Yoga Trolling and Yoga Cults: A Connection
There are several friends and colleagues I’d like to thank for helping me crack this part of the code. Ironically, naming them here would make them targets of further harassment. They know who they are.
Summary: Several prominent and combative figures on yoga social media are or have been embedded within yoga cults. This post speculates that by not disclosing these connections, and by blending or obscuring their religious agendas with anti-racist and social justice oriented concerns, these figures free themselves to harass or troll targets with impunity, in ways that preserve familiar cultic behaviours, while avoiding responsibility for their complicity in abusive organizations. Their attacks consistently express paranoia regarding the traditionality of yoga practice, in which authenticity is measured by all-or-nothing, black-and-white litmus tests for religious and ethnic purity. This paranoia combines the absolutisms of religious purity and performative wokeness, but conceals the absolutism of cultic control. It helps explain why these figures rarely if ever criticize the rising tide of Hindu nationalism and its implications for global yoga culture, and why they consistently fail to criticize malignant power structures in yoga groups. Their attacks on the “inauthenticity” of others may also be a way in which they project and act out a displaced shame over the abuses and charlatanry of their own communities, none of which are “traditional” in this globalized era.
Who Are All These Nasty Yoga People?
For about the last five years, the questions have been gnawing.
Who are all these nasty yoga people? What motivates them to harass others online?
In some ways they present diverse and even competing interests. But their basic behaviour and go-to themes glue them together. So does, I believe, a shared demographic trait: many are current or former yoga cult people, continuing their culty behaviours under the cover of spiritual integrity, and, more recently, social justice.
On the face of it, these are folks who claim special authority over the history and spirituality of Yoga (note the capital Y) which they define in terms that are equal parts simplistic, mystifying, and exclusionary. Their voices gather in comment threads, often calling each other in with long strings of tags. They gang-roll through Facebook groups, mocking and abusing seemingly anybody for a range of sins against Yoga: insufficient piety, a fixation on the body or the material world, blind participation in commodification, being too American, too millennial, too “postmodern”, failing to recognize a particular philosophical position as forever correct, or harbouring an egotistical refusal to surrender to a “qualified” teacher or some vaguely-described Absolute Truth.
They would predictably challenge their targets on their training, always implying it is inadequate. They’re really, really fixated on this point: “Who’s your teacher? Who’s your teacher?”
When this was thrown at me — “Look, look! He doesn’t have a teacher!” — it put me back on my heels. The truth was that my core experiences with teachers had been distorted by cult dynamics. I had both learned in and been abused by cultic organizations. I was ashamed of that tangled history, and I didn’t know how to talk about it. Until I came out as a cult survivor, and fully reflected that in my full bio, I didn’t know how to respond to an accusation that was accurate in one sense, but victim-blaming in another.
Being on the defensive distracted me from something crucial. While harassing me for my lack of education, the troll would usually speak as though they were a Faithful Student of Somebody. But they would never name that Somebody. This was a red flag, and I missed it.
As time wore on and I started to numb out to the personal sting of these exchanges, it became apparent that this wasn’t just random nastiness. I could begin to predict who would be ganged up on. Favourite targets included yoga scholars studying the innovations and globalization of “Modern Postural Yoga”, non-Indian professional Sanskritists who do not translate yoga texts as an act of religious devotion but as a service to history, women asana teachers who became critical of the anatomical naïveté of early 20th century asana teachers and developed smarter ways of moving — and goals for movement, like functionality and strength. If those women also criticized the abusive pedagogy of some of those early Indian teachers, they were doubly hounded.
What all targets share in common is not their beliefs, content, or commitments, but their methods and sources of validation, which are networked, peer-reviewed, and interdisciplinary. Of course, if you happened to be the scholar who stood back and collated immense amounts of data in order to describe this mode of horizontalized authority as “Post-Lineage”, well, you were also in big trouble. Because you would be rightly seen as legitimizing all this creativity and free-thinking as a real social phenomenon worthy of study.
Finally, extra vitriol was spewed all over those who worked for, appreciated, or were merely ambivalent towards Yoga Alliance. This went way beyond all of the reasonable criticisms — that the organization has been ineffective, sloppy, marred by mediocre leadership, etc. The trolls turned the Yoga Alliance employee or sympathizer into Public Yoga Enemy #1. I now suspect that this too was about vertical vs. horizontal authority. Here was non-profit actually taking steps to crowd-source ways of making yoga safer and yoga schools more accountable. Yoga Alliance is attempting to democratize an industry so far built upon charismatic pyramid schemes. It’s calling for greater oversight and higher educational standards. What kind of a person, belonging to what kind of group, doesn’t want that?
Trolling from the Left
If you have experience with spotting religious fundamentalism, such attacks might be easy to counter with something direct, like: “Wow, it looks like you brought your hereditary authoritarianism to the mat with you. Didn’t we all come here to get away from that stuff?” For yoga people committed to liberal democracy and education, it’s easy to brush off evangelical trolling.
But what happens when the trolling comes from the left, and weaponizes the language of wokeness?
That’s what started to happen a year or two into all of this. Suddenly, it seemed, the theological arguments about the One True Path You Are Obviously Not On So Too Bad Loser began to merge with the language of anti-racism, decolonization, and social justice. The posturing and aggression was eerily familiar, but the content had changed in such a way that seemed at first to be legitimate, and even irrefutable.
Who would argue, after all, that cultural appropriation was not a thing? That global yoga does not emerge from and carry with it the trauma and inequalities of post-colonial economies? That Indian culture has not been objectified and commodified for export to allow the Global North to feel spiritual about conspicuous consumption? That Desi folks in the global diaspora don’t often feel excluded from yoga spaces? That everyone who benefits from yoga, especially according to their privilege, is responsible for engaging these issues?
This shift in focus was complicated by its diversity of sources. There are many South Asian writers who present the necessity for decolonization in a compelling and solution-based manner. (I’ve linked them elsewhere but will not here, because they will be harassed if I do. Yes, that’s already starting.) Their arguments are tight and their activism empathetic. So when trolls started link-dumping these excellent think-pieces into harassment threads, they gained new social and intellectual power. In a sense, they appropriated the discourse of cultural appropriation to bolster an already-held posture of moral and spiritual superiority.
Bizarrely, this new tactic began to attract other followers, whose main commitments were in fact oriented towards social justice and anti-colonialism. This strange romance between theological purity and political progressivism led to some very strange bedfellows. Like self-identified feminist/woke yoga scholars aiding and abetting Hindu nationalists, for example.
For me, sorting out the real from the manipulative — and the manipulated — in the cultural appropriation debate has pivoted on a single puzzle: who are all these white people who have taken up the issue like a crusade? Given the often-apolitical zeitgeist of the modern yoga movement, could they truly be allies? Did they have sudden conversions to political wokeness, or are they just doing white guilt sun salutations? Why do so many have Sanskritized names? Where are they coming from? Why are they so rarely self-reflective in relation to their own privilege? Do they have any actual history and training in anti-oppression movements, or has their Yoga made them an expert in everything?
It’s going to take someone years of quiet, incognito fieldwork to answer these questions. The absence of hard data leaves a gut feeling that all is not as it seems.
It’s well-established that the oxygen of all cultic mechanisms is deception. An abuser, dominator, or high-demand group deceives the public and its members about its purpose and methods. The falsehood might look progressive, virtuous, on the right side of history, and spiritually liberating. Both leaders and members can truly believe it. The falsehood can appeal to their deepest values and motivate their unique passions and skills. That’s what the falsehood wants: to co-opt and redirect passion and skill.
Online Cultism vs. IRL Cults
Before I get too far down this road, I want to be clear: a group of online yoga trolls do not constitute a cult in any clinical sense.
As a group, they can indeed present many cultic behaviours: black-and-white thinking, circular logic, a fetish for jargon, leader/follower pathologies, and disorganized attachments that oscillate between attacking and fawning. They can definitely cause material harm to their targets. In my case, my heath was negatively impacted and I lost at least one YTT job because my employer was trolled for planning to host me. That’s nothing, of course. In more extreme online environments, like in the gaming world, women are doxxed and sent death threats for merely pointing out misogyny.
But the online yoga troll landscape has far less cohesion than the IRL yoga cult. Allegiances are fleeting and made fragile through competition, because the trolls are also using these spaces to advertise their brands. There’s huge and fast turnover of eyeballs, coming out of a seemingly limitless supply of social media users. Online trolling groups may control language, thought, and information, but crucially, there are no strong group behavioural controls, such as are deployable in ashrams. When push comes to shove, the bonds between online yoga trolls are easily frayed. Participants can disappear at any time, and no-one asks after them. With the exception of one malignant dyad, I’ve often wondered whether there are any IRL relationships between them that have become stable. Most of them haven’t met each other.
So we are talking about a herd phenomenon that wouldn’t happen outside of social media. But the herd is rag-tag, and the environment and technology are profoundly isolating. We know from the crash of Bentinho Massaro that web-based cults are fragile, whereas Narcis Tarcau can survive being outed as a rapist in the international media and be back at work in a few months, because he has IRL capital assets maintained by IRL people, sequestered in Thailand.
This brings me back to considering the individuals involved. Like the ones I referenced above who talk about having sacred teachers, but never name them. Who are they, as individuals? Where do they come from?
What I’ll propose here is speculative, because I don’t know any of these people personally. I’m offering a reflection on some prominent clues that are beginning to form a pattern. I’m writing here out of my experiential understanding of cult mechanisms. Some say that this is a narrow and obsessive lens for me. I own that, and want to be clear that what I’m proposing is by no means complete, and only one lens of many. I hope as well that by speaking from personal experience I can encourage empathy.
Here’s the thing: off the top of my head I can think of at least ten highly active yoga enforcers who are or have been connected with or committed to high-demand yoga groups.
I’m not going to name names, because my point isn’t to shame but to inform. By not naming names, however, I do risk the perception of a form of McCarthyism, creating the impression that cult people are all around us. To this I’d answer: Chill out, everyone. If you’re in the yoga world, cult people are all around you. It’s no great aberration, but rather the natural outcome of an industry that in the absence of regulation has built itself up through networks of charisma. There’s no shame in it: it’s just something we have to understand better.
Whoever you imagine is being profiled in the following list shares traits with many others. The particular details don’t matter. What matters is whether a person harasses or bullies you, whether they’re telling you the truth about their commitments and values, whether they are manipulating your sense of justice in order to exercise their control issues.
- A devotee of Amma, who, when privately asked about Amma’s politics and alleged abuses, tries to distance themselves from her. But in public, the devotee enforces a yoga purity narrative that they legitimize, in part, by their devotionalism.
- A person who spends a lot of time policing yoga authenticity and waxing poetic about the perfection of indigenous knowledge while rarely if ever discussing the fact that they followed and propped up the pseudo-Tantric cult leader named “Dharma Bodhi” (look up “Kol Martens”) for years. This sojourn isn’t listed in their bio.
- A devotee of Gurumayi Chidvalisananda (Malti Shetty) of SYDA, founded by the sexual predator Muktananda. When working as his translator, Shetty allegedly helped procure women for Muktananda to assault while he was alive, and has gilded the turd of his legacy after his death. This devotee really likes to police the traditional-ness of even their close peers. In their bio for their yoga business, they claim authority through a “spiritual teacher”, but they don’t name Gurumayi.
- A whole yoga festival was derailed by members of a yoga-and-MLM cult who deployed an anti-racism argument to amplify their outrage that their leader had her speech clumsily shortened and wasn’t sufficiently lauded as a mystic saint. They attacked the organizer without mercy for months.
- An activist who implies they were empowered by Swami Dayananda to express the one holy truth of everything, but if you ask them about their relationship to Swami, or his connections to Hindu nationalism, or how those connections are incoherent with their own social justice values, they go ballistic and turn it back on your own alleged lack of education.
- A bullying tag team who back up their “devotion” to protecting “tradition” in part through their allegiance to a student of a student of Pattabhi Jois.
- A gaggle of White Hindus who are clearly keyboard warrior-ing from the mess halls of American ashrams. They’ll never tell you where they’re from. They demand to see and judge everyone’s yoga credentials from the great beyond of jargon. Their brand of authenticity has nothing to do with personal disclosure and everything to do with litigating their faith and who can practice it.
This is not a cult. It’s a parade of people with cult issues who may be metabolizing the stress of their group experiences by finding each other, endorsing each other’s frustration, and rallying against a common enemy: anyone who’s moderately successful in the yoga world, and who shows they are free from authoritarian commitments.
Social Justice as Cover
Adopting the language of anti-colonialism and anti-racism might have earnest roots for some or all of these people. It might be baked into their lived experience as Desi women and men. And it might actually do real educational good in some cases. But I also believe it might be serving them personally within a broad range of unhealed cultic wounds:
- If they are current group members, it may serve them in the public sphere by creating an attractive and unimpeachable front for their real commitments. This involves hedging bets on whether the social capital of wokeness will surpass the social capital of being a spiritual devotee.
- If they are on the brink of leaving, it may serve them by allowing them to selectively promote the (apparently) more socially relevant content of their experience, while ignoring abuses or downplaying those parts with which they have become secretly disenchanted.
- Finally, it may serve the ex-cult member who hasn’t been to therapy or had the benefit of anti-cult resources by allowing them to release an exhilarating self-righteous revenge in all directions except that which points back to the leader or their enablers.
The language of wokeness can easily be used in the same all-or-nothing, proselytize-and-punish way that characterizes cult language. It can express absolute values that energetically dovetail with a pre-existing authoritarianism, which itself has often been bolstered by an absolutist ideology of Oneness.
The best analysis of the intersection between “Oneness” doctrines (of which yoga trolls are very fond) and authoritarianism is Alstad and Kramer’s classic book, The Guru Papers. But the very title of this now decades-old text throws gas on a particular fire where all of this complexity coalesces:
The trolls listed above consistently complain about the implicit racism of criticizing “gurus”. The guru-shishya paradigm is indigenous and traditional, they say, and essential to the preservation and transmission of yoga lineages. They are correct. But can contemporary international-celebrity charismatics be “gurus” in any traditional or premodern sense? Because I doubt this possibility, I’ve stopped using the word to describe figures like Jois, Gurumayi, Amma, Yogi Bhajan, Muktananda, etc. In terms of ethics and the outsize scale of their operations, they’re not worthy of the term.
What “guru” experience do these trolls actually have? If it’s with any of the leaders above, they are not defending “tradition” by arguing over the correct usage of the word. They are defending an authoritarian power structure they associate with safety. They are defending the way in which their leaders have propagandized themselves. They are defending their own postcolonial distortion. This is tragic, because they are likely victims of it too.
They also might be in mourning for an ideal: a protective, nurturing, intimate relationship with someone who could rightfully be called “guru”. Is such a thing possible? Anything’s possible. If it exists, it should be verifiable in some way other than in dubious claims about a students’ attainments. The least we should ask for is an absence of abuse allegations. As it turns out, this is a tall order in the yoga world, whether we’re talking about Rochester, Rome, or Rishikesh.
For cultists-cum-activists, running woke software through the old cult hardware might preserve those familiar warm feelings of self-certainty that cult participation promises, briefly delivers, and then withholds.
At the same time, it allows them to conceal the shameful source of that certainty. There’s a reason so few of these people are transparent about their teachers, even as they demand transparency from everyone else. If they are current devotees, they may feel that the abuse allegations against their leaders are a conspiracy against truth and love, but choose to maintain enough pragmatism to know that flaunting their membership carries social risk. If they are ex devotees, they might be ashamed of who they loved, and of how they harmed others with that love.
In the borderland between present doubt and past regret, generating a sense of certainty can be super-important for the cult-wounded. What else do they have, after all? Often, there are no relationships they can trust. Often they are alienated from family. If their primary commitments are religious instead of political, they might feel self-conscious and exposed in secular activist spaces.
They’ve bet everything on a leader or organization. What happens if the cracks begin to show? At least they have the “dharma”. And they have to make it work, until it can’t. And they might be enraged at anyone who doesn’t share their burden, their sacrifice for the Holy Truth.
Now: imagine that they’ve secretly gotten to the point of despair in relation to the organization or the leader. At the same time, they can’t imagine themselves leaving. Who then would be more loathsome to them than the yoga person who has no high-demand commitments, who seems to have taught themselves, who seems to be happy?
Might this be close to the root of the hatred slung at the white yoga women who they troll mercilessly? That they seem to be happy? That they’re oblivious to the pain of searching for, suffering for, and holding onto Eternal Truth? That in their sometimes goofy, consumerist, postmodern, eclectic way, they’re happy with those postures, that breathing, that mindfulness? That they are not compelled to love an abuser?
Yes, the stereotyped white yoga woman can embody privilege and all of the Stepford violence of white heteropatriarchy. But insofar as she has no authoritarian teacher nor belongs to any totalist group, she can also embody a type of secular freedom. In some ways, she’s figured it out on her own. And there’s nothing the cultist craves or fears or hates more than a person with agency.
In case it’s not clear: it totally sucks to be in a cult, or to carry unresolved cultic wounds. The harassment and manipulation presented by certain trolls comes, I’m convinced, from a combination of training and trauma. My advice is to be kind with these folks, but also boundaried.
And first: do a quick search to inform yourself. If someone you’ve never met, and who seems like a super-devout yoga person on their home page, starts attacking your integrity or education with language that’s full of jargon and blends theological demands with social justice platitudes — look them up. If they immediately launch into ad-hominem attacks, change subjects abruptly, or deflect every issue back onto you — look them up. If they seem to be energy vampires — look them up.
See what they say about themselves. If they’re showing an obsession with your background when you’re just trying to chat about something, look into their background. If they make mysterious reference to an unnamed Teacher, let your eyebrows rise. If you ask about who that teacher is and they give a weird or defensive answer, that’s a red flag.
If you find out that they’re a devotee of Amma, try to see if they’ve issued an accountability statement in response to Gail Tredwell’s book.
If you find out that they’re a devotee of Gurumayi, try to see if they’ve issued an accountability statement in relation to documented abuses and enabling at SYDA.
And so on. You get the picture.
After a few minutes of research, you might find yourself blurting out things like:
“Hey — are you really schooling me on authenticity when you’re devoted to an abusive cult leader who’s hiding out in upstate New York?”
“Are we really going to compete in the Wokeness Olympics when you’re prostrating yourself in front of rapist?”
Or maybe something a little more give-and-take, like:
“Sure, I’ll talk with you about my implicit biases and ignorance of social justice and decolonization issues. But first, can you explain to me what you’ve done to take action to repair the harm that the cult you’re in has caused?”
Saying such things out loud, however, might drive the person further into their rationalized self. It’s really hard to know what to do with these folks. In defence of my physical and mental health, my policy is to block.
However you do it, the outcome should be that you don’t feel the need to be schooled by people with grossly conflicted personal agendas. There are plenty of people who do justice work because that’s their real commitment and training. You can learn from them.
Bottom line: if a person’s activism is truly intersectional, they will have examined it and purged it of all cultic violence. If they haven’t, wish them well in your heart if you can, and avoid them.