We all come to yoga seeking something whether that is increased mobility, decreased stress or to feel part of a community, there is no right/wrong intention on the part of yoga practitioner but keep in mind that not all yoga schools/gurus/communities come to this practice with a selfless, kind intention. There is a dark history of abuse in yoga where people have given up their agency only to find themselves manipulated or victimized by the same people claiming to bring them peace.
A brief history of recent yoga cults
“The nature of psychological compulsion is such that those who act under constraint remain under the impression that they are acting on their own initiative. The victim of mind-manipulation does not know that he is a victim. To him the walls of his prison are invisible, and he believes himself to be free. That he is not free is apparent only to other people. His servitude is strictly objective.”
Aldous Huxley, Brave New World
While most publicized yoga cults have disbanded, some remain intact and quite popular in America. The 3HO Foundation which runs the American brand of yoga called Kundalini (not to be confused with kundalini mentioned in ancient yoga texts) has a dark political history. Some followers would debate whether the label of ‘cult,’ applies to this mainstream brand perhaps not knowing the dark history associated with 3HO.
However, I will present the information and let you make up your own conclusions as to their founder’s intent, behavior and treatment of their members.
The Kundalini brand of yoga was founded by Yogi Bhajan. As part of his organization, Yogi Bhajan insisted that his followers donate part of their income to him. He allegedly threatened violence against members who wanted to leave his group, ordered some female followers to get sterilized and allegations of sexual abuse were rampant.
Upon his death, Yogi Bhajan was a wealthy man: a far cry from his modest background and the anti-materialistic life advocated by traditional yoga texts. His sexual relations with hordes of followers (some allege against their will) were chronicled both during and after his demise. Participating in any form of yoga taught by the Kundalini 3HO organization raises ethical questions.
At one time, Geshe Michael Roach served as a Tibetan Buddhist monk acheiving a high rank within his order. However, he would later be asked to disavow his robes (he would refuse) after breaking his celibacy vows (he countered by arguing he was having sexual relations with a ‘goddess’ not a human being therefore was still celibate) and leading a life many said was contrary to the selfless, egoless intention of his order.
After leaving the Tibetan monastery Geshe moved to America to start his own brand of yoga in Arizona. He has promised his followers to help them reach enlightment by re-purposing the socially conservative Tantra teachings in an exploitive and highly sexual way that is very different from the original orgins of the teachings. Allegations of sexual abuse, mind control and financial misconduct have been made by many former followers of Geshe and the Diamond Mountain Center he runs. The ‘goddess’ Geshe admitted to having sexual relations with (his former wife) would later stab a follower of Geshe at the Diamond Mountain Center. Sadly, that same Stanford-educated follower would later die in a cave outside the center while trying to reach enlightenment through some dubious meditation attempts.
Anytime you give away your personal agency and completely put your trust in another person without questioning their intention you risk being taken advantage of and unfortunately, yoga has a history of fringe leaders. Thankfully the majority of yoginis and yogis come to the practice to shed their ego, destructive tendencies and to help others to the best of their abilities.
How to find a healthy yoga community vs. a nefarious cult/guru/leader
The red flags when it comes to yoga cults are similar to cults of a religious or political nature. Avoid joining any group that asks you to give away your agency by engaging in group think, mindlessly following their doctrine/guru and giving away large sums of money. Gurus are people too so by not putting any on a pedestal you can help yourself avoid any unpleasant revelations about their ultimate intention.
Outside of your yoga practice try to see your teacher as simply another flawed person. Anytime a yoga organization tries to control your lifestyle or choices, it’s time to re-consider your alliance with them.
After all, the beauty of yoga is in connecting with the inner self and learning how to overcome the external agitations/traps rife in modern life.