This is an open letter to my students regarding recent allegations made against Yogi Bhajan. The book “Premka: White Bird in a Golden Cage” by Pamela Saharah Dyson was released this year and offers a disturbing picture of Yogi Bhajan. The book is a personal memoir and describes her individual relationship with Yogi Bhajan.
I read the book because I wanted to understand what had been said. The book starts with her describing the aftermath of an abortion she had a result of getting pregnant with Yogi Bhajan. It’s a powerful start to a complex story.
Is her memoir accurate? I wasn’t there, but the book is well-written, clear and lacks hysteria. It reads like it could be true. If Premka’s version of events align with reality, Yogi Bhajan will be yet another fallen guru who crossed the line with his student and became hypocritical in his actions.
So now what?
From you, I am hearing three central questions:
1) If Yogi Bhajan was a Master of Kundalini Yoga and did these things, doesn’t that mean that Kundalini Yoga doesn’t work?
2) Is it possible that Kundalini Yoga is really just a placebo effect, and it works because we imagine it does?
3) Is Kundalini Yoga essentially a cult?
You’ll have to find your own answers to these questions, but I’ll offer my perspective.
Kundalini Yoga doesn’t make anyone perfect. I don’t know any practice on earth that does that. Kundalini Yoga helps to bring out the best in each of us, but our character flaws don’t go away. Ideally, they get minimized and as we grow and understand ourselves better, we get wiser about staying out of situations that are going to trigger our weak spots. The practice of Kundalini Yoga is about improving yourself based on your unique starting point. It doesn’t change the starting point. And it doesn’t remove character flaws. Ideally, it helps you share your strengths, not your weaknesses.
To directly address the Yogi Bhajan issue, I don’t know why, how, or how often he crossed the line. Assuming he did, it highlights some of his character flaws. But it doesn’t mean Kundalini Yoga didn’t work. It means he lacked the wisdom to remove himself from environments that were going to trigger his weaknesses. It is disappointing and unfortunate, but it doesn’t mean Kundalini Yoga is now a meaningless practice. For me, it makes me want to be more diligent about separating the teachings from the teacher. The teachings are a body of knowledge. The teacher delivering them will always be flawed. That’s the human condition.
You have asked me if Kundalini Yoga is really just the placebo effect. I wrote a post earlier this year talking about the effect meditation has on the brain. With fMRI technology, we can now scientifically understand how meditation changes the brain. This isn’t specific to Kundalini Yoga, but it does encompass Kundalini Yoga. And as it relates specifically to Kundalini Yoga, there is some scientific study around specific meditations. For example, Kirtin Kriya has been proven to help slow dementia, memory loss and Alzheimer’s disease. And anecdotally, many of you have probably already experienced the healing effects of the breathwork we do. You may have noticed you feel less overwhelmed as a result of a stronger nervous system. I’ve practiced daily for 10 years because it makes me feel better. You can reflect on your own experience and see what resonates as true for you. This is a deeply personal question.
And the final question: “Are 3HO and the whole Kundalini Yoga community essentially a cult?” I actually researched this carefully as I started down the Kundalini Yoga path in 2007-2008 because I was concerned about this very issue. Lots of people dress in white, there are guidelines about what to eat and how to live, and at moments, I’ve observed what seemed like a cult-like worship of Yogi Bhajan. His pictures are everywhere, he is quoted often, and he has been generally revered. But when I focus on the elements of an actual cult, they are missing. In my experience, 3HO and the Kundalini Yoga community aren’t a cult. They are a community.
One essential element of a cult is intolerance for critical inquiry, questioning or objection. I’ve had the opposite experience. My objection and lack of compliance with some of the lifestyle guidelines has been easily embraced and accepted. For example, when I finished teacher training, we were asked to sign an oath that included, among other things, statements like “as a Kundalini Yoga teacher I will not eat meat or drink alcohol.” I wasn’t planning to follow this so I told my teachers “I plan to continue eating fish and drinking alcohol so I can’t sign this and probably shouldn’t be a Kundalini Yoga teacher.” And their response was “This is a statement saying what we believe the goal of a teacher should be. Where you are on that path is a personal question and a personal choice. There is no conflict. You can do what feels right for you, just understand we see this as the goal.” It’s never been a secret that I eat fish and drink alcohol. I don’t dress in white, I don’t have a spiritual name, I don’t rise early in the morning, and I don’t take cold showers. Maybe some parts of the community don’t agree with me, but I’ve never felt pressured or been ostracized for my choices. I’ve been invited to blog for 3HO. I teach at the European Kundalini Yoga Festival. I’ve felt the freedom to be me and to follow my own path. I refer to myself as a “yogini for the people” and no one has openly objected to my approach. With this experience, it is hard for me to feel like Kundalini Yoga is a cult. It feels more like a community and as in any large community, some people align more with your lifestyle than others.
I can’t say nothing has changed with these new allegations about Yogi Bhajan. I’m less inspired to read his quotes and hear his lectures. It is sort of like Michael Jackson’s music and Bill Cosby’s comedy. It is hard to separate the accusations and the wrongdoings from the contributions. But when it comes to the actual technology of Kundalini Yoga, nothing really has changed for me. I feel comfortable tuning in with Ong Namo. I don’t feel like I’m connecting to Yogi Bhajan. I never did. I feel like I’m connecting to some source of wisdom that transcends individuals. The kriyas and meditations continue to have the same effects. And when I finish my practice, I feel relaxed and uplifted, just like before. For me, it was never about him. It was about the actual technology of Kundalini Yoga. And that remains intact.
I hope this is helpful. And I wish healing for all touched by these events.