In 2020 I started teaching kundalini yoga and then I quit. It was an interesting ride, but now I had to decide against this practice. This post is dedicated to my experiences and observations of the dark side of kundalini yoga, the yoga of manipulation and spiritual bypassing.
The recently exposed dark side
The main reason I stopped is that word came out that the kundalini yoga community had been a cult for many years in which a lot of structural abuse had happened. So over time this abuse had been woven into the kundalini yoga fabric. When this came out, the yoga was still practiced in the exact same way and the myriad of yogic lifestye teachings hadn’t been revised either. I already wrote an article about all that happened, and many horrible things I did not even mention. The more you learn, the more disgusted you get. So I wanted to stop being part of that.
And yet, many yoga practitioners and teachers continue with kundalini yoga now that everything’s out in the open. The big question is if the teachings and the (bad deeds of the) main teacher are seperable. Is the dark side one side of the coin or can we scrape it off? My own verdict is that we can hardly separate it. This separation would require tearing everything down.
I have my own experiences with this yoga and they are worth exploring. So in this post I lay out my observations and objections concerning kundalini yoga and the teacher training that I took quite recently, in 2019. My aim is not to give a detailed overview of the practice, but to name the things that do not sit well with me.
I try to be clear, but it is such a grand topic that I cannot name everything. So if you are totally new to kundalini yoga, you may just have to trust my words. You are also welcome not to. 😉
In the title and introduction I already used the term spiritual bypassing. Wikipedia defines what it means:
Spiritual bypass or spiritual bypassing is a “tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks”.Wikipedia on ‘Spiritual bypass’ & source 1 therein
Spiritual bypassing is about pretending to be ‘super spiritual’, about fooling yourself and others with great quotes and ideas without truly living them, it’s about instead of actually resolving your issues, covering them up with a spiritual sauce or varnish.
Recently I came to think that kundalini yoga may above all be has been a spiritual bypassing practice. I realise that this is a very harsh statement towards everyone who devoted their lives to it so to better themselves and the world, but it is also very relevant to consider, especially for them. So let’s do that here.
The teachings & the glorification thereof
If you don’t know much about kundalini yoga, I’ll quickly fill you in on some things that strike me and that inform the rest of this article.
We’re talking here about Kundalini Yoga as taught by Yogi Bhajan, as it is trademarked and set in stone. This kundalini yoga has strictly defined yoga sets (kriyas) that can be practiced on the mat. Additionally, there’s a very elaborate body of ‘teachings’ that are really guidelines for about every part of your life, for every minor or major decision, including what food to eat, what clothes to wear (all white), what to do when you wake up, what do before you go to bed, what to chant when in bed… You can basically become a kundalini yoga robot who doesn’t decide anything for themselves but just follows the teachings that are passed down from teacher to student.
This is another harsh statement. I know this is not how it is sold, but if you know the teachings, you have to admit that they are endless and that they are basically presented as ‘rules’ you get to learn to implement in your life. And if you don’t follow these rules, that could basically be seen a sign of you not having progressed much on your destiny path.
Yogis lovingly call this broad framework of guidlines ‘the teachings’ and these are enormously glorified. These teachings are not only lifestyle guidelines, but of course everything is also explained in a spiritual fashion, quite vaguely if you ask me, but still presented as ultimate facts. These teachings contain the most grandiose statements of how it should work and what the results of certain practices are, but these statements are also vague, unscientific and unverifiable.
Next to unclear information in text books, the origins of the teachings don’t even seem to be what the were always said to be, namely an ancient secret form of yoga. Instead it is more of an unethically formed hodgepodge that has been branded very well (see the work of Philip Deslippe). So it is highly doubtful if kundalini yoga like we know it is a credible yoga form, if you ask me.
The self proclaimed ‘master’ Harbhajan Singh* (HS) is glorified tremendously too, he is always depicted as if he was absolutely flawless. At least, until the truth came out. I now think that this glorification is a huge part of the culture and the facade really, and that this allowed for so much spiritual bypassing and abuse.
This yoga form is also given very pretentious names by its stakeholders: ‘the mother of yoga’, ‘the yoga of transformation’, ‘the yoga of experience’ and ‘the yoga of awareness’. These names are used as if they’re undoubtedly true and also as if kundalini yoga is the best yoga form there is.
So I now highly doubt if the yoga lives up to those names and knowing what I know now of all the abuse and manipulation, I find the term ‘the yoga of spiritual bypassing’ more accurate and relevant. And I will explain why.
How it keeps you naive and trusting
This yoga form attracts people who are searching for some practice to heal certain aspects of themselves. I am convinced of this, since the yoga (culture) is very strict on all kinds of things, so it will mostly attract people who are very serious about bettering themselves, people who are somehow open or vulnerable, who are looking for some authority to tell them what to do.
And authority is what you get. In a yoga class the teacher clearly tells the ‘students’ what to do. Off of the mat, through all the teachings this thread of authority can spread out into the rest of your life if you let it.
Kundalini yoga also manages to attracts open-minded people, because it has many aspects that close-minded people will reject, including: the teachers wearing all white and a tulban, the use of mantras (in an unknown language) and the spiritually pretentious language and promises. So I think that to even start doing kundalini yoga, you’d have to be quite open-minded.
To experience what the teachings can do for you, you have to surrender to them first.
It asks of you that you are naive and trusting, that you lay your trust in the teacher and in the teachings. You get to experience it for yourself, but to do that, you do need to surrender first. (If you don’t surrender, you will resist and quickly run away.)
They tell you to trust your own experience & thus the teachings
One of the go-to spiritual precepts the yogis use is to ‘trust your own experience’. Kundalini yoga would even be ‘the yoga of experience’.
This advice sounds great. I am all for experiencing things in the moment, and practicing that is a big part of yoga and meditation. However, in kundalini yoga this advice may be taken too far.
In kundalini yoga, the individual and collective experiences are used to support or validate the teachings, following this logic: doing the yoga feels great, so all the teachings around it must be true.
I am just now as I’m writing, realising this so clearly. I feel like there has been hammered on ‘trusting your own experience’ and now I wonder if that was really one of the manipulation techniques (that was used to keep people stuck in the cult). Was it one of the well-placed pillars of the whole facade?
In kundalini yoga, your experience of feeling good during yoga practice is used to validate the body of teachings.
Because clearly, experiences don’t necessarily point us to the truth. Great experiences with yoga don’t mean that everything the teachings say is right.
If you feel great, that doesn’t mean everything is okay in the world in that moment. If you feel great, it doesn’t validate that the teachings are indeed very specific ‘ancient techniques’ that will liberate you. If you feel great, it doesn’t mean you have transformed all your traumas and live your life according to your destiny. If the yoga makes you feel great, it doesn’t mean it isn’t at the same time allowing you to repress other parts of your psyche, to deepen trauma patterns that you have.
If you feel great, this means that at that moment, happy hormones are racing through your body and make you feel good.
Kundalini yoga tells you to go and feel great, to feel happy, healthy and holy. To tell yourself everything is okay and that doing the yoga will save you, it will bring you towards your destiny, and that you only have to surrender to the practice and lifestyle. I now highly doubt that.
But kundalini yoga clearly manipulates your experience
Kundalini yoga makes you feel high, that’s well-known among practicioners. It makes you feel strong and on top of the world. Yogis claim that it helps you transform your blockages and traumas. They call kundalini yoga ‘the yoga of transformation’.
The yoga sets combine an array of tools or ‘techniques’ that manipulate your body, your energy flow, your mind, etcetera. It is clear that the many different exercises in a yoga set are meant to manipulate this or that. The effects are also said to be enormously powerful, by the way, and grand results are promised if you do yoga sets for 40, 120 or 1000 days in a row. ‘It is such a powerful form of yoga.’
Instead of using the word ‘manipulation’, they use ‘transformation’ with the implication that only positive things happen.
So in a sense manipulation is the goal of doing this yoga, but this word is never used. Instead they use ‘transformation’ which implies that only positive things happen. But in reality, we do not know what’s happening. At least I don’t.
The effects that are promised if you do the yoga, cannot be measured or verified. So you may (think to) experience them, but are they truly what HS said they would be? There is no way of knowing.
Can we trust these manipulated experiences?
So sure, the yoga, with its breath work, repetitive movements and enchanting music, gets you into a trance state. This feels great, but does it really help you with your blocks and deep-rooted traumas as promised? Can we trust that it does?
I would say that kundalini yoga not only manipulates your experiences, but also your judgement of the value or meaning thereof. If you are high, can you truly judge what is really happening? Isn’t it strange that we all must trust our own highly manipulated experience and take it as some grand truth?
Isn’t it strange that we all must trust our own highly manipulated experience and take it as some grand truth?
We have to consider that it is possible that a huge part of the effects of the yoga and the lifestyle guidelines are actually some sort of placebo effects, or plain spiritual bypassing. We want these teachings to have huge life-altering effects, so our psyches will do everything in their power to have us believe that they do. That’s not wrong in itself, as long as there are no negative effects, but if there are, then we may want to get clear on what exactly is happening so to prevent being taken advantage of.
At this time I think that we cannot safely state that the yoga and the effects thereof are as they are said to be by HS. Your experience isn’t necessarily the whole truth and it seems that kundalini yogis have relied on their experiences (and their naivity and trusting) all too much.
Kundalini yoga actively sedates your critical mind
Important to mention also is that these teachings basically tell you to put your critical mind to rest and to surrender to your teacher and to your experience. And to listen to their many explanations for your experiences, and all their guidelines for how to live your life in a yogic way.
The manipulators of the cult are really smart, they have their ways for everthing. For example, when you are being critical, they tell you that you are on ‘Shakti pad’, a phase in spiritual development in which you are overly critical. The message is that you just have to move through it to come out at the brighter end. Once you’re through, everything will fall into place, so goes the fairytale.
Another example is that HS used to call himself a ‘saturn teacher’ so to justify him being utterly rude and (verbally) abusive to people. According to his logic, his was doing them great favours, he was helping them to grow spiritually. You see, every challenge you face in your life, is an oppertunity to grow. Clearly, you can make up a lot of ‘spiritual wisdom’ and use it to disguise the real truth (to yourself and others), of you being highly manipulative and selfish. This is spiritual bypassing.
You are generally told to not be critical, because that’s not a good or healthy way to live. Instead, you get to trust your ‘inner knowing’. And inner knowing is great, but if cult leaders tell you to trust your inner knowing while they are constantly manipulating you in all kinds of ways, do you really manage to find and stay with this inner knowing?
I am guessing that this inner knowing was partly a facade too, that it was really the logic of the culture and teachings that got disguised as (the collective) inner knowing. The culture also pretty much radiates that they know it better than others, that their inner knowing is better, that they are more attuned to this divine inner knowing.
And many people went with the culture and teachings and complied, because it’s a better experience to be high on glorification and manipulating kundalini yoga than to be ‘in your critical mind’ and going against the culture (and against this praised inner knowing of all the others!).
And once you’re in this culture, to start being critical means a whole lot. This is especially true for people who have really invested in this lifestyle and in the community, for people who have invested a lot of time, energy, money and trust in it. Think of yogis who are invested in becoming a yoga teacher and making a living out of it. They have their livelihoods at stake.
Opening up to being critical can then mean opening a Pandora’s box full of ‘half-truths’ at best, seeing more and more things to be critical about. The teachings are really strict in what you should accept, so being critical could easily mean that you would eventually have to cut ties, to stop teaching, or being kicked out even. Thus saying goodbye to a lot of the ‘good-feeling’ stuff too. I can imagine that it’s a whole lot ‘easier’ to just stay uncritical.
So there surely is a lot of psychological stuff happening there, all sorts of tension. It’s the same stuff that allowed for all the abuse to happen.
I have missed my critical mind
For me, even though I did not accept everything I was told and did remain somewhat sceptical, I did take a break on being critical. So I quite naively went through with it so to experience it all, almost without judging.
The advice I kept hearing was to try it out for yourself first, in other words: you have to trust and surrender first, and there is no place for critical thinking in this phase. Sure, critical thinking can come later (they could say that), but by that time you likely already are in too deep for that to still function.
In hindsight I almost regret that I was so naive. That is partly why I am writing this blog post.
So I may seem overly critical right now. The reason is that I have hardly listened to my critical mind while in the kundalini yoga experience. I really feel like my critical mind was sedated for a year. Of course I cannot point fingers, and maybe I even needed that to happen (see, everything is explainable in spiritual language), but I do feel like the kundalini yoga practice and ways entranced me and it this had negative effects too.
And now it is time that I let my amazing critical mind write this blog post, so here you have it! It’s written in sweet collaboration with my inner wisdom.
The teachers are not critical either
So, the teachings are about surrendering. It’s nice to be able to surrender so to quiet your mind, but someone up there should know what they’re doing, right? Logically, that should be the teachers. You would logically expect them to know a whole lot more about the practice than you yourself do.
Above all, teachers are told to trust themselves and the teachings
Well, from what I’ve seen, teachers (in teacher training) get the very same spiritual advice as the students, namely to trust themselves and the teachings, to trust and surrender.
So, the teachers trust HS and his teachings and their own experiences with them (‘it feels like so and so’). There’s not even room for something else, because ‘officially’ kundalini yoga teachers only get to practice and teach the exact same yoga sets that HS taught – and they get to trust themselves while doing so. So they don’t need to think for themselves – ever.
This ‘trust yourself’ weirds me out now. So if I feel insecure about it all (and I totally did – I am very perfectionistic and, well, critical), I am basically told that the problem is in my own sense of trust, in my own self confidence. I should just be more confident in repeating the teachings and all will be well.
This way the teachings and the master manipulator HS can always remain untouched, because according to this logic the problem would be in the teachers (in training) and the students. If you don’t agree with any part of the teachings, it must be your own shortcoming. (Spiritual bypassing, anyone?)
Teachers don’t necessarily know how the teachings work
In my experience, half of the teacher training is about what it means to be a teacher, in which emphasis is on being in a neutral non-reactive state of mind: in general, while teaching and while interacting with your students. It’s about offering an experience to your students, about offering them a space in which then can be held by the group energy and the teachings and undisturbed by your own ego.
That is great and this plays a part in the whole kundalini yoga experience, but that can’t be all, can it? Where’s the actual credibility and knowledge of the teachings that we’re passing on?
As I said, as a teacher you only get to repeat HS’s yoga sets. You don’t learn why they are as they are. You don’t get to assemble your own series. (If you would want to, that would be your ego acting up.)
Now I have to state that I only took the level 1 teacher training. There’s also a level 2 that consists of six modules of 1 week each (that also costs a lot of money, to be fair). But I can safely state that I did expect more from the teacher training in terms of actual knowledge of what the postures and practices do to the body and/or the energy in it. That is relevant stuff, right?
I feel as if the explanations were pretty general and vague. And I totally understand that not everything can be explained in detail, but this was not enough for me. I can also add in (again) that I personally am very perfectionistic and studious so it is not easy to impress or satisfy me with knowledge, but I really feel that we did not receive enough true or verified knowledge. The only real source that was used was HS’s words (that are full of lies, as it turns out).
One of the lead trainer also said that she liked to do yoga trainings from different yoga forms so to learn more about postures (and she may even recommended us to do the same). I thought that statement made it clear that there is not enough knowledge in the teacher training(s) of kundalini yoga, although I think she would disagree with that conclusion.
Kundalini yoga as a pyramid scheme business
I now like to look at kundalini yoga as a business. It may even have been more of a business than a solid yoga practice. It seems to me that the yoga practices were above all instrumental for HS and others in running a billion dollar business, instead of the business being the instrument for spreading yoga.
The yoga practices were above all instrumental in running a billion dollar business, instead of the business being instrumental for spreading yoga.
This business has the form of a pyramid scheme, which has worked wonders. HS was the main teacher, he taught teachers. One of his many famous quotes is that he came to the United States to train teachers, not to collect students. We can now see why that was. These teachers were quickly dispatched all over the world to teach students, and later to teach other teachers through teacher trainings. So this ever-expanding network of teachers and students comes to be.
All are tightly affiliated with HB, his teachings and his organisations. Teacher trainings, teachers and students all rely on study materials that can only be bought from HB and his organisations, that are ‘certified’. (This way they make sure the teachings remain pure, they say.) Also, everyone is warmly and sternly invited to donate 11% of their yoga-related income to HB’s crew. (This is good for your ego or something like that.) Call it a yoga-tax.
Yogis also get to do seva, a ‘sacred’ selfless service, and pay for it too (for the accomodation). Earlier, in the cult, yogis were invited to donate all their savings to the greater good of spreading kundalini yoga to all the people that would benefit from it.
So this kundalini yoga is actually used in the form of a pyramid scheme. I didn’t mention this financial side in my previous blog post, and I’m glad I can add it here now. Not because I like it, but because it’s very relevant too.
We don’t know how it came to be like this. We don’t know if the teachings were pure in the beginning, or still are to some degree, and if HS had good intentions in the beginning or not. It could have been that HS did not have good intentions at all, and just used these teachings that make people feel really good to make a ton of money, using a smartly designed pyramid scheme.
Why did so many people get so closely involved?
So why did so many people join and stay? My easiest explaination is that you are very early on asked to trust in the teachings and in the process, and in your own (manipulated) good experiences. You are asked to surrender and to devote yourself to the teachings, you are told that this will be part of you fulfilling your destiny.
You are asked to leave other aspects of your being and your life behind, like habits, lifestyle choices, your name, your style, your critical thinking, your money, and eventually possibly your friends and family, and thus your whole safety net. I believe it is a process in which a lot of your ‘old self/identity’ or ‘own self’ is broken down and with that also your resilience or your ability to resist, to think critically. And if you are then welcomed in a warm bath of yogis on a high, then you may not have the ‘strength’ to get out.
Of course this is mostly what happened earlier on in the cult and not necessarily what happened to me or many others later on (in Europe), but if you ask me, many of these aspects are still present in the current day kundalini yoga culture and teachings.
How I trusted my teachers and their judgement
Since this is my personal story too, I like to end with stating that I am a bit pissed. I feel fooled, especially now that I have written it all out so clearly. I laid my trust in this yoga from, in these ‘teachings’, and above all: I laid my trust in the teachers of the teacher training.
I trusted in their judgement. I trusted that they knew that all was well concerning kundalini yoga and HS. This trust was based on how they glorified it all, and mostly on how trustworthy and honest my teachers are as persons.
And now it turns out that horrendous ‘flaws’ were being kept secret for all this time. I suppose my teachers didn’t know, but how can they not have known of any of that? (This is possible because HS managed to compartmentalise so to prevent people from seeing the big picture of what happened. Most people knew only tiny bits of the bad stuff. I wrote about this in my earlier post.)
Now I also seem to find that my own current judgement differs from theirs too, since my path is to leave the yoga for now, while they are still teaching or at least advertising their teacher trainings like nothing has changed. Last time I checked, their website didn’t mention any of this.
I expected more from them. I would have expected them to have known more (because we now know there is a lot of darkness), to have seen some cracks in the whole facade and to have been honest about that too.
And even if they didn’t know everything, that’s still not a reason to assume and then proclaim that everything is happy, healthy and holy like this master manipulator said. Then you can also choose to be radically honest and stay with what you do know – and add to that that you do not know everything. I wish that they would’ve been more radically honest about their own observations and objections, just like I am now.
So it seems that everyone just trusted each other. In the same way I trusted my teachers, they probably have trusted their teachers, and so forth. Kundalini yoga for sure attracts naive and trusting people – and manages to keep them naive and trusting too.
I crave for realness and radical honesty
An additional reason for my disappointment is that I took the teacher training in 2019 and since word came out in the beginning of 2020, I haven’t received a single message from the lead trainers about all that happened. I would have appreciated a message directed at my cohort and me like: ‘hey, we heard the news. We can imagine that this does something to you, since you just recently invested so much to become a kundalini yoga teacher through our teacher training. How are you doing?’
And maybe that’s me being selfish. My lead trainers must have been having a hard time themselves too and maybe they didn’t have the capacity to hold space for us. But then they could have told us that too, that’s not difficult. Like: ‘hey, we heard the news. We are dealing with it ourselves and at this time we cannot offer any help to you, but we wish you the very best.’
But nothing of the like. So now this gives me an even more bitter aftertaste.
(I did receive newsletters from the teachers association, and from the main lead trainer in which he continues to give yogic lifestyle tips, but this is not what I long for. I would have appreciated a more personal message.)
And I don’t mean to judge my teachers personally. I just wish to share my own valid experience that I feel has not been heard yet. I still think my teachers have a lot of wisdom to share and that they did share it too, but maybe they took some of the kundalini yoga teachings too far, in hindsight. This is my judgement, I don’t know how they see it themselves, and that is okay too, even though I am interested to hear.
I even feel like in the whole kundalini yoga facade something more important was kept from me. Maybe my teachers had more to share, but they didn’t because it didn’t fit in the strict kundalini yoga ‘guidelines’. That is such an interesting thought, because I believe many yogis who were part of the cult feel like this too. For example, I have read and heard of many (through Facebook groups and podcasts) that showing raw emotions wasn’t accepted (in the cult and culture), which then also made it impossible to have real meaningful connections with each other (aside from sharing the occasional highs and lows).
We need radical honesty in the kundalini yoga culture. Not the glorification and the facade, but raw emotions and experiences, true transparency. This is exactly what we need to dismantle the teachings and to be able to preserve what is of value to us.
These are the real teachings
It now seems to me that the kundalini yoga practices and teachings were used to both keep yogis on a high and to restrain them too (with the excessive guidelines/rules), which can lead to huge psychological struggles, which makes people even more easy to manipulate and really use. So the yoga practice may not be wrong, but I highly doubt if it is designed with the practitioner’s best interests at heart, and the whole culture certainly isn’t.
So there you have it, my observations of spiritual bypassing elements in kundalini yoga. There’s a lot more to discuss, but I had to cut it somehow. If you have read it all the way to here, I am curious to what you are thinking!
Concerning the yoga culture, I am certain that much is changing now. From what I’ve heard, many people have left kundalini yoga, like me. Others are finding ways to straighten it out, to keep doing some form of kundalini yoga without the oppression, to keep the good stuff and remove that bad. Others are still with their head in the sand.
I am really interested in where this goes. Somehow I am grateful to be able to observe this now, to have seen some of the mechanics from the inside and to be able to see it all through. Now I can understand what happened, what made it possible, and I can observe how we manage to move forward with this.
Kundalini yoga does not stand on its own, at all. A lot of timeless wisdom can be taken from this and we are destined to take it, too. If you ask me, this wisdom makes up the real teachings of kundalini yoga.
By the way, I am happy to also whip up a piece about the positive things I took from my yoga experiences. So stay tuned for that!
* Also, I intentionally did not use the pretend name of HS by which he is now commonly known, and I gladly call him a master manipulator instead of using the titles he gave himself, including ‘the master of kundalini yoga’. Master manipulator fits him better. Through reading all stories of survivors, he has lost all my respect.
Photos by Imani Bahati and Dane Wetton on Unsplash, and JC Romero and Anna Shvets on Pexels.
7 thoughts on “My observations of kundalini yoga, the yoga of spiritual bypassing”
I don’t know if “enjoyed” is the proper word (it isn’t), but I’m tired! I appreciate your words. I was a KY teacher in Ottawa since 2016. Was fortunate to have done my YTT w a bit of a rebel… didn’t get too much of the crazy… but was sadly disappointed in the lack of open dialogue on this whole subject. I’ve been reading and researching a lot in the past year. You have expressed very well my feelings and findings. HS is pure BS… thanks for taking your time to write! You are a star. Very talented. Again, please understand, I’m so tired right now my vocabulary is limited! Really want you to know I LOVED your posts about the whole KY story. My personal way of explaining it to peeps is in Netflix speak. “You know the Bikram doc? BAD! Osho? Wild wild country? Crazy!! Just wait. YB is gonna make Bikram look like a boy scout and Osho like a cult failure!”
Thank you for letting me know you appreciate it! And your vocabulary is fine to me. 🙂
I am watching Wild Wild Country right now, that is crazy indeed! I haven’t really compared the two cults yet, but I guess you are right and YB’s was way ‘worse’. :O
I’m glad to hear you didn’t get too much of the crazy. 🙂
This is very long and very boring and I could not read it all x you seem to take it all too seriously x its evaryone s individual responsibility how we approach it x I trained as a kundalini yoga teacher and I still embrace general and all spirituality x kundalini yoga is just another aspect and there is no bypassing going on here x I get a lot out of the yoga and mantra x