On the community of kundalini yoga

On the community of kundalini yoga

In the beginning of the horrendous year 2020 I started teaching a weekly kundalini yoga class. A few months later I radically quit. What happened?

I may call myself naive, but it was not without a backstory. I completed the kundalini yoga teacher training the year before and wanted to grow. Now things took a different turn because word had come out that the world of kundalini yoga is full of abuse.

This post gives an overview of what happened this year and of the abuse that happened earlier. I aim to look at the bigger structures that allowed for the abuse to happen, because I believe strongly that these need to be recognized.

My post is not very descriptive; it is quite generic instead. I suspect it to not be very triggering, but you may still take this as a trigger warning.

The stories

It all started with the publishing of the book Premka: White bird in a golden cage by Pamela Saharah Dyson. This tells the personal story of the author’s life with Yogi Bhajan, the self-proclaimed master of kundalini yoga. Premka, as is Pamela’s ‘spiritual name’, used to be Yogi Bhajan’s main assistant for years and hence she was a prominent figure in the kundalini yoga community.

So while reading this book you can learn a lot about the organisations surrounding kundalini yoga and about the doings of its founder Yogi Bhajan. You will find out that certainly not all of his doings were as proper as he wanted them to appear. In fact, you will most likely start to question this “great yogi’s” intentions and conduct.

This book set off a wave of people coming forward. Many yogis started telling about their experiences with Yogi Bhajan, with the community structures he shaped and with other prominent figures in the community. Stories of all kinds of corrupted behaviour surfaced. This included many forms of sexual, physical and mental abuse.

Quickly after this the kundalini yoga organisations commissioned the organisation An Olive Branch to perform independent research into these accusations. After a long investigation, this report was published on August 10, 2020 under the title: ‘Report on an Investigation into Allegations of Sexual and Related Misconduct by Yogi Bhajan‘.

The conclusion as written on the first page of the cover letter reads: ‘The investigation concluded that much of the alleged conduct more likely than not occurred.‘ In total 36 people came forward as ‘reporters of harm’ (in addition to ‘supporters’ of Yogi Bhajan who were also interviewed). These reporters’ allegations against Yogi Bhajan were grouped in the following three general categories of misconduct: sexual battery and other sexual abuse; sexual harassment; and unethical behavior.

There is much to say about this report alone, including that this may just be the tip of the iceberg because of its limited scope, and because more people were harmed than were interviewed. The allegations are awful to read, detailed as they are. And it is horrific to realize that it is more likely than not that these stories are true.

The full report including all information on the scope of the research can be found here on the website of EPS. Translations in multiple languages are also available.

The conclusion

Throughout this year, I have read Pamela’s book and the report, and I have read and heard many stories. Even though I was not involved in them myself, I found them very upsetting. Stories and accusations are not necessarily facts, but so many stories together paint a good enough picture to show that this spiritual practice wasn’t all about light and love. This darkness is in stark contrast to what the kundalini yoga community pretends to be: ‘happy, healthy and holy’.

Many people including myself now are forced to conclude that the self-proclaimed ‘master of kundalini yoga’ turns out to have been structurally manipulating and abusing many if not all people in his yoga empire.

To be clear, I started practicing kundalini yoga in the Netherlands a few years ago, far away from the already deceased Yogi Bhajan and his cult(ure). I freely admit that I have no first-hand experiences of misconduct. But I do have experience with kundalini yoga through the Level 1 teacher training, and regard myself as affected.

Also, I do have the ability to recognize the importance of listening to the stories of those who were involved. These stories are plenty. And I do have the ability to empathize with the victims.

There are so many things to say about this and many things are not up to me. I do not aim to be a judge of every individual story, but I want to get and give an overview of what has happened so we can see what made all this abuse possible.

One thing that is striking, is that these stories are now openly shared for the first time, about 16 years after the yogi’s passing. The reason for this lies in the very structure of the community.

The structures

The community had its centre in Los Angeles and Yogi Bhajan was the central figure. He came to the West in 1969 and build what was to become a million dollar empire in which he called the shots, all of them.

For decades, many of the involved people lived closely together in ashrams. Yogis left their homes to live with the community, they changed their names, they changed their looks by growing their hair and wearing all white and a turban, they had arranged marriages, they were pressured to have their young children sent to boarding schools far away in India, they worked without being paid, they gave away their savings to the community for the greater good. Many people now use the word ‘cult’ to describe this community.

I cannot write this without feeling that my words cannot ever do justice to the involved people. After having read so much I can easily sum the above up without a doubt of the truth of it, but there are so many aspects and details to consider. The things I just mentioned were part of the general 3HO lifestyle, but there is so much more to it including everyone’s individual experiences and stories.

It also should be mentioned that everyone involved thought that they were doing the right thing. They were devoted to their teacher Yogi Bhajan and to the divine and anchient technology of kundalini yoga, the technology that would allegedly benefit so many humans in the future. Through their devotion, these yogis would indirectly help so many other humans to get more in touch with their divine essence and to release old patterns and blocks in their system. The yogis were told that they were part of something bigger, of a grand movement that would help save humankind. They were the teachers of the Aquarian Age.

And Yogi Bhajan was ‘the Master of kundalini yoga’, who gave himself all kinds of titles and told grotesque stories about his life so to gather and impress his following. This worked all too well and he was put on a pedestal.

This is also clearly seen in the teacher trainings and all related materials that can be purchased. The full brand name is Kundalini Yoga as taught by Yogi Bhajan® and in kundalini yoga everything is done as he taught it. All teachers and students ought to exactly follow what he taught, this is very clearly stated everywhere. You are warned that doing the practice differently could be dangerous, because it is so powerful. Throughout the teacher training, I noticed these strict rules prevailing.

So surely, he was put on a pedestal by others, which allowed him to have this position of power. However, I am sure that he also created it this way. He kept so many people roaming in the dark with only his temper and his words to guide them, preventing them from gaining their own power or influence. And if he gave someone power, he knew how to take it away if he wanted to.

As many (ex) yogis now state, he knew how to ‘conquer and divide’. He was the big boss who knew how to win people over and to keep them in line. He did this trough compartmentalizing: he kept information from people, and he prevented them from bonding and talking with each other. A striking example is that he kept his female secretaries on their toes, competing with each other for his scarce attention instead of bonding among each other.

He made sure people kept their mouth shut. If one did speak up about abuse, mistreatment or misuse of power, this person was soon to be publicly slandered and excommunicated by the whole community. These persons would then lose everything, since all they had was the community.

So there were stories being told well before 2020, there were even lawsuits. People spoke up about mistreatment in the community and about misuse of Sikh traditions by Yogi Bhajan and his followers. But these stories were efficiently swept under the rug and the people who told them were portrayed as if they’d gone crazy.

The community was even warned for this to happen, since in one of his early well-received talks, Yogi Bhajan had already proclaimed that he would be questioned, doubted and betrayed. He told that this was part of his destiny as one who serves humanity. He had made this warning right after he inspired hundreds of students by telling them of ‘the Dawning of the Aquarian Age’ and that they were going to be ‘the teachers who will lead the Aquarian Age.’ Thus he made it seem only logical that such a great teacher as himself would meet resistance. (See p. 40-41 in PREMKA: White Bird in a Golden Cage, by Pamela Saharah Dyson)

It is important to recognise what was at play, to recognise how people were manipulated to enter the community and to behave as they did. These people were lured in by the practices of kundalini yoga and it’s charismatic leader. And there they were welcomed by the many warm-hearted yogis who were all devoted to make the world a better place.

The practice

And there’s the spiritual aspect to it. After all kundalini yoga or yoga in general is a spiritual practice. It speaks to people who want to find better ways to be in the world, to deal with their pain and traumas, to finally be happy. It speaks to people who are seeking and who may, because of past experiences, be vulnerable.

Yoga is a practice of challenging yourself to be with what is in the moment. To be present with the practice, whether the exercise is streneous or soft, whatever it is. It is about finding the edge of your comfort zone and challenging yourself. It is about challenging your ego so that your true self can come forth.

And you know, there are many ways to challenge one’s ego. Everything that is rough or somewhat devastating is a challenge to one’s ego. Things that are extremely devastating, like being pressured to send your child off to somewhere else, are extremely challenging for the ego.

What is so important here, is that everything can be explained in a spiritual fashion. Like this: ‘sending your kids away is good for you, this way you will be less attached.’ With this kind of reasoning you can give everything a spiritual touch. ‘You can learn from it, it is just your ego that is reacting, your soul is at peace so it doesn’t matter.’

Yogi Bhajan told everyone that he was a Saturn teacher, which supposedly meant that he deliberatly breaks people (their egos) so that they will grow spiritually (explained here on 3HO). If that was his way of teaching, how can you ever know what is right or wrong?

He also claimed to know everything about people’s karma and destiny. He used this to justify awful behaviour towards people. He would say that things needed to happen in a certain way because of your past karma or future destiny. You wouldn’t know if that’s true or not. How do you discern what is teaching and what is pure deceit?

There is much more to say about the kundalini yoga practice and the role of the teacher, but for now I will leave it with this.

Why this is important in moving forward

The mechanics at play are extremely important to recognise. We now know that the abuse that happened wasn’t incidental but structural. The abuse was part of a bigger structure; it was exactly that (power) structure (of the community and the organisations) that facilitated this abuse to happen on a large scale. I would even dare to say that the structure was created and maintained this way to enable this abuse. It was a means to an end.

This last statement is of course debatable. Maybe the power structures including the yoga practice were not designed upfront with the aim of abuse, but I am sure that along the way the possibilities of abuse became a big motive in shaping things.

I have asked myself if it is up to me to write about this. My conclusion is that I can speak my mind and truth. I have been reading, listening and processing a lot this year. I had to re-evaluate my own practice and my relationship with kundalini yoga. I have made my observations and have drawn my conclusions.

My main conclusion is that I wish for all the people that got hurt to be heard. They have been silenced for too long and now it is time for everyone involved to listen to their stories.

We need to know what happened and what allowed so many people to get hurt. If we can see it clearly for what it is, we can learn from it and make sure it does not happen again. So I wish for us to identify the manipulation that occurred and still occurs, so to be able to leave behind what does not serve us. This goes for the community and power structures as well as for the kundalini yoga practice.

Yogi Bhajan deceased, but his organisations are still very much alive. The story is not over. Kundalini yoga is still being practiced and taught. Personally at this point I cannot trust that the practice itself is untainted. I cannot trust that the practice that Yogi Bhajan designed is everything he said it was. The man used so many grand words in his teachings and I have to doubt the validity of it all.

So I radically quit practicing and teaching kundalini yoga. I want nothing to do with the top-down teachings of Yogi Bhajan. Instead I am finding my own way of moving and of practicing yoga, without the rules. Also, I deeply trust that kundalini yoga will evolve. More and more people will find their own way into it and newer ways will be shared and celebrated. So in time I may find my way to a renewed kundalini yoga.

If you read this article, I am curous to hear what you think and feel about it. If you have anything to add or to share, you are warmly invited to do so in a comment.

Featured photo by Evie S. on Unsplash & second photo by Ashley Batz on Unsplash

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