This year (2020) has been a disruptive year for so many, including the Kundalini Yoga as Taught By Yogi Bhajan (“KYatbYB”) community. It’s important to note the distinction because there are others who teach or write about “Kundalini Yoga” which is very different from what Yogi Bhajan taught. In February, Pamela Dyson’s book, Premka: White Bird in a Golden Cage: My Life with Yogi Bhajan revealed some closely held secrets of her time as Secretary General to Yogi Bhajan. Her truth gave permission to many who’ve been silenced over the years and unleashed a massive unveiling of stories from hundreds revealing various types of abuse and other illegal activities that had taken place in the KYatbYB community since its inception, culminating in an investigation and report by The Olive Branch. In addition, a 2013 paper written by Philippe Deslippe, “From Maharaj to Mahan Tantric: The Construction of Yogi Bhajan’s Kundalini Yoga,” resurfaced to this larger audience. It told a vastly different version of the origin story of Yogi Bhajan’s yoga, calling into question much of what he taught and preached.
The information sent shockwaves through the community, causing many people to struggle with how to move forward in light of the truth. For many, Yogi Bhajan WAS Kundalini Yoga so without him as the strong, reliable and trustworthy leader they’d believed him to be, they had nothing. Others chose not to believe the countless stories of the survivors and fervently committed their devotion to Bhajan and his teachings. Then there are others who believe the stories but continue teaching just as they’ve been taught, or by modifying it in their own way. It’s important to point something out for those who haven’t gone through a KYatbYB teacher training. There is a belief held by many, my teachers included, that you must do everything exactly as Yogi Bhajan taught, to the word. The classes taught today are all exact replications of classes he taught at some point in his life that were recorded and preserved. There’s a way you start class, end class, the Kriya is prescribed, as is what you wear and what music you are allowed to play. Even his lifestyle teachings beyond yoga, the ones that relate to what to eat, when to meditate, who to marry, how to parent and so on, are dogmatized to the level of any fundamentalist religion.
The Control Tactics of Yogi Bhajan and His Teachings
I was introduced to Kundalini Yoga in 2011. At the time, I had been struggling with heartbreak and a feeling of being stuck in an unfulfilling profession. I dove headfirst into the practice. There was something about it that hooked me. The breathwork, the chanting, the challenge, and the opportunity to persevere through it made me feel alive and soothed some inner need that I had. The frequency with which I was taking classes drew me closer to the woman I was taking them from, whom I’ll refer to as “Sherri.” In reality she became one of my closest friends and so when her teacher (I’ll call him “Bob”) announced that he was coming to the area from Los Angeles to do a training, she really wanted me to sign up. It was no small commitment: over three-thousand dollars and three weeks of my time. Something about the way she was pushing me and others into the training felt a little like I was being sold a timeshare, but I trusted her. Ultimately, I decided it would be a good personal experience that would hopefully push me to finally make the much needed change I was yearning for in my life.
Teacher training was not what I’d expected. It was mostly yoga and lots of very long meditations with very little instruction on how to teach. Not surprising since all you really need to do is read the pre-ordained steps from your manual. I enjoyed the practice as it felt like I was going through boot camp and pushing me into personal transformation via 62 minutes of Sat Kriya (sitting and chanting with your arms stretched over your head) and two-and-a-half hour meditations. What I didn’t know then was that these experiences were designed to create awe and sustain fervor, a method used by cults to convert its members. Any time we have a ‘peak experience’ which is unique, we feel awe. ‘Mystical manipulation is the creation of awe for the purpose of undue influence, and happens when someone else has manufactured, manipulated, or otherwise rigged the circumstances to force the experience of awe, in order to connect the ‘high’ feeling to something they – and only they – can provide’ (Open Minds Foundation). The awe should be in ourselves for persevering, but somehow we are coaxed into believing the magic is in the teaching itself.
During the training there were several incidents that raised red flags for me:
- Pushing Spiritual Names: “Rhonda,” one of the lead teachers who was revered as being “Custodian of the Archives of the Teachings of Yogi Bhajan” gathered us in a big circle and asked us to say our name and our spiritual name if we had one. You receive your spiritual name by sending your birthdate information and donation to 3HO, the organization that oversees Yogi Bhajan’s teachings. Yes, Rhonda and Bob have spiritual names. When it came time for Sherri to introduce herself, she said her name and then gave her spiritual name. Rhonda paused and questioned her in an authoritative way, “Are you using your spiritual name?” Sherri answered, “No, not really.” Rhonda fired back with a line of questioning that seemed intended to push Sherri into using her spiritual name. It worked. Soon thereafter we were no longer allowed to refer to my friend as Sherri. Changing your name can have lasting effects and cause a very strong psychological shift for a person, and in my humble opinion should be well thought out before it’s undertaken. It should never be something you are pressured into. In fact, changing a person’s name and identity is a “thought control” tactic used by cults. In KYatbYB you’re given this name which holds some special meaning like, “Ray of Light from God.” It can feel good to think of yourself in this way. I see how this can be helpful to people, but it also creates an allegiance. Without the group, you are not the name, and therefore not special. That’s not true.
- Obsession with Celebrity: There was great reverence placed on celebrity and how our teachers were connected to them. At first I thought, “that’s cool,” but when it became a badge of honor that was somehow supposed to lend more credibility to their effectiveness as teachers, I was turned off. It felt like an ego trip at best and manipulative at worst. Maybe it was an LA thing that I just didn’t get, but it didn’t strike me as very spiritual. Now that I’ve spent some time researching cults, I understand that there is a reason for this behavior. Because of humans’ obsession with pop culture, cults or high control groups use celebrity to lend credibility, recruit members, and wield power. This is a well accepted practice within Scientology whose founder believed that high profile public figures would be its most effective evangelists. Several high profile teachers within the KYatbYB continue to do this today. Don’t be fooled by what this means. Are you seeking fame and fortune? Is your spiritual teacher slinging fame and fortune? If so, understand why first before allowing it to influence you.
- Devotion: Finally, we were lectured on devotion. It came towards the end of training. I knew it smelled like a timeshare. Bob sat up on the teacher stage, dressed in his white pants, white tunic and white vest, head wrapped in a white turban. “Devotion is the gateway to Infinity.” Bob made clear that without devotion, we would never truly ascend. His voice filled simultaneously with judgment and pity for those who would not be capable of devotion. There was no point in pursuing this path without it. You would never receive the many jewels that come with it. Devotion to what? I wondered. Yogi Bhajan? The teachings? Bob? He never said explicitly or I blocked it out. Devotion means unwavering commitment, and I wasn’t ready for that. As soon as that commitment is made to a group, you’ve lost your freedom. You must do whatever is required to prove that devotion. This is exactly what high control groups want you to demonstrate–often financially. Without it they cannot survive.
I completed my teacher training in 2013 with zero expectation of becoming a teacher, but then through several major turns in events, I ended up opening a studio with Sherri and teaching a community class. How did I get to that point after all the red flags? I think that’s precisely why I’ve been so curious to understand cults and what makes people susceptible to them. I can see now that I WAS fully committed to Sherri. She’d become one of my closest friends. I’d stopped drinking alcohol and with that lost the close connection to my former bar hopping social circle. I was still healing after hurtful break-ups, and she and Kundalini Yoga had become my support system. I knew she wanted to expand from teaching out of her home, and I had just purchased a commercial building that had a vacancy. It seemed like a no brainer. I was excited to help her and to build something with her. I knew she felt differently about “devotion” than I did, but I thought we’d be able to work through those differences. Turns out I was wrong.
The Ties That Bind
Another element of cult-like behavior is that “followers are encouraged to keep their guru in their mind and heart all the time, and to follow only their spiritual guide’s wisdom.” After we opened the studio, she wanted a giant picture of Yogi Bhajan hung on the wall, not uncommon for Kundalini studios, but I didn’t want it there when I was teaching. I don’t know why exactly, but it creeped me out. I didn’t care if she had one up when she taught, but this created tremendous friction between the two of us, which started manifesting in other ways. For example, I once posted a recipe for golden milk, a popular turmeric drink, on our social media feed. Later that day, I noticed that she deleted it and replaced it with a recipe by Yogi Bhajan. When I confronted her about it, there was no discussing it. Yogi Bhajan was the only trusted source.
I should have seen this coming. Sometime in 2012, I excitedly shared with Sherri that I’d purchased a book on subtle energies from a Kundalini studio in NYC. She asked who it was written by and then scoffed at it for not being written by a “Khalsa,” an indication that you’re likely a member of the KYatbYB community. At the time, I felt ashamed and naive at having done something “incorrect” and disappointing her. I didn’t know these were the “rules” so tried to find lectures from Yogi Bhajan. The problem was that I could barely read his lectures. They didn’t often make a lot of sense to me nor feel very helpful, so I learned to keep my other books to myself.
A few months after opening the studio, I found the aforementioned article by Deslippe calling into question Yogi Bhajan and his work. I didn’t dare share it with Sherri. I would be accused of “going negative,” and I knew the consequences of that. Early on, before teaching training, Sherri warned me and many others about a local woman and teacher who’d questioned Bob about his past criminal record. It appears Bob was indicted and convicted of a fraud related to an illegal business that he had been running for Yogi Bhajan. Yes, this did in fact happen. This woman had been Sherri’s teacher and friend and was subsequently alienated from “the community” after questioning Bob about his past. We were told not to go to her classes as they would “injure us.” Regrettably, at the time of hearing this warning, I believed it. What did I know? I trusted Sherri and her experience, not realizing that it was a cult dynamic that perhaps even she wasn’t aware of. Cults DO NOT let you question anything that is happening. You are to defend the leader no matter what, so I bottled up my concerns in order to maintain the status quo and keep our friendship intact.
Behavior and Emotional Control
The friction between us grew for several months as I began to show less and less “devotion” until the final straw came when she confronted me about what I wore when I was teaching. For the record, I missed that part of teacher training where it said that we had a required uniform, I naively thought it was just a preference to wear all white and cover your head. It feels important to point out the confusion that Yogi Bhajan created by merging some elements of the Sikh religion into his yoga. Many who practice KYatbYB have converted to Sikhism, although it’s not a requirement, so it can be confusing to know if people are wearing and doing things because they are a Sikh or because Yogi Bhajan said to. I often wore a blue dress when teaching which I thought was just as “sacred” as white since I was told the Yogi Bhajan Sikhs were allowed to wear a blue turban in certain situations.
Sherri questioned me about my clothing. Questioned is actually the wrong word; it was more like an accusation of wrongdoing and of having something wrong with me. She wanted me to know that I could be harming the students if I didn’t comply. In that same conversation she brought up the fact that I chose to sit on a purple, multi-colored rug instead of the all-white rug set up for the teachers. Kundalini students are encouraged to sit on sheepskins for practice, which didn’t make a lot of sense to me, coming from a vegetarian identifying organization. I used a felted one instead to go along with their theory that having a natural fiber underneath you is supposed to allow the energy to flow better. Our white rug was synthetic, whereas the purple rug was natural so it seemed like a good idea, except that it was not. She told me that she suspected I had some dark energy within me and that I should address it. I left that conversation feeling extremely hurt but also outraged.
I felt like I was in a living hell. I wasn’t buying all the rules, especially after reading the Deslippe paper, but I knew the practice made people feel better. I didn’t know how much longer I could continue to live with the acrimony between us, but I was afraid to walk away. It was hard core cognitive dissonance that I couldn’t work through. My yearning to make things right led me to question myself and my inherent goodness. Was I a bad person? I began to have a lingering doubt that I was breaking the “spiritual laws” and that something bad might happen to me. We were taught that if we don’t follow Yogi Bhajan’s lectures precisely that we’d come back as a cockroach. Now I didn’t really believe that exactly. Most of the magical talk I took as allegory of some sort, but because I had no previous experience with this whole guru concept, I just didn’t know what was right. I was worried I had Shakti Pad, when someone leaves the teachings because they think they’ve learned everything. It’s considered a test and only if you stay and commit yourself fully will you transcend to higher levels. As an A student, I was worried I was failing the test.
For several months I struggled with what to do. I wanted to stay true to myself, but I wasn’t trusting myself to know what was right or wrong. I felt trapped into being someone I was not in order to maintain my relationship with Sherri and avoid being reprimanded and judged for not following the rules. I started to confide more in my partner and friends who were outside of the KYatbYB community. It took me a while to truly “hear” their encouraging words, since cult indoctrination makes you question the wisdom of others outside of the group. As I opened up to the support of others, I started to believe that I no longer needed to stay in what felt like an unsupportive relationship with Sherri. There was fear in leaving though. Fear in losing the relationship, dysfunctional as it was, but I also knew what happened to people who “left the community.” Once I truly admitted that we were no longer friends, just arguing business partners, I knew it was time to go. This wasn’t Shakti Pad, but it WAS a test, one where I would learn to stand up for myself even if it meant I had to step into discomfort and fear.
Finally, our Thursday meeting rolled around, and I mustered up the strength to ask Sherri to be let out of the business. As the landlord, I told her she could have as many months as she needed to find a new place and that we could work out how to transition me away from it. We’d planned to talk in a few days after she thought about it and talked it through with her husband. A day later, Friday night, I received an email saying that she’d removed her belongings, including the stage and speaker system, and demanding the studio be closed immediately. There was a Saturday morning class scheduled as well as a workshop that afternoon, not to mention several studio teachers who were planning their classes for the following week, but this is typical of cults. I don’t see another way of explaining this type of response other than perhaps unprocessed trauma. People who leave are liabilities to the group. They might “infect” other people causing them to want to leave. Usually there are stories told about them after they’ve gone. Stories about how they’ve done something to affront the cult and were therefore forced to leave. Stories about how they are struggling to make it in the outside world. I’ve heard them all. The reality is that once I was out, I met all those people I’d heard bad things about and unsurprisingly learned that the stories were not true.
Inspiring Strength in Others
Why do I write all this? I’ve thought long and hard about publicly sharing these details for fear of painting anyone in a negative light. If you’re reading this and recognize who these individuals are, I hope that you can continue to form your opinion of them based upon your direct relationship and not based on mine. I work on maintaining empathy for Sherri, Bob and Rhonda. I have no way of knowing if they are intentionally controlling people for their own benefit or if they truly believe they are helping people, or both. They are the deniers of the stories that have been shared this year about Yogi Bhajan. Perhaps it’s their own protection mechanism. It’s a difficult truth to face that your teacher lied to you and was capable of such great harm. I also fully accept responsibility for being influenced. I could have walked away at any point, but because of my own trauma, I was entangled in the influence and it took some time to find my way out.
What I experienced is nothing compared to what The Olive Branch report outlines and the countless other stories shared by so many over the course of this year. My experience, however, is indicative of the methods of control that are still used today by people in the KYatbYB community. I write this because I stand with the survivors, and I thank them for their bravery to share so intimately. Without their stories I may never have been able to fully process and understand what I went through. I’ve healed because of their strength. I write this for the people who find themselves trapped in a high control group. What I experienced caused me stress, pain, and sadness. If at all possible, I want to help others to see the warning signs, and to find the strength to step away. I’d also like to say that not everyone who practices or teaches KYatbYB will operate with these same control tactics. I never passed down the teachings that way and am friends with many people who teach in a way that promotes personal freedom.
Life After Kundalini
So why did I stop teaching KYatbYB then? Because of my experience? Because of the abuses? Because of the lies? Because the teachings came from Yogi Bhajan, a man who caused so much pain to many of his students? Because of the cultural appropriation of the Sikh religion? That’s a whole other subject worthy of its own article. I suppose it’s a little bit of it all. After my experience with Sherri I was very put off by the practice, but there were folks who really wanted the classes so I continued on. I was afraid to prove the cult-think correct that I had broken the rules so I taught as we were instructed, until I finally trusted myself to modify here and there. After hearing the stories of abuse earlier this year, I suddenly felt completely free to teach as I wanted. The spell was finally broken. In March I gave myself a baptism in a cold stream, pouring the icy mountain water over my head as I said to myself, “I am free, I am free, I am free.”
I personally don’t feel that KYatbYB is a complete science as it’s sold to be. It most certainly made me feel better, but it didn’t always get to the root of what was causing me to suffer or struggle. It can help you move energy and release emotions and give you an adrenaline rush, but it won’t be truly effective if it’s used like a drug to mask what’s really going on deep within. Bob often mocked therapy as a way of simply reliving the trauma versus getting rid of it which he promised KYatbYB would do. It seems pretty clear to me that many dedicated KYatbYB practitioners are unfortunately still stuck in their trauma so I just don’t buy it. If you practice it, don’t let it become a distraction or a temporary fix that needs to be returned to over and over in order to feel good. That to me is not good medicine. Do the deeper work, however you feel called.
Finally, if you are a practitioner of KYatbYB and this is the first time you are hearing about this information, I realize it may cause you confusion and possibly even pain. That is not my intention. My intention is to create space and a conversation so that those of you seeking freedom can find it. I am happy to be someone you can speak with about whatever it is you are going through or do my best to point you to resources that have been helpful to me. If there’s one thing that I’ve learned, as painful as the truth may be sometimes, you cannot hide from it. It will make itself known one way or the other, and the longer you keep it hidden, the more damage it will do.