Seeking Self-Reliance in Yoga After Cult Life Didn’t Work

I just had the pleasure of answering some interview questions posed by an old friend about the health care needs of ex-cult members.

Such a great topic. I talked about digestive issues and depression and how reading Harry Potter to my five year-old has helped me recover from the abject disenchantment of spiritual abuse.

It also made me remember a few other things, or see them slightly differently.

I came to yoga after my cult years (1996-2003), and quickly began to professionalize into it. It made sense: I hadn’t finished college, had travelled too much, didn’t feel settled or productive, wanted and needed to connect with people and show value, etc. Part of what worked about that is that it offered an alternative/unconventional pathway towards a job in which I wouldn’t have to answer for the lost years.

(As an aside: all this anxiety around yoga teacher’s education and “authenticity” is IMO heavily wrapped up not only in the fact that nobody’s in charge, but in the biographical havoc and shame that high-demand groups wreck on people’s lives. My gut says that most of those who accuse me and others of not having proper teachers — and therefore nothing worthwhile to say — are either covering up or spiritualizing their own cult abuse stories.)

The other part that worked was that both the practice and its professionalization seemed to grant a sense of agency and maybe even autonomy. Yoga culture wasn’t a cult, or at least I hadn’t run into specific yoga cults, yet. As a recovery zone, it seemed as wide-open as any new economy. Studios were opening with DIY pluck on the leading edge of gentrification, alongside art/design shops and digital marketing startups. There was a sense that the world was wide open and everything was material to excavate, and that the basic premises of psychosomatic exploration would yield private but shareable wealth.

I now understand this was a late crest on the Human Potential Movement wave, which began to roll in 70s. And I suspect that the neoliberalism that these movements both fronted for and concealed managed to capitalize on whole swaths of people who felt the need to escape systems of control. Yoga really did become the religion of neoliberalism, not just because it was commodified as the sign of freedom and spiritualized flexibility in relation to the precariat, but because it really did embody freedom for people leaving abusive constellations. In many cases, it made only bodily demands upon devotees. It felt “grounded” that way.

In my specific case, the post-cult need for autonomy, playing out in the yoga zone, meant that I had no instinct nor education towards the protection of indigenous sources or modes of learning. The basics of cultural appropriation — detach, reframe, commodify — were built into the globalizing economy, but also intersected with a personal need to have something of my own following years of being manipulated.

I now see what I was using and why and am doing my best to realize my own sense of unreality did not give me permission to plant a flag over real things from real places. Travel there, yes. Dialogue with, yes. Live “your yoga” as though you were the center of the universe, detached from global injustice and inequality? No.

My education in and fascination with Ayurveda allowed me similar leeway. A premodern self-care regime based on intuitive poetry gave me a sense of autonomy over a body that cults had taught me was disgusting or unreal. But it also protected me from the scrutiny of diagnostic medicine, which I subconsciously feared would force me to ask hard questions about whether in fact I needed more professional help.

I survived depressive episodes without self-harming, but I’m very concerned that the self-reliance expressed through these practices — itself a trauma-related response — can at times go too far, convincing people that the vata will eventually calm down with a little more sesame oil, or that everything will improve when Jupiter enters Aquarius, so long as you’re attuned to it and have merited the blessings of the transit, etc. People can really jeopardize themselves through shaky mechanisms of self-reliance, which aren’t really self-reliant at all if they rely on mystification.

When the yoga world showed its cultic ass to me, I really didn’t want to believe it. I really didn’t want to see what I saw on that video of Jois, or hear what I heard from students of Iyengar or Choudhury. I went so far as to shut down my friend Diane’s story of Jois’s assaults. More on that in the upcoming book.

Yoga was a zone of freedom, I insisted, and if people didn’t find it there, that was on them.

Oh yes, I really thought that, and not just from my layers of privilege, but from the perspective of not having digested the shame of having been in cults.

My response was out-of-phase. I was hearing cult abuse stories in my zone of cult recovery. I was angry about the contamination. But I got over it.

So now I’m wondering how much of the blowback that yoga cult victims get is not just generated by the cults themselves, but by the more general belief and marketing that yoga was the zone so many of us went to for agency — and, in lock step with neoliberalism, we had to believe in it to feel functional or even survive.

As a specialized subgroup, we yoga people were indoctrinated to blame the victim. We were under the illusion that we had autonomy, and that our healing could come from within ourselves alone.

What a joy that it does not.


  • Hi Matthew,

    I think you’re exaggerating a bit when you say that others accuse you of not having proper teachers and therefore have nothing to say–and also deflecting a bit. You (and others too) have pointed out that various gurus put themselves on a pedestal and create a situation where whatever they say is to be believed and acted upon as if it came down from heaven. Followers of Jois and Iyengar and others abandon critical thinking and accept the guru’s every utterance as if it were a foundational truth. This is particularly apparent in their instruction regarding asana. And the “gurus” ate that up and did nothing to disabuse their followers of the notion that they had magical powers. Their closest followers stayed close by promoting that illusion (think Manouso and R. Patel). In fact, “gurus” like Jois and Iyengar had little real knowledge of the body and, as a consequence, caused many injuries. If they had applied a Western scientific mindset, they would have critiqued their mistakes, learned from them and modified the practice. Instead, mostly they simply denied the injuries ever happened. As you point out, it is an unregulated field, especially in India. Few questioned their backgrounds and actual training in the body and that was a huge mistake. I think that fact allowed other abuses that you’ve highlighted to occur.
    Things are beginning to change in yoga. People question teacher’s bona fides. Obviously, having degrees and other training is no guarantee of integrity in and of itself, and many without that training have contributed from “outside the box”. Nevertheless, you’re a Westerner and so people will question your bona fides, especially when you are discussing injuries. That is not necessarily because they are covering up something themselves, or trying to discredit you. It may be simply that they are pointing out that you’re out of your depth in some issues. That’s just reality.

  • Matthew, how shall I phrase it? I came to your blog via the Patanjali book of yours and the WAWADIA-Project from the beginning. I was eager to learn from your coming book about the everyday problems in MPY which were pretty under the rug at that time.(And I have participated in the crowdfunding of this book).

    Since then you have gone on a pompous and narcicistic journey against cult and gurus, abundant sexual abuse and cultural appropriation.
    I choose the words “pompous” and “narcicistic” with restraint because I can see where you come from and I understand that you are fighting personal devils here and perhaps I am coping here with the disappointment cocerning my crowdfunding decision gone astray but in the name of —— (fill in the blanks) do you always have to fight as a golden scarred and scared warrior with all-knowing attitude? No concept is big enough to throw in the game: Neoliberal, globalism, “we the yoga people are indoctrinated to blame the victim”. Analyzing the topic fiercely in order to reduce it to a writhing death in agony.
    Honestly, I am not glad that you are reading Harry Potter!
    BTW, it is very tricky to comment here, deliberately?

  • Dear Above, I find matthew’s posts incredibly helpful. In fact it’s the only source online I have found that can articulate what I have felt and experienced in the yoga “community”. When you are ostracised from that world and seem to be the only one who can “see through” the delusions and manipulations of the teacher, you feel so terribly alone and ashamed and above all frustrated. But if I read matthew’s works then I realise, I am not alone, what these yoga teachers are doing is wrong, and my intuition is accurate. Also the word narcissistic is thrown around way too often in yoga/spiritual circles, it’s as if people think this is the worst possible label they can apply to another person in order to separate them from everyone else. (Athough other favourites are “toxic” and “negative”).

    • Well, I’m glad that they’ve been useful to you, but on the other hand the words “pompous” and “narcissistic” might be used simply because they are accurate ways of describing something….

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