Someone came into Heartwood Yoga Institute the other day for a tour and to get information on our yoga teacher training program. After the interview she heaved a big sigh and said, “You know, I went to another school and came close to signing up, but it just didn’t feel right. I felt like I was being encouraged to join the “Cult of Anna” (name changed out of respect to other schools and their directors). This potential student said the school she had visited adamantly proclaimed that only Anna could teach her authentic yoga as she happened to be the only true teacher in the area and beyond. Anna was made out to have almost superhuman powers with credentials that were so embellished they seemed impossible for her age. Everyone who met or worked with Anna was in awe, not the least of whom was Anna herself. Anna was publishing books (self-published and promoted) and podcasting and healing the hearts and souls of all those who signed up for her programs. The student was told that if she signed up for training, Anna would also teach her important subjects beyond yoga, including life coaching and nutrition and other holistic concepts that could be integrated with yoga to make her an amazing teacher and therapist too.
Something about the self-proclaimed greatness and intensity of Anna’s followers didn’t sit right with this woman. “Isn’t it true that a yoga program should be teaching yoga and not all that other stuff? Isn’t it true that yoga does the healing, and not the leader of a course? And isn’t there more to becoming a yoga therapist than taking a basic yoga training course?”
My office staff just smiled at her inquiries, noncommittedly, and offered the woman information regarding our philosophy and program focus. Not only is the office staff at Heartwood trained in yoga and therefore careful not to pass judgement or try to influence people with a hard sell, but they have also attended the Heartwood Yoga for Mental Health concentrations, where cult dynamics is explored, and they understand the intricacies and varied levels of delusion this kind of adoration for a teacher or program can develop. Shifting the beliefs of anyone under the influence of cult dynamics wasn’t going to happen by blowing a big raspberry or naysaying, and it certainly wouldn’t help to proclaim you are the better solution to their quest.
Where does this loyalty to a yoga teacher begin? Often, a guru or yoga teacher begins their work with humility and best intentions, following their dharma to teach. But something happens when results are progressively positive and students start attributing their changed lives to the wisdom of the leader. Flattery and devotion develops, which certainly makes a teacher feel good at their job. As the teacher is giving lessons about non-attachment to identity and how healing comes from within, they are, at the same time, starting to believe their own story of just how good they are at helping people understand and embrace the power of yoga. They start to identity with the exalted teacher identity thrust upon them by circumstance. Combine the expanding ego with the fact that a reputation for profound teaching does in fact increase revenue and reputation, and all the seeds of a cult dynamic have been planted. It is only a matter of time until this belief that you are more special than others takes root and blooms.
The yoga sutras warn us of this – how we must practice nonattachment to the fruits of our actions as well as nonattachment to our own desire to be more enlightened. But what we know theoretically, and what we recognize is happening in our subconscious, are very different realities.
The history of yoga in the West is filled with evidence of cult dynamics. The very definition of a cult is a small group of very devoted supporters or fans for a person or non-mainstream ideology. Studies have revealed common denominators of why certain leaders are successful in rising to the top in all manner of groups, from political or cultural cults that we may not consider traditional cults (Check out articles on the cult of Trump or how the Ku Klux Clan is considered a cult) to religious or spiritual cults (examples to follow). The question to ask is, “What causes people to surrender themselves to others’ beliefs, suggestions and guidance unconditionally?”
People join cults because they’re looking for love and acceptance and because they want answers to the personal problems in their lives. When a magnetic person comes along with problem-solving strategies who also creates an environment of caring and community, many people are ready to give unto them whatever it takes to be included in their sphere. There is, of course, more to cult dynamics than that, but certain elements of cult mentality can be pinpointed.
- Cults provide a feeling of comfort and inclusion for those who are uncomfortable and feel excluded from life or others.
- People with low self-esteem are usually easily persuaded by someone with confidence who seems in charge. They want to turn over the challenge of changing their lives to anyone else.
- New recruits are “love bombed” – meaning they are showered with acceptance and promises of how life will be so much better once they are in the community and are taught to adapt their thinking to align with the taught mentality.
- Most people susceptible to cults are women (as studies show) and they are often people who have become disillusioned with traditional religion and therefore they are open to a new spiritual path or leader. They’ve tried other paths and are open to anything new they think might be the answer to their dissatisfaction.
- The leader or community sells a certain logic that seems to make sense. The attitude is, “we know what you need and how the world works, and if you think like us, you too will have insight and find the answers you need.” And this is followed by testimonials or evidence of their success.
The reasons people turn to yoga often, unfortunately, align with these bullet points. While we can all see the danger of cult dynamics in extreme ashrams and communities that slip into measurable abuse, such as sexual misconduct, controlling the money or personal choices of members and in some cases, even death pacts, we are less inclined to see behavior as “cult-like” when we are in the glow of acceptance and feel positive changes in our lives. When the manipulation of our thinking grows over time hidden behind a veil of habits that we perceive as healthy (like yoga) we fail to make a distinction between the leadership and the practice. And even if all these definitions of cult align, is it bad if it works and makes us healthier and happier? Isn’t a negative definition of the word “cult” the problem rather than the reality?
Yoga does teach us that “modification of the mind is yoga (1.2)”, and cult dynamics certainly is a modification of the mind, good or bad. But yoga also teaches us to shed our false identities and our cultural conditioning, to listen to our inner voice, and to surrender to our challenges and accept them as a karmic lesson rather than something we need outside help to conquer. This means that seeking external answers to our problems, answers that can only come through the guru or cult leader’s blessing, wisdom or attention, is the antithesis of an authentic yoga practice. The only real threat is when a yoga teacher passing on knowledge does so with inference that results can be attributed to their superiority as a mentor, rather than from the system of wholeness that is yoga. Yoga teaches us that a teacher is needed but not the answer.
Sometimes, cult dynamics form when interpretation of the teachings hint that we must trust the process (rather than our instincts) and that suffering is a part of purification. This leads a student to accept that abuse from a leader is a test of our discipline or devotion rather than what it is, abuse. When a student assumes the leader is further along the path than the student and therefore their methods have some purpose we can’t see or understand and should never question, we can develop a mindset that invites the potential for ego and opportunity to skew the healthy dynamic between a student and leader.
A little research reveals a common pattern of abuse and cult dynamics from spiritual leaders and all of us who love yoga should take note and learn from history. Netflix documentaries, such as Bikram, Yogi, Guru, Predator, or Wild, Wild Country, about Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh point out huge abuses that seemed to develop with power.
A few insightful books I have found fascinating about yoga and cult dynamics that I encourage anyone who is inclined to adore certain yoga star teachers to read, includes:
Practice and All is Coming, Abuse, Cult Dynamics and Healing in Yoga and Beyond by Mathew Remski, an expose about Patabi Jois and Ashtanga Yoga.
Premka, White Bird in a Golden Cage. My Life with Yoga Bhajan by Pamela Saharah Dyson, a memoir about abuse and delusion in becoming the 2nd hand man to the leader of Kundalini in the West.
Into the Heart of Yoga, One Woman’s Journey by Danna Faulds, a memoir of the rise and fall of Kripalu as an ashram under the leadership of Amarit Desai and the school’s transformation to a more corporate yoga institution without a guru in the interest of following the teachings of yoga without hypocrisy.
But do these extreme cases have anything to teach us about a local yoga teacher who has a huge ego and likes to sell their services by pushing a story that they are the one and only brilliant mentor who will be highly effective at the job of teaching them self-awareness? What harm is there is loving your yoga teacher? What about all those lovely video clips on Facebook where people insist that their lives were changed thanks to this wonderful teacher so we should sign up today? Are we being naive and susceptible to marketing if we feel inspired by success stories designed to encourage us to sign up if we benefit from the experience?
I believe the best way to avoid slipping into a cult mentality and falling for a leader’s personification or a story rather than reality is to see things clearly, and the best way to do that is to educate yourself – both in what yoga actually teaches and by learning what a cult dynamic looks and feels like. (Reading the books recommended here is a great start to understanding how yoga training can sometimes fall into unhealthy patterns.)
Having a charismatic leader is wonderful. Such a person keeps us engaged and inspired and holds our attention when we might otherwise wander off the path. But when your healing or your education is attributed to the person teaching rather than the process of yoga, it is time to pause and take a step back. We just need to keep things in perspective – both our potential for healing and the importance of whomever is leading the way.
No one can take credit for your spiritual growth or enlightenment. That is a personal journey. A good teacher can help you see the path, but you must walk it yourself. The true meaning of the wisdom teachings of yoga will vary depending on each individual’s interpretation and a strong mentor knows this and invites you to question their interpretations and world view as you form your own. Those trying to convince you that they are going to be the solution to your problems and that they have the answers you need to be whole, are likely not as far along the spiritual path as they make out. After all, humility is the first and strongest sign of someone who understands the deepest dimensions of yoga.
Respect is one thing. Adoration and unwavering devotion for a teacher is another. Like all things in yoga, we must maintain a healthy balance.
Ginny Shaddock is an IAYT Yoga therapist and ERYT-500 Yoga teacher. She teaches Yoga for Mental Health as well as Cult Dynamics and Yoga in the 800 hour Yoga Therapy Certification Program at Heartwood Yoga Institute.
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