“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
“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.
Maybe Kundalini Yoga Works through Trauma Responses
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.
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.
Finally, a voice of reason.
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.
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?
I took the teacher training did white tantric attended Sat nam
Fests, When Pamela’s book came out. I was filled w grief disgust outrage…. I’m not practicing ky now. Gurmukh was my first teacher .. her comment especially….. outraged me. I’m done w all of it. Praying that the olive branch does some good but I’m
Gurumukh Mark Harris.
I’ve practiced and taught Kundalini Yoga, since I was 19, along with being trained in Black Psychology, Ethnic Studies, addiction and mental health. I experienced racial microaggressions, relatively early on. In the 1970’s, and suspected YB’s sexual misconduct also. The New Age itself is the spiritual technologies of people of color, commodified for a largely white affluent audience. Even when the original teachings are anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-homophobic, once imported to America, Europe, those aspects shall we say get whitewashed. That white audience often brings their racist, classist, sexist, homophobic attitudes with them, not that India, with its caste system and misogyny is entirely blameless. Since America has a caste system, there can be a cultural fit, which also fits in with addictive organizations like cults. I’m familiar with Jenn Freyd’s work, and there is definitely institutional betrayal and betrayal blindness, within 3HO and its many offshoots. While Yogi Bhajan indicated that Yoga originally came from Africa, his teachings do not address systemic discrimination. That being said, “on the mat”, yoga, meditation, chanting, can assist with building resilience in the face of trauma. Critical thinking, restorative history, can help with understanding systemic discrimination “off the mat”, and in the world. Anti-Racism is expanded humanity, not to be conflated with “Humanology” which actually may carry some racist DNA within its construct, that kinda remains unexamined. As there is an African-American tradition of “No description, without a prescription”, I began teaching “The Yoga of Intersectionality”, which combines KY with constructs and content for analyzing systemic discrimination. While I’ve taught this at Solstices, and Sat Nam Fests, this ongoing pandemic of viral memetic racism, combined with a viral pandemic revealing systemic inequities that people of color have always seen, revelations of misconduct not only by Yogi Bhajan, are not surprising to a retired “simple country drug counselor of color” like me. That Akal Security could run ICE camps is an expression of racism, pure and simple, an act of ongoing war against indigenous people of color, whose homeland this entire continent has been for thousands of years. Racism and systemic discrimination are addictive processes, involving extensive deception of self and others. Relapse is always possible, but addictive organizations, are not addictive everywhere, and not everyone associated with them, You can recover your full connected Humanity. I feel Kundalini Yoga is a liberation technology, similar to Aramaic meditative Christianity, But Western Civilization turned Ieshua’s teachings of peace and healing, into weapons of war, genocide, and colonization. We need not discuss how many toxic cults Christianity generated. In my experience the yoga work, and understanding that people like Rosa Parks, practiced yoga, and utilized it to engage with civil rights struggle, that proves the two liberation technologies can be utilized together. In that sense, the yoga works. But the roots and tendrils of oppression have been intertwined. They must be separated, and as Ieshua said, the oppressive roots, be composted.