“But Kundalini Yoga Works!” | Some Considerations

Here’s a slightly edited and updated collection of some recent Facebook posts on the “But Kundalini Yoga Works!” meme that’s floating around in the wake of the KY/3HO abuse crisis, prompted by the publication of Premka: White Bird in a Golden Cage: My Life with Yogi Bhajan, by Pamela Dyson.

My aim is to address a recognizable tension: the cognitive dissonance of trying to process the fact of Bhajan as an abuser against the deeply felt experience that his techniques were healing, or even life-saving. In the cult literature, these seemingly irreconcilable facts are described as, in some cases, deeply intertwined.

 

Maybe Kundalini Yoga Techniques Are a Form of Social Control

 
The classic definition of the cult is as follows, from Langone and West.
 
“A group or movement exhibiting great or excessive devotion or dedication to some person, idea, or thing, and employing unethical manipulative or coercive techniques of persuasion and control (e.g., isolation from former friends and family, debilitation, use of special methods to heighten suggestibility and subservience, powerful group pressures, information management, suspension of individuality or critical judgment, promotion of total dependency on the group and fear of leaving it), designed to advance the goals of the group’s leaders, to the actual or possible detriment of members, their families, or the community.”
— West, L. J., & Langone, M. D. (1986). “Cultism: A conference for scholars and policy makers.” Cultic Studies Journal, 3, 119-120.
 
With a small but jolting perspectival shift, it’s clear that the practices of any group can perform the functions in the parenthesized checklist, all of which act to enforce compliance to the leader or the group:
 
Clothing, naming, and dietary changes can isolate members from birth families and former social circles. Getting up at 4am to invoke trance states can debilitate the capacity to question and be enormously suggestive. It’s also clear that the public images of Vishnudevananda, Jois, Bhajan and others have been carefully information-managed.
 
Definitions, however, can promote black-and-white thinking, and sometimes that doesn’t help. The practices taught by high-demand groups aren’t inherently coercive (though I would speculate that the closer the member is to the leader, the more coercive they are). The trick is to find where the practices cross the threshold between “Wow! here’s a new thing that I love to do and which seems to help me with X condition” to “Um, here’s this thing I must do every day because, um, I forget, but I’m a little scared to stop.” Beyond that threshold, the practices may perform the function of psychosocial control.
 
As we browse through the checklist we can see whether each data point applies to the spectrum of practices we’ve taken on according to the question: “Did x practice truly empower me and give me agency, or did it make me less likely to question or individuate from the group that gave it to me?”

Maybe Kundalini Yoga Works through Trauma Responses

Alexandra Stein has pioneered the application of attachment theory to cult dynamics. Briefly put: she shows that the main task of the high-demand group is to re-wire the recruit’s attachment patterning to the disorganized end of the spectrum, where they are in an acute state of arousal amidst the contradiction of needing to devote themselves to the person who is abusing them.
 
One of the most personally resonant implications of this for me is Stein’s description of how surrendering to the tension of this conflict can seem to provide deep relief, even euphoria. I experienced this very strongly in both of the cults I was recruited into.
 
The second phase of a trauma response is dissociation: “detachment from an unbearable situation.” As previously described, in this state, both physiological states of hyperarousal and dissociation are activated: internal energy-consuming resources are simultaneously on full alert at the same time as the person is dissociating to try to shut down and conserve these resources. Imagine the toll on the body that this two-fold unresolvable process must take. Eventually, dissociation – freezing and giving up the failed effort to escape – comes to dominate. Along with giving up the struggle to fight against the group and the fear it has generated, the dissociated follower comes to accept the group as the safe haven and thus forms a trauma bond. This moment of submission, of giving up the struggle, can be experienced as a moment of great relief, and even happiness, or a spiritual awakening.
 
What little I know of KY/3H0 experience is that there is a strong emphasis upon altered and/or transcendent states. From my personal experience and research on other yoga groups, I know that the line between a “radiant fawning” response and a truly empowering experience can be hard to find. Worse, that line can be manipulated by the group or its leader, by suggesting to the member that their stress response is actually a sign of awakening. Groups in which spiritual practice is particularly intense, demanding, or life-pervading (Ashtanga Yoga, Sivananda Yoga, etc.), are hot spots for this conflation.
 
So as KY practitioners consider the conundrum of how effective the practices have been vs the picture that’s emerging of Bhajan and his lieutenants and enablers, I would encourage gentle reflection on the question of “Why were the practices efficient? Why did this work?” Because it’s possible that the euphoria and bliss, in some cases, was not only part of the abuse, but an essential mechanism for deepening trauma bonds within the group.
 
This is definitely not to say that the practices if they are still felt to be beneficial, should be abandoned. But I believe that everyone deserves to practice without the additional burden of cognitive dissonance. And who knows? Practicing euphoria from a place of real freedom may well be possible.

 

Maybe Kundalini Yoga Works Because It Carries the Domination Affect of Yogi Bhajan | a note on Gurmukh’s Abuse Crisis Statement

This thought began to form in response to reading Dyson’s book and some testimonies on the Premka page about how Bhajan dominated everyone’s lives through a grandiose ideology that required constant material attention: a thousand different tasks, rituals, protocols, attitudes, gestures.

“Dominated” is the key word here. “Dominated” in the sense that no one else had time or space to have their own life, their own reality, their own feelings. One of the hardest parts of Dyson’s book for me to read was where she quotes Bhajan repeatedly saying things like: “You must be like me,” followed by pages on pages of Dyson discovering that her own identity had been suppressed, supplanted, negated, and that she had to find it again.

Domination was the root of the religion. Daniel Shaw details the granular level of how this might work in his masterful work Traumatic Narcissism: Relational Systems of Subjugation. His erudite psychoanalytic appraisal of the Bhajan-like figure — in his case Gurumayi of SYDA — shows a person who is terrified of anyone around them asserting their own agency, for then the world and and others in it would no longer be theirs to control. It would feel like a mortal threat.

Dominate in order to control, and do it completely, passionately, sleeplessly — or else you will die. I’m familiar with these themes from studying cult leaders.

But the possibility that they are baked into the very content and method of Kundalini yoga itself was made much more clear by Gurmukh’s post yesterday. Many have noted this quote in particular:

“Between the flu and the allegations, from the center of my being I choose Joy. This is sincerely all that I can do. I stand for Joy. My platform is Joy. Joy is the opposite of fear. Fear breeds more fear. Joy breeds more Joy. In my choice I choose to teach Kundalini Yoga throughout the world, God willing, until my last breath.”

Look past the white saviourism of the journey, the conflation of a virus for institutional abuse, the bypassing. The hidden-in-plain-sight message here is domination, albeit disguised in an emotive language of emotion that is coded maternal, receptive, and surrendering.

Come what may, this faithful practitioner will exert their will to Joy over all reality. No other emotion or perspective has the right to exist. With Joy she will cancel Bhajan’s critics. No one else — and obviously not survivors — will be referenced. Everything emanates from the centre of their being… and what emanates is Kundalini yoga (as taught by Yogi Bhajan), and she will colonize the world with it. This virus-infested, allegation-ridden world, teeming with orphans who will be Joyful when they are visited by the bearer of Joy.

So when I see people talk about how much Kundalini did for them — especially in totalistic terms: “It transformed my life” — I wonder about how much domination is wrapped up in that: domination of intuition, of one’s past, of trauma, of appropriately negative responses, of questions and doubts, of reasonable desires to wear jeans or drink wine. I wonder how much success in practice is generated by dominating the unwanted or disowned parts of oneself. And on the professional level: how much domination does it take to suppress bad news, to enforce cognitive dissonance, to make sure one’s buzz doesn’t dim and one’s brand isn’t tarnished, to be able to stare questions down from the mountaintop.

I don’t doubt that it helped many people. Pressure and encouragement can do that for a while. The question would be when and how helpfulness crosses that threshold into domination.

 

However Kundalini Yoga Works, It is Aided by “Bounded Choice” | Looking at Snatam Kaur’s Crisis Statement

Janja Lalich is a cult researcher whose work has been very important to my own healing. One of her most illuminating concepts is “bounded choice”, and it helps to explain just how difficult it is for a high-demand group or cult member to see their way clear of the insular ideology that has functioned to narrow their world.

Briefly put: “bounded choice” is the condition of having been trained to believe that everything that happens in the group, or that the leader does, or that is taught or produced by the group, is for some ultimate good. This means that everything becomes grist for the salvation mill. If the practitioner falls ill because of dietary restrictions, they’re being taught to detach from the body. If they are left impoverished, they are being taught about the maya of worldly wealth. If they are forbidden to marry, they are being taught the virtue of renunciation. If they are forced to have an abortion, they are being taught to give up on the wheel of life.

Bounded choice allows the leader and the group to continually move the goalposts so that the member is never able to convincingly say: “This is wrong. This doesn’t work.” It also does the crucial work of never allowing the group to be challenged by any external information.

The interpersonal examples above are fairly easy to spot when you get the hang of the idea. What harder is the subtler aspect of bounded choice, which is what is at play in Snatam Kaur’s invocation that all KY members should recommit themselves to chanting the mantras as they try to make sense of revelations of abuse in their group.

In Kaur’s view, the mantras are held up as all-good, all-saving, primordial, and sacred. It’s unthinkable that they were ever used to deceive, to baffle, to love-bomb, to dissociate, to hijack critical thinking in favour of bursts of serotonin. It’s inconceivable that they’ve ever been used to enforce a premature repair or forgiveness following abuse. And yet the cult research is filled with examples of techniques of hypnotic trance, contact high, pleasure/pain disruption, and nervous overwhelm that function to break down resistance and increase compliance.

Kaur’s statement can also be considered through Jennifer Freyd’s lens of institutional betrayal. One part of her theory says that when abuse victims are asked to appeal to the institution that enabled the abuse for relief, or to its content or methods, retraumatization can occur. A basic lesson is: don’t expect healing from the institution that traumatized you.

Here are some thought experiments that might help show that for some group members Kaur may be offering yet more bounded choice, even if she believes she’s offering relief. These are examples of bounded choice compounded by institutional betrayal. They also express a conflict of interest: the group continuing to promote itself as the solution to the problem it contains.

1. A man has just disclosed that a Catholic priest abused him when he was a child. The news shocks the parish. A well-meaning member suggests that everyone — including the man — bond and heal by going to church and reciting the rosary.

2. A woman has just disclosed that Harvey Weinstein raped her. The news shocks Hollywood. A well-meaning member suggests that community gather for a ceremonial showing of Shakespeare in Love.

3. A woman has just disclosed that Ashtanga yoga founder Pattabhi Jois regularly sexually assaulted her while in class. The news shocks the community. A well-meaning member suggests that everyone bond and heal by practicing the Primary Series.

4. A woman has just disclosed that Bikram Choudhury raped her. The news shocks the community. A well-meaning member suggests that everyone bond and heal by continuing to practice Choudhury’s 26 postures in 104 degree heat

5. A man has just disclosed a lifetime of institutional abuse within the Shambhala Buddhist community. The news is shocking. A well-meaning member suggests that everyone bond and heal by reaffirming their dedication to the Tantric kingdom of Shambhala.

 

 

 

7 Comments

  • This statement that the teachings work has made no sense to me, and I was a longtime practitioner of KY. Now it’s explained in a way I understand more clearly: many discovered a sense of surrender that they couldn’t find in a culture where there is no clear and constant authority. My situation was different. My parents left me with a strong sense of inner authority, but I’d just come from years of grad school where my intellect was overworked. So the yoga didn’t “work” for me, in a sense of giving me something I didn’t have. Instead it allowed me to chant in a language I didn’t need to understand, and to teach without having to create the lesson, both big sighs of relief after the brutal mind world of an elite doctoral program. The yoga itself was no path to ecstasy or release, and the harsh rules and regulations were made to be broken, as far as I could tell.

  • Wow, thank you for this. Finally, finally. I am a KY teacher and came to the practice 8 years ago, after living in SE Asia, working on a documentary about human trafficking. How ironic. This work and these observations are so important. Many of us, who never knew Yogi Bhajan, who practice other modalities as well as KY, are wondering how to proceed. For years I’ve been trying to understand the mechanics of KY, beyond the instructions. For example commentary to one kriya states, ” in the yogic scriptures there are 6 pages written about the benefits of this single kriya,” OK great, where are those “scriptures”? Show me the pages! Thanks for your work Matthew.

    • I feel like that too Lisa. I have practiced Kirtan kriya for years now. I know it has been researched. But I question even that now. I don’t know if I can relate to it in the same way. Therapy this morning helped. Reminded me that some teachers still quote Bhajan as saying don’t pay for a therapist itsa waste of money. KY is all you need. That’s pretty manipulative.

  • Thank you Matthew,
    It is fascinating for me to be taking your course and witnessing in real time what you have have so thoroughly examined. Thank you for these insights.
    Margaret

  • This information is so very necessary!!! I had my own experience with witnessing indoctrination and the push toward Sikhism in the 3HO/KYATBYB community. I recall attendees being recruited to take Sikh vows at the annual massive Summer Solstice events, when people were flying high after grueling hours of intensive meditation practices in the New Mexico high desert. I left the practice after about a decade and am still unraveling the reality from the manipulation in the KY institution. I respect and honor your work and look forward to further reading into this via the books and researchers you cited.

  • This nuetral and clear critique could have only been written by someone outside of this group. KRI kundalini Research Institute ..Do they actually do any research? It seems more like a catalogue institute rather than research. Many claims are made during a KY class as to the effects on various systems of the body/brain and general physical health .Have there been any reliable clinical trials or research done?
    Many grandiose statements are made and accepted without question ,as to the effects of KY but little investigation is it seems, attempted into the claims made about the benefits of KY. Does any of it work?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.