for your body to be ready to open: we'll just heat up the room so it happens instantaneously! This panders to the need for instant gratification in an extreme way.)
**** Bikram is actually a pretty good workout. One of the reasons I first took it up was because when I read the bios of Olympics athletes I discovered some of them would do 1+ days of Bikram a week to maintain flexibility. The Harvard crew team at one point also required a day of Bikram a week.


Anonymous said...

ALERT: Law firm preparing new lawsuit on behalf of New England residents against DAHN YOGA & HEALTH CENTERS, INC. and related parties. Please provide details of your experiences including recruitment, indoctrination, psychological and financial manipulation, coercion and undue influence resulting in the spending of excessive amounts of money on DAHN services and other illegal activities. Contact John at

Anonymous said...

Thank you for such a wonderful blog commentary! I couldn't agree more!

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