JOINING a meditation group, going to a yoga retreat or enrolling on a course to stop smoking may seem like healthy ideas - but it could be the most dangerous thing you ever do.

That's because increasingly these groups are really sinister cults, where charismatic leaders brainwash, beat and even sexually abuse their followers.

Incredibly, cult experts believe there are more than 1,000 secret cults in the UK - and that most are masquerading as health courses and addiction treatment programs to lure in unsuspecting victims.

Here we investigate what goes on behind the scenes of the illegal sects operating in the UK.

Celebrity links with Madonna and Kate Moss
Astoundingly, of the 1,000 cults in the UK, some have links to celebrities.

Kate Moss and Madonna are both fans of Jivamukti yoga - an exercise which was previously linked to cults in the US - but there is no suggestion either of them were ever involved with an extreme group.

In 2016, Jivamukti yoga teacher Ruth Lauer-Manenti was accused of being a cult leader and sued in a $1.6million lawsuit for sexual harassment.

It was claimed she had recruited an innocent yoga lover and taken advantage of her devotion to the secret cult in order to sexually assault her.

Her lawsuit was settled outside of court with a confidentiality agreement

But yoga isn't the only facade that secret cults are using to lure in their victims.

Trapped, manipulated and brainwashed
Gillie Jenkinson, now 65, escaped a cult after being brainwashed and beaten for seven years.

She now works to help brainwashed cult victims regain a normal life and is seriously concerned by the increase in extremist groups in the UK masquerading as all different types wellness regimes.

"The number of British cults is increasing because trends including life-coaching and meditation are getting more popular," she explains.

"The internet and social media have a large part to play too. I know of people who have been hooked by online gurus, coaches, religious or spiritual people.

"We live in an uncertain world in which there is a loss of family - and in many cases cults can replace that."

While there's no hard and fast rule to tell which of these groups are genuine and which are secret cults, warning signs include being asked for money and bullied into volunteering.

Once a victim is invested in the ideology, they are trapped, manipulated and brainwashed - and many find it impossible to escape.

Beaten with bamboo canes for putting on weight
This is exactly what happened to Gillie.

She was recruited into a cult through her local church when she was 20 and endured seven years of violence, brainwashing and emotional abuse - including being beaten with a bamboo cane 40 times in one day.

A devout Christian, Gillie joined a local church and was targeted by the leader who offered her free counselling sessions.

He told her God wanted her to move into his community house with a number of other women and Gillie obliged - but things quickly changed.

She told Sun Online: “I joined what I thought was a friendly group that became a cult, and went from being a fun-loving 22 year old to someone completely different.

"I lived there for seven years and was physically beaten.

“The cult leader got someone to beat me - and in one incident I was beaten 40 times with a bamboo cane.

"They’d trap me and tell me I'd committed sins - anything from wearing the wrong thing to putting weight on or having a bad attitude.

"It got to the point that thought I deserved it - I was brainwashed.

“I started dressing differently, I stopped wearing makeup and my diet was totally controlled.

“I lost all my friends and my family were horrified by how much I’d changed.

"My stepmother wanted to kidnap me from the house because she was so worried."

The cult eventually disbanded after several women claimed they suffered sexual abuse.

“No legal action was taken as everyone was too scared to report anything,” Gillie explains.

'Everyone should be scared'
Gillie now works with victims of cults to help them recover from their traumatic experiences.

She recalls Sarah* who joined a yoga group and was targeted by the teacher.

She was manipulated and told to leave her husband, eventually moving onto a friend's floor and donating endless sums of money to the secret cult.

“Everyone is vulnerable to being recruited," Gillie warns.

"People often think there must be something wrong with you to join - but that's not the case.

"You only know it is abusive once you get in."

'I signed up for a quitting smoking course and ended up being brainwashed'
Ian Howorth, 70, runs the Cult Information Centre - a charity he set up after escaping a Canadian cult in the 70s.

He told The Sun: “A lot of people don’t believe cults exist in the UK - but people who think it would never happen to them are probably the easiest to recruit.

"We’re approaching 1,000 cults in the UK alone. Just last week one I’d never heard of opened up in London.

“Britain on a per capita basis now has the same problem as the United States."

Ian explained: “I recently had a phone call from someone who had been told by their boss to go on a course.

“I knew about the course, and it was run by a group of concern.

“She said she’d been told if she didn’t go on the course she wouldn’t get promoted.

“The accusations were investigated and several management staff were found to be members of a cult, diverting company funds to pay for staff courses in a bid to recruit unknowing members.

“Everyday it’s happening in companies.”

Ian also knows first hand what it’s like to be recruited into a cult, unwittingly falling prey to a notorious Canadian sect.

He said: “I was shopping and was approached by an attractive lady who told me I could get help quitting smoking.

"They guaranteed it would work, or they’d give me my money back. They’ll tell you what you want to hear.”

Ian paid $1500 for the course and was hypnotised 16 times — although he was told it was just “meditation”.

Brainwashed, he quit his job and join them full time.

Thankfully, he got out quickly following a newspaper article exposing the group, but it took years to recover from the psychological trauma of the experience, and he went on to set up the Cult Information Centre.

“The last person to know he or she is in a cult is the cult member themselves,” he says.