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Sex, Lies and the Cult-ure of Corruption

When we hear the word “cult” the first thing that comes to mind is a religious organization. We don’t necessarily think of the world of yoga. But in the case of the most visible scandals to hit the yoga world, there was no doubt, cult-like behavior.

David Life, Sharon Gannon, Bikram Choudhry, John Friend and Geshe Michael Roach, to name the most notorious, all have one thing in common: Guru worship. With pedestals and titles they made for themselves, they are out of the reach of questioning. Their followers are so dedicated that any inkling of unethical behavior is summarily dismissed. Anyone who tries to talk about it was ostracized or punished.

One of the definitions of a cult…the inability to think for oneself.

The latest Jivamukti scandal sheds some light on what many in the yoga world have long known, the studio has a culture of worship. The Bikram sex scandal was also no surprise given his behavior on camera. Can you imagine what he was like behind the scenes?! Take one of John Friend’s beloved, now mostly defunct, Anusara Yoga classes, you’d be hard pressed to find a teacher who didn’t say the words “my teacher John Friend” at least four times during a 90 minute class, just to remind you who they’re getting their belief system from.

And sadly, the death of Ian Thorson, an ex-assistant and follower of Geshe Michael Roach, exposed very disturbing behavior that occurred under Roach’s watch when he was supposed to be keeping him safe. Thorson died at the hands of Roach’s ex-wife and former co-teacher Christine McNally. This horrible death was reported in the New York Times. Despite the Dalai Lama discrediting him, he still has followers.

One of my first teachers in LA was a newly-graduated Anusara teacher. It was 1999 and this was the new yoga on the scene. Because I loved my teacher, and I had heard those words “my teacher John Friend” so many times, I decided to take an Anusara immersion workshop. I needed to see what all the hype was about. It was packed with about 200 students and I was intrigued by the overwhelming sense of community, which undoubtedly was the draw for most people.

Say what you will about John Friend, the Anusara Yoga community was enormous and inviting. But within the first 30 minutes of the workshop I remember feeling like I was watching the actions of a cult. There was nothing sinister happening. In fact, John Friend was extremely charismatic (a classic trait of a cult leader). But the eagerness to get close to him was palpable. There was something in the way his inner circle gathered around him and tended to his every need that made me think, “Hmmm, this is interesting… what’s going on.” Since I was not in the inner circle I just sat back and watched. I watched as a group of people, just like me, literally worshiping this man. It took me that one time to say, “Yeah, this is way too cult-y for me, and I’m out.” I have often wondered what it is about me that I was able to spot it right away and remove myself yet others kept drinking the cool aid for years.

It’s easy to say “well…no shit!” The yoga world is ripe for this kind of thing.

Yoga already attracts people who are vulnerable or searching for something. Whether it’s to become more flexible or to find a mind/body connection… one thing is true about yoga: if you do the real work, (showing up!) you will be transformed for the better. I’ve never heard of anyone saying they used to practice yoga but quit because it made them miserable.

If you take all of that into consideration, add the cult-like features where only veneration is invited, you have the perfect cocktail for a teacher to take advantage of a vulnerable student.

Now the real question is how do we, the yoga community, prevent more students from getting indoctrinated, manipulated, raped, or ending up dead?

Stop the worshipping of yoga teachers. Plain and simple. Stop being a part of an organization that promotes and cultivates worship. And follow the NYC subway mantra “if you see something, say something.”

---Mel Russo

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