Yoga is a practice that has been around for thousands of years. It is often associated with physical and mental well-being. However, in recent years, there have been a growing number of reports that it can be much more insidious and noxious, and far less innocent than it first appears. It seems that yoga teachers or ‘gurus’ are increasingly using yoga as a means of manipulation, control, and abuse of their students.
It could be argued that certain aspects of yoga practice, or the way it’s marketed and taught by certain individuals or groups, have the potential to be harmful or manipulative, particularly for those people that are vulnerable or impressionable.
To those who are trusting, a seemingly innocent hobby becomes a mind virus that is very difficult, if not impossible, to cure.
In some cases the practice of yoga has been used as a way to control minds and emotions of individuals, leading them to adopt ideologies or beliefs without question, both about themselves and about the world around them.
Yoga studios are moving beyond marketing their practice as having physical benefits such as strength and flexibility for their students and – without any formal training or qualifications – are claiming that they can offer spiritual or emotional guidance.
This emphasis on spiritual guidance, blind obedience and devotion to “the guru” can be particularly harmful to people who are vulnerable or impressionable.
To be clear, these ‘gurus’ rely almost exclusively on their personal experiences as sufficient qualifications to teach spirituality, emotional regulation, and mindfulness through yoga. This is, firstly, extremely arrogant, secondly, tested on a sample of one, and thirdly, dangerous.
A recent article in The Guardian highlights the darker side of yoga and the consequences of when it turns into a cult.
The article tells the story of a woman who joined a yoga class, thinking it would be a positive and uplifting experience. However, she soon realised that the class was not what it seemed.
The leader of the class, who was referred to as a “guru,” had control over every aspect of the participants’ lives. The guru would manipulate and control the students, demanding blind devotion and even going so far as to isolate them from their friends and family.
The woman described how the guru would use fear tactics to keep the students in line, claiming that they would not be able to achieve spiritual enlightenment without his guidance. He also demanded that the students turn over their assets to him and live in communal housing, further isolating them from the outside world.
This is the textbook definition of a cult. And cults never label themselves cults. They use the cover of religion or, in modern times, yoga, to hook their claws into trusting individuals in a quest for what is, essentially, power.
The Guardian story is not an isolated incident. There have been other reports of yoga cults, such as the “Self-Realisation Fellowship” and “Bikram Yoga.” These groups often have a charismatic leader who claims to have special spiritual knowledge or powers, and use manipulation and control to keep their followers in line.
More than that, these so-called ‘gurus’ use their position of power to abuse their students – financially, emotionally, and sexually. This is public knowledge, but rarely talked about because it’s uncomfortable and disturbing, and it doesn’t fit the image that yoga has worked so hard to cultivate.
But facts are facts.
The Tokyo subway terrorist attacks of 1995, in which 13 people died after they were gassed by a chemical weapon used by the Nazis, were perpetrated by the students of a yoga cult.
The cult of Bikram Yoga is built on the foundation of abuse. The headline of this article says it all: “’He got away with it’: how the founder of Bikram yoga built an empire on abuse.”
Just enter “yoga cult” into Google. There are more than 28 million results.
And yes, everyone who ended up in a cult never thought it would “happen to them”. It’s what makes them insidious, and so effective.
Yoga gurus who use fear tactics to keep their students in line, claiming that they will not be able to achieve “spiritual enlightenment” and a “higher state of consciousness” without their guidance. This can be extremely detrimental to a student’s physical, emotional, and psychological health and well-being. It is a betrayal of trust and use of power to coerce and abuse.
While obviously not all yoga communities are cults, many are not what they seem and it is crucial to be aware of the signs of cult behaviour. These include manipulation, control, and abuse, and to be cautious when joining any group or organisation that claims to have special spiritual knowledge or powers.
The fact is that no one has the answers to your challenges except you.
There are those who can and will help you along the way, and these are the very best teachers to seek out. They can be found in many forms. They are unlikely to be found in yoga studios, taking your money in exchange for their so-called “healing” powers, promising “inner peace” and “enlightenment”.
Individuals who are interested in practising yoga should research different teachers, styles, and centres and look for those that have a good, solid reputation, that align with their values, and most importantly, have clear codes of conduct that protect the students’ rights and well-being.
Yoga cults are led by a charismatic leaders.
This charisma makes them seductive to people who are seeking answers. And let’s face it, most people are. So it is tempting to give in to someone who claims to have special spiritual knowledge or powers.
Also, most of us are normal people who try not to lie because we know it’s not a good thing to do. So, we assume others do the same.
The fact is that these people are unscrupulous, and will lie without blinking if it means you spend an hour in their studios in compromising poses.
These leaders may use techniques such as brainwashing or emotional manipulation to control and abuse their followers. They may also require their followers to turn over their assets, sever ties with their friends and family, or live in isolated communities.
Rajneesh was a guru who loved his Rolls Royce and manipulated thousands of people.
Founder of Bikram Yoga, Bikram Choudhury has been accused of sexual misconduct by multiple former students, and several lawsuits have been filed against him. He has also been accused of using his position of power to control his followers and manipulate them into giving him money.
Individuals who are interested in practising yoga should be mindful of any red flags, such as a guru who talks about healing and other mystical phenomena or who is secretive about their teachings and practices.
One example of this is the strange, quasi-scientific practice such as ‘sound healing’.
Sound healing is a form of “alternative medicine” that involves using sound, typically in the form of music or singing bowls, to promote healing and well-being. The practice is based on the idea that sound can have a positive effect on the body and mind, and has allegedly be used to treat a variety of conditions such as stress, anxiety, and pain.
Apparently sound healing is based on the idea that different sounds and frequencies can have specific therapeutic effects on the body. However, there is no scientific evidence to support this claim.
Furthermore, sound healing practitioners use deliberately vague language, and that there is no clear method for measuring the effectiveness of the practice. This makes it difficult to evaluate the effectiveness of sound healing, and to separate true therapeutic effects from the placebo effect.
Experts resoundingly conclude that sound healing is a form of pseudoscience.
Pseudoscience refers to ideas or practices that are presented as scientific, but which lack a sound scientific basis. In other words, it’s a money-grabbing, pithy-sounding quack.
Consumer beware. Yoga delivers much less and takes much more than it first appears.
This is not to say that there are no benefits to be gained from practising yoga. You can get all the benefits of yoga practice such as flexibility and conditioning with an AI-powered app like DownDog that lets you choose the part of your body or practice that you focus on in a session, without the religious overtones, and practice from anywhere you choose.
As yoga has mushroomed in popularity with little to no oversight, it has become increasingly associated with cult-like marketing and culture as more and more charlatans and vultures use people’s interest in self-improvement to their advantage.
In conclusion, while yoga like any other type of physical exercise can be a positive and beneficial practice when done in moderation and in concert with other sports and when combined with healthy lifestyle choices, it is important to be aware of the potential for yoga teachings to turn cult-like and pseudo-scientific, like sound healing.
By educating ourselves and being mindful of red flags, we can protect ourselves from falling victim to these groups and instead, find a healthy and safe yoga community to practice with.
This article is the first in a THREE PART SERIES of articles about the unchecked dangers of this popular practice that may have insidious and even dangerous consequences on unsuspecting and vulnerable students.
PART ONE brought to light the connection between yoga teachers who go beyond teaching yoga poses to purporting to guide students spiritually, emotionally, and psychologically and the dangers of yoga practitioners who move beyond yoga into pseudoscience and exploitation.
PART TWO will discuss the Law of Attraction and Manifestation. Also be covering the Self-Help Guru industry general.
PART THREE will cover how these versions of pseudoscience have become symptomatic of a more global societal ill of self-centeredness and how the hyper focus on mindfulness is actually contributing more to mental health issues than helping them.
As we always say, strengthening the mind is an admirable thing to do with many lifelong benefits. How you choose to do so and the teachers you trust your progress with matters.
At SGS Krav Maga, we take a straightforward approach to strengthening the mind through developing a combat mindset that has been developed to train individuals in true situations of extreme stress. There are lessons to be taken away and applied to the, relatively lesser, stresses of everyday life.
Stay vigilant. Train hard. Be healthy of body and mind.
Choose the community you become a part of, carefully.& Manifestation